The Work Behind the Network

We all know someone who is so socially engaging that even her small talk seems intimate and insightful, someone whose small talk—when we think back on the conversation later—isn’t really so small after all.

In the lobby of a conference hotel we see her pause at one of those little pools of insecurity and angst that academics form while someone in the group pontificates. Within a minute she has them laughing. Later, by the elevator, we overhear her talking with a younger scholar. Only she’s not talking at all, just listening so carefully that you can almost hear her attention. I say we all know her because it seems she knows everyone. People keep hailing her from across the room.

The person I’m describing here is not necessarily a superstar scholar. Neither is she a brown-noser, nor even the social butterfly whose contacts are numerous but superficial. I’m thinking of that rare academic who thrives in public, who swims skillfully through those conversations with relative strangers in which most of us can only tread water and mention something surprising about the weather. I spent some time with such a person at a conference this weekend, and I’ve been thinking this afternoon about how she manages the feat.

On one level, this woman simply has an attractive personality: sense of humor, reat laugh, a way of gracefully welcoming others into a dialogue. But what I keep coming back to is how much work she must do to prepare for those seemingly effortless conversations. Her command of the texts we were discussing was  impressive, and she was fluent in a number of tangential fields. I learned that she follows up with the people she meets by pursuing an e-mail correspondence to continue the exchange. She’s developed a friendship with one my former mentors as a result of a chat they had in passing at a conference several years back.

Perhaps part of her trick is that, as far as I can tell, she doesn’t seem to think of these things as work. She is interested in the conversation surrounding the books and ideas she studies, and she has the confidence and humility to strike up a discussion with anyone. She feels no rush to promote her own work or “make her point,” because her self-interest is subordinate to the subject. Her relationships last and deepen because she doesn’t drop them at the close of the conference. While she isn’t “networking” in the sense in which I usually think of that term, the result is indeed an extended network of colleagues/friends.

Now it strikes me that what I’m describing is impossible—not a real person, but a person’s best attributes taken out of context and magnified. The sort of caricature that can only dissolve over time. And yet I feel challenged by how this woman engages so effectively with those around her.

Have you had a similar experience? What does your model of ideal networking look like? What can academics, especially younger scholars, do to prepare for the conversations they’ll have at a conference? How do we foster those relationships once we’ve gone back to our home institutions?

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