I’m interested in having awesome conversations and getting to know some cool people. I’m interested in the experiences and the knowledge that comes from interacting with the rest of the world in a real way, no slime and no grime and no sales tactics.
Networking sucks. Because people don’t give a shit.
Jon Westenberg
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Image from ‘Minority Report’ taken from DigiDay

I have facial blindness so I’m crap at networking, but let’s talk anyway

Jon Westernberg’s “Networking sucks” post, above, triggered one of those “It’s time to get to that post I’ve been meaning to write” moments, despite the fact that I don’t have hundreds of wannabe startups clamouring for my time and favour.

Networking is something I’ve always been crap at, but I’ve only recently discovered why. It turns out that it’s actually physiological — I have facial blindness — which makes me wonder just how much of my life has been (de)formed by some poor wiring deep within my brain.

I’m not being rude — I simply don’t recognise you.

That part of my brain is responsible for recognising other people, and it doesn’t work that well. In fact, when I finally bit the bullet and took a test, I scored 87%.

I’ve suspected this since the 1990s, when I left Australia and washed up in Brussels, where everyone is constantly networking.

Brussels, network town

Brussels is the town of networkers. Every year, coachloads of middle-class-and-higher Communications Studies graduates are disgorged into Place Luxembourg and its environs, intern contracts clutched in sweaty paws, gazing upwards at the European Parliament building, mouths agape.

They’ve got a few months of barely paid labour to transform their toehold into a foothold, and there’s only one way to do it.

No, not work. They network. Brussels is the town where the first two questions they ask you are:

where do you work?

and

what’s your grade?

If they get to question 2, of course. Because if you didn’t answer Question 1 with one of the EU Institutions they’re gone, baby, gone, moving onto the next mark, smile perfectly poised, eyebrows carefully arched, hips turned just so, searching for that next opportunity, anything to upgrade from a 6month sweatshop internship into something real, and not have to return to the Godsforsaken empty space on the map they came from, far from the glitter and glamour which is a career in the EU Institutions.

Or, as Jon puts it:

Entering a networking event, you can feel the eyes of every attendee fix on you for a few brief seconds, like a pack of hungry wolves. They come up and shake your hand with a poisonously false enthusiasm, and as soon as they work through a quick calculation and conclude that you’re not “important” their eyes start flickering around the room, looking for their next meal.
- Networking sucks. Because people don’t give a shit.

That’s never been me. Because if there’s a foolproof way of being ill-at-ease in a social setting, it’s feeling that you don’t know who all these people around you actually are.

Dealing with facial blindness

I therefore adopted a number of strategies, of which Number 1 was Don’t Go To Networking Events. Because when I do:

  • either I don’t recognise someone I’ve already met (result: insult them)
  • or I said hello with engaging familiarity to someone who didn’t know me (result: they assume I’m hitting on them and/or trying to upgrade my 6month sweatshop internship into something real -> result: insult them).
Instead, I hid in the office and did interesting stuff.

But now...

A few years ago, however, I realised that few people knew about it — being a non-networker, I’d simply assumed that all you had to do was do something interesting, and people would know about it.

So when I decided to launch my own company last year, I steeled myself to get out there more often. And to my surprise I’ve enjoyed it.

Partly because for the main part I’ve gone and seen people I’ve met at least three times before, and so have a better chance of recognising them. Sometimes we arrange to meet at networking events, which involves a fair amount of me wandering around hoping they’ll recognise me, but it generally works out.

But the main reason I’m enjoying myself more than expected is that I’ve discovered the pleasure of simply helping people with their problems. Over the past few months I’ve had fascinating conversations with people about content strategy, business models, innovation pipelines, community management, information architecture, ideation stimulation, science communications, reinventing organisations, (e)participation in democracy, internal communications, event management, digital transformation, managing teams and IT subcontractors, knowledge management, populism, football and beer.

Sometimes it results in a gig. But generally what happens is that I help them see a problem more clearly, or point them to some new ideas or someone I know who can help better than I can. Having a public library of over 2300 useful resources — each of which I’ve tagged and annotated over the years as part of my morning routine — certainly helps.

So if I don’t recognise you, please cut me some slack

So if you meet me, and I don’t recognise you, please cut me some slack and remind me who you are. We might have a nice conversation. And I might recognise you next time.