I’m reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I have mixed feelings about it; as an introvert I do identify with many of her points. OTH I have questions about the biases–sexism, racism and eurocentrism–that seem to be embedded in the studies she cites, and therefore the science behind her claims. (Citation is pretty minimal, so there’s no way to tell for sure without hunting down the studies she mentions. But a study that only looks in-depth at boys and introversion? And another that claims introversion is linked to blue eyes? What about the rest of the world? I can’t find good data but people with blue eyes must be a very small percentage of the world population.) So I’m reading it with all my critical antennae raised.
But it did make me think of a post I did in 2009 about networking and being an introvert and shy for Love Your Job, a blog I cofounded. It’s four years later, but what I wrote then is still true, although it’s more true for some situations than others. I still have to convince myself to go to events with strangers, and sometimes conversation can seem like a massive effort (especially with another introvert–lots of pauses while we think of what to say!), but I’m also something of the class clown at work, a more extroverted introvert than many of my coworkers. Here it is:
I’m Not Like You
When I first started working for myself, networking was my stumbling block. I hated meeting and talking to strangers. By nature and nurture, I was a self-declared introvert. (I tend to take after my dad, who famously declared on a hiking trip in Denali National Park, “There are too many people here,” and stomped away. His bewildered friends concluded he meant them, because they hadn’t seen any one else ALL DAY.) But I knew networking was essential to building my business so I’d force my self to attend an event, hope someone would talk to me, maybe scratch up enough courage to talk about the weather for five minutes and when that topic was exhausted flee in defeat, my mind a complete blank on how to continue the conversation.
It was agony.
And I knew I couldn’t go on like that and be the successful business person I knew I could be. So I did what any twenty-something brought up in the northeast would do: I read self help books. Along with articles about working as a freelance translator, handling my finances and starting a business, I picked up books about networking, attended events about networking and practiced, practiced, practiced.
- I said ‘hi’ with a smile to start conversations
- I prepared lists before leaving home: What are my goals for this event? What do I want to learn? What do I want to leave with? What do I have to offer other people? What kind of questions can I ask to keep a conversation going?
- I practiced asking for what I want
- I volunteered to help with events on the theory that it’s easier to talk to strangers ”on behalf of someone else” than on my own behalf
- And my personal favorite: I created an extroverted alter ego based in part on my mom. My mom can talk to anyone anywhere, so when I attended a networking event, I’d ask myself, “What would my mom do?” And then I’d do it.
Gradually, I moved onto bigger challenges. From professional association meetings to open networking events to all-day seminars. My first one was a nightmare. It was high school all over again and no one wanted to be my friend. But at each event I did a little better, spoke to more people and perfected my elevator pitch. Eventually I took the plunge and registered for a two-day conference, not too far from home. It wasn’t so bad. I even went out to dinner with a bunch of people I met and had fun. Imagine that, fun with strangers.
Since then, I’ve gotten better and better at this networking thing and I pretty much enjoy it these days, although I admit that at the big events I still give myself a job to do or volunteer: handing out flyers, greeting people at the door, introducing new acquaintances to each other. Some days it’s still a chore to force myself out the door and get started, but once I’m there, I know what to do.
And finally, at a recent symposium where I knew no one, I received the highest accolade a self-defined introvert-networking-phobe can receive: to be perceived as an extrovert. I struck up a conversation with a career-changing lawyer and urged her to approach one of the speakers.
“Oh, I can’t talk to her. I’m not like you. You already know everyone here.”
“I don’t,” I choked. “I’m not like that either. It’s just pretend.”
She really didn’t believe me.
But then, I wouldn’t have believed me either eight years ago.
The point is not that I’m now a wonderful networker. The point is that networking is a skill like any other that can be learned through trial and effort, by making mistakes, by moving way out of your comfort zone. But it’s worth it. It helps you expand your business or land the perfect job. I’ve learned so much I wouldn’t have learned if I had given up, I’ve done so many new things, gone new places, and made new business and personal relationships. I’ve grown in so many ways, all of them positive.
Just start with ‘hi.’ Anyone can do that, right?