Networking — don’t you hate it? I know I do. It’s a ghastly pastime. After several hours of pressing the flesh at a conference, handing out business cards (which I don’t feel do the entirety of my personality justice) and emptily promising to contact people (or "hit them up", comme on dit en marché) on LinkedIn, I feel thoroughly soiled afterwards. I feel as though I need a jet wash to cleanse myself of this cheesy film clinging invisibly to me, which is the essence of networking, the backwash of smalltalk.
I work a room like a death row convict who’s been in solitary confinement for two decades. I simply can’t do the idle chitchat. I struggle to stride up to strangers and engage them in phatic communion. Delegates form huddles and gossip comfortably. I stand awkwardly on the sidelines, wishing I had a drink in my hands, pretending to have just received a fascinating email which I must scrutinise as if it contained Tutankhamun’s hieroglyphics.
Invariably, a heightened and agonising sense of exclusion builds to such an extent I am obliged to approach the only other social leper in the room and pretend I’m doing him a favour by ending his exile.
There’s usually a reason this person is on their own and it’s not because his conversation is sprinkled with verbal brilliance and dazzling apercus. He either has halitosis which can down an airliner, he flecks you with spittle when he speaks or he is so dull, paint watches him dry and grass watches him grow.
Latching on to the leper
Somehow, at any function, I always seem to pick the only person whose freeloading presence is less legitimate than mine, whose relevance to the occasion is even more spurious than mine. By the time this has become apparent, however, it’s too late and I am cornered, desperately hoping for someone to come and dilute the tedium or a bell to ring to tell me the next session on algorithmic trading or Japanese origami is about to commence and I can make good my escape.
What he thinks of me is best undiscovered in my experience. I do the polite swap of basic details proficiently enough: where I live, how long my commute to the City is, where I’ve worked, whom I know (more often, more achingly, whom I don’t), views on the weather/Brexit/my favourite Trump inanity. But as soon as the inevitable, "So what are you doing now?" pops up I tend to start gushing about how I was obliged to resign from my last position after written output to clients was deemed offensive enough to justify my probable indictment on charges of gross calumny or gross misconduct I forget which (although they wouldn’t know the difference) and how my life is spiralling into a vortex of despair, and before you know it, your confabulant is shuffling away and another possible meeting of minds is aborted.
It does not help that my business card just has my name and number on it and no employer. I cannot say “in-between jobs” now without thinking it sounds like the kind of thing someone with no prospects of employment trots out to deflect attention.
It’s rude, I know, to be so unkind about so many people, especially when the one-day conference I was attending was organised and hosted by my wife for the company she founded and runs. I was there under sufferance and in fact only invited to carry the bags, perform some general gofering and act as filler in any presentations which looked short on numbers.
It’s also perverse of me to complain about networking, when that’s precisely what I should be doing while I occupy this ‘in-between jobs’ twilight. I am supposed to be widening the circle of my friends, so to speak, and developing the personal connections which will enable to take the next self-empowering step in my career.
Was it curmudgeonly of me to complain all the way there in the cab that I know thousands of people in the City already and am reluctant to increase that number? Don’t answer that.
I was detailed with one important task by my wife: to meet and greet the very famous and distinguished financial commentator whom she had persuaded to be the keynote speaker at her event and make him feel special and welcome.
While everyone else munched pastries and swilled coffee upstairs, I stood outside the hotel entrance and fended off the various bags offered to me as guests mistook me for a bellhop (now there’s a thought) and various Uber drivers tried to persuade me into the back of their Prius. I stepped back inside the lobby to avoid any more cases of mistaken identity and as I did so, the instantly recognisable financial celebrity stepped out of his car. In a ludic scene, he came through the revolving door as I tried to go out and receive him. I think he thought I was following him and he almost broke into a sprint as I came up fast behind him, desperately calling his name. He probably felt special but not welcome.
As is often the case at these affairs, many attendees buggered off after their free lunch and so the first presentation of the afternoon session was short on numbers.
My wife asked if I would sit round the table and impersonate an investor. You know, chew a pen, look thoughtful, write things on the empty pad before me, fall asleep for short periods and then wake up with a start.
Everything was tickety-boo until the sponsor asked if all potential investors around the table would say who they were and whom they represented. No way to escape! Unmasked! Cornered like a rat! I was about halfway round the table. Everyone else was a bona fide investor, or at least had a plausible alias.
“I’ve been in emerging markets for 25 years and I’m in-between jobs” sounded so lame I could almost hear the sharp intake of breath and the sound of air being sucked through teeth as I said it.