I am an introvert, and this is how I network.
Last month I got an invitation to an event, the kick-off for a community I joined at work. I knew the event was happening on Microsoft’s campus, so I put it in my calendar without checking where it would be. When the day came, and I checked the invitation a couple of hours earlier to plan transportation, I noticed it was happening at a restaurant. Only at that moment, it dawned on me: Oh no. It is a networking event.
A simple web search shows there are tons of networking advice for introverts. I found we can summarize many of them like this: You must do it, and step-by-step, you will become an extrovert networker. I believed this when I started my career and felt much pressure to attend many of these events, walk-the-room and collect as many business cards as possible. After several years, I learned this “truism” is not valid and that practicing introvert networking has made me successful.
Before getting into this (yet another) guide to networking for introverts, let me clarify definitions: introversion is not the same as shyness. Here I am differentiating between the two terms, as explained by Dr. Bernardo Carducci in the American Psychological Association’s podcast. Dr. Carducci defines shyness as excessive self-consciousness and excessive negative critical self-evaluation. He illustrates the difference between shyness and introversion with the following example:
So at a party, a social situation, you’ll see a shy person and an introvert standing up against the wall. The big difference is that the introvert prefers to be there. They prefer to be away — slightly withdrawn from social situation — . . . Shy people are standing against that wall because they feel they have to. They don’t know what else to do. They don’t want to be there. They feel that they have to be there. Shy people have more in common with extroversion than they do with introversion . . . They’ll go to parties, they’ll go to clubs, they’ll go to bars. The problem is they show up, they don’t know what to do, they get frustrated and they leave.
The way I see it when shy people decide to leave or not attend a crowded social event, they experience FOMO (fear of missing out). When introverts skip an event, they feel JOMO (the joy of missing out). This distinction is essential for networking– shy people want to be in a crowd, so the step-by-step approach of warming up to becoming a social butterfly is helpful. In contrast, the same method for an introvert feels like trying to become someone we are not.
When shy people decide to leave or not attend a crowded social event, they experience FOMO (fear of missing out). When introverts skip an event, they feel JOMO (the joy of missing out).
When I was a recent grad, I felt the pressure of attending these industry events and be the life of the party. It was also exhausting to maintain the extrovert act because people I met believed this was my personality outside the parties. It took me years to realize I misunderstood networking. The goal is to build or expand our web of relationships, and extrovert behavior is just one way of achieving it. I can develop and grow an extensive social network while being myself.
To fellow introverts who might feel similar, here are some tips on how I network without losing who I am (these tips might also be helpful for extroverts organizing events to cater to all types):
Find the introvert-friendly corner and maybe use it to host people
Scouting the whole place is the first thing I do. Sometimes they have a quiet area where I can go and recharge. Most of the time, I find other introverts there, and it’s great because nobody stares or wants to talk 😊.
Other times there will be introvert-friendly spaces on the periphery, which are fantastic to set camp. One event I attended was standing-only inside a room, but with a couple of outside areas with sofas and heat lamps. I sat there and had a lovely evening talking to many extroverts coming in-and-out to get some air. Later, another introvert sat next to me, and we both ‘hosted’ the space all night. Whenever we saw someone coming out of the crowd, we would say “Hi! you look exhausted. Want to sit down?” They would sit, chat for a while, and then go back.
If the event happens in an open space, crowded or standing-room-only venue, I don’t stay long. Remember: there are so many of these events, plus many other ways to network.
Make it easier to initiate meaningful conversations
While it is true that we should challenge ourselves and get out of our comfort zone in life, you also have to pick your battles. Pick the ones that are worth the effort. In my case, I would rather use my brain to learn how to play a musical instrument than learning small talk.
Fortunately, many people agree, and a web search returns plenty of resources for initiating meaningful conversations. I usually read as much as I can about the particular industry or people attending an event.
Another tactic that I consciously apply when appropriate is to make myself more approachable by hanging signs on myself. For example, last year at the GHC, I was part of the Microsoft booth staff. I signed up for the conversation corner, a quiet area where we could talk with people who wanted to learn about working at Microsoft. However, the booth became viral and permanently crowded. We changed the plan to have ad hoc conversations with people in line. At that point, I may or may not have briefly panicked. An introvert approaching strangers in the middle of a crowd?! I ended up hanging a postcard on my lanyard with a message inviting people to talk to me about mixed reality. And it worked very well.
Connect the introvert’s way
An interesting article published in May/2019 by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University states that introversion can be “harnessed as a networking superpower.” Instead of taking the approach of warming up and become an extrovert, the article provides advice on making use of introverts’ best qualities -like being good listeners- to network successfully.
Crowded events are not the only way to network. Introverts can take advantage of their best skills to grow our network. For example, we relate very well in 1:1 or small group situations. In conferences, I look at the presenters’ roster (and attendees if available) and make a list of people I want to meet. After their presentation, or if I catch them walking down the hallway, I approach the person with my business card. When you are curious about someone’s work, it is easier to start a conversation. If they are too busy, I would ask if it is ok to contact them later via LinkedIn or other sources. There are many 1:1 or small group opportunities to network: standing in line for the morning tea/coffee; when conference presenters are early and set up for their talk and the room is almost empty; a professional interest group on LinkedIn; sending a Twitter DM (networking doesn’t have to be in person) and so on. Many technical conferences have what SIGGRAPH calls Birds of a Feather (BOF), attendee-organized focused sessions which sometimes are small gatherings and lovely for introverts.
Use your network to network
Ask everyone in your network: Who else should I meet? Would you introduce me to anyone you think I should meet?. It is a great way to expand your network the introvert way. Having someone doing the introduction allows you to avoid the small talk. Friends and colleagues will be happy to introduce you either personally or via email. Remember- we introverts mostly like forming meaningful relationships, so chances are people in your network know you well.
Ask everyone in your network: Who else should I meet? Would you introduce me to anyone you think I should meet?
My go-to phrase is “I love geeking out, so feel free to introduce me to any interesting person you meet.” When I get an introduction via email, I always try and schedule a 20 min video chat with the person.
Apply the Free Trait Theory strategically
Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking explains this theory. Part Four, titled “How to Love, How to Work”, describes how often introverts act so differently to the point of fooling others into believing they are always cheerful and energetic social beings. By the way, this book is mandatory reading for anyone wanting to understand introversion.
This theory says that fixed traits coexist with free ones: “we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits — introversion, for example — but we can and do act out of character in the service of ‘core personal projects’.” We can dramatically enhance our lives when we get involved in personal, meaningful projects supported by others and not unduly stressful. That’s how an introvert is capable of hosting and enjoying a big fundraiser for a cause she believes in.
Applying the Free Trait Theory involves strategically selecting projects and events that speak to our deeper values to avoid burnout and unhappiness. This way, Susan explains our internal monologue goes like “. . . I’m doing this to advance work I care about deeply, and when the work is done I’ll settle back into my true self” rather than “. . . The route to success is to be the sort of person I am not”.
Quiet also tells us that practicing self-monitoring (the ability to change our behavior in response to different social settings) can be effective when applied thoughtfully but disastrous if overdone. Even when we stretch ourselves for a core personal project, we don’t want to do it excessively or for too long. Part of the strategy is creating “restorative niches” to avoid crashing and allow us to return to our true selves. These niches can be a physical place, a temporary one (taking a walk), or can mean canceling social plans to stay home.
The final point of the Free Trait Theory is a Free Trait Agreement. We acknowledge that sometimes we act differently in exchange for being purely authentic the rest of the time. Susan gives us this excellent example for networking: “you will go to one schmooze-fest per week. At each event you will have at least one genuine conversation (since this comes easier to you than ‘working the room’) and follow up with that person the next day. After that, you get to go home and not feel bad when you turn down other networking opportunities that come your way.”
Embrace your introversion
A.k.a. be yourself and proud.
As an introvert, my network is probably not as broad as that of some extroverts, but it is deep and with more meaningful connections. The socialites in my network help me cast a wider net by connecting me with their world, and they also know I probably won’t stay long in that event. The introverts connect me with experts that align so well with my interests and become my partners-in-crime for escaping crowds through the back door. And all that is perfectly fine.
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