Last night I had the good fortune to attend a cocktail party (and gosh do I feel a weird mix of old and elegant saying that phrase with a straight face) to celebrate a dear friend’s move. This party, which was held at a small non-profit museum, was the field-typical mix of young and old, rich and not-so-rich, volunteers and board members. The clear division between board members and regular (non-ED) employees is blurred with small organization like this one, creating an opportunity for the run of the mill intern (or past intern like me) to get some face time with people who “know people.”
This event made my anxiety-ridden mind look forward to a conference I’ll be attending next month, and the nightly “soirees” that are sure to ensue. This, more than anything, was what used to (and occasionally still does) give me anxiety, so I thought I’d write out some thoughts on how to network casually at reception events, in case like me, anyone tends to linger too long near the queso.
First things first—leave the comfort of the cheese. I know it’s hard, especially as a graduate student being lured by the siren call of free food, but hanging out by the food table screams socially-awkward. Conversations can’t really happen since you can’t block the table with groups and trying to eat a cracker and talk to that professor you’re dying to work with is a disaster waiting to happen. Take a little food (it should fill a little plate but don’t go crazy) and then step out into the middle of the room or grab a small table.
So now you’re standing alone, far from your best friend, gouda, and this was a terrible idea!!
But don’t panic! You can do this! Your best bet if you’re new to this group is to find someone who is also standing alone and just go up and say hello. Keep it short and if you’re comfortable, make a joke about hating to stand alone. Odds are, unless they’ve got a mouth full of food, they’ll be happy to talk to someone. (Hint- Don’t approach someone on a cell phone or if they’ve clearly just stepped away to have a drink or a bite to eat—you can tell your fellow loner by the desperate way they’ll be scanning the room for a familiar face.)
But maybe you’re beyond the basics. You’ve been to this event before, have said your mandatory hello’s and are looking to do a little mingling with people outside your main social circle. You’ve got your business cards (carefully stored in a pocket or easy to reach purse location) and you’re looking to meet some new people, hopefully ones with some sort of super job-finding power. But how to find them?
Important people tend to stay in one place, with people who are interested in talking to them, coming to them. You can’t rely on someone to come up to you. Ask a friend to introduce you, or if you don’t have any mutual connections, wait for an opening and introduce yourself. But don’t linger around—like the cheese, this person is going to be a sought out resource, and you won’t make friends by forcing a prolonged conversation. That’s not to say longer conversations shouldn’t or won’t happen, just that you need to read the room.
And move around the room. Hanging out with the same people the whole night can be a waste of an opportunity. Last night the most successful young woman (who was NOT me), moved from group to group, sometimes introduced by her old boss, sometimes not. She worked that room like a pro, and had I been a better mingler, I would have gotten her card and had her write this post!
And finally, leave the nest. Go talk to people outside your own age group. Do not get stuck at the kids table. It can be intimidating as a young professional to go talk to your older peers or bosses but it’s worth the risk to start the conversation. You can contribute to the group no matter its makeup and it’s important to show that socially as well as in work scenarios.
But the best tip I can offer is to just relax. No one is judging you if you’re standing alone and it’s not the end of the world if you are— just remain calm and worst comes to worst, eat some cheese and call it a night.
And for love of all the books in the library, when you eventually host an event don’t say that dress is “smart casual.” NO ONE knows what that means.