If you are someone who enjoys networking at professional socials and conferences, don’t read this.
If schmoozing and hobnobbing away with colleagues and others in your field is fun for you, stop right here.
If being in social-professional situations where your goal is to:
- Make a good impression on those you haven’t met before,
- Strengthen the connections you have with people you already know,
- Foster relationships that will help you as you confidently march yourself down your career path…
…Basically, if considering any of the above bullet points doesn’t flood you with overpowering anxiety, you are not my audience.
Actually, strike that! On second thought, you absolutely have to read this! You need to understand what it’s like for…well maybe not the majority of attendees at networking schmoozefests…but probably a sizeable chunk of those around you: those reluctant, tentative, kind of awkward people, for sure, but also those who are good at hiding their reluctant, tentative, kind-of-awkward natures.
So read on, everyone: enthusiastic and terrified networkers alike! And I’ll tell you what networking schmoozefests are like for me. If nothing else, the following paragraphs will help you feel better about yourself!
Last week I traveled to New York and attended the Audio Publishers Association Conference (APAC), the pre-APAC networking social, and the Audie Awards.
I have just recovered enough from the whole experience, to write about it.
As is pretty much universally the case with pretty much anything that happens in life, I went through some sizable ups and downs. And sure, I’d been to all three of these events many times before, but there were still a lot of firsts this year.
- The first official in-person audiobook gathering since the Audies in early March 2020,
- The first in-person APAC since 2019,
- And my first big networking/schmoozy type of in-person gathering since I stopped drinking in November 2021.
I now have over 500 alcohol free days and so I wasn’t super worried about being tempted to drink. At this point, it’s clear to me that everything is better without alcohol. But still, firsts are nerve wracking and socializing in crowds is nerve wracking and networking is nerve wracking, so my nerves were extra wracked right from the start.
I love working in the audiobook world and the people who make audiobooks are as kind, fun, interesting, and welcoming as they come.
But nevertheless, I find these networking schmoozefests:
For one thing, these gatherings are in a word: loud. (Hmm… maybe I should add “deafening” and “vocal cord-straining” to my list of schmoozefest descriptors.)
The noise is not only what you notice first, it permeates the entire experience of the schmoozefest: the relentless roar of hundreds of audiobook folks making small talk with each other, shouting to be heard over hundreds of audiobook folks making small talk with each other.
It’s an intimidating, mind-scrambling, absolute wall of sound.
Oh! I just thought of something! Instead of the wall of sound, let’s call it the Wall of Small Talk. The W of ST for short. Make a note of that acronym, because I’m going to use it ad nauseum from here on out.
So as you approach one of these networking schmoozefests, you hear the W of ST first. It grows in volume as you come closer, until you’re there and are surrounded (hemmed in?) by it. Now you can see the W of ST as well. It’s comprised of the people you are there to talk with, and by talking with them you will not only add your ST to the W, you will maybe even get hired by some of them-
Insert brake screeching sound effect here because I don’t like to think about that part of it: the getting hired part. So I won’t elaborate. Maybe I’ll delve into it at some point, once I’m further along my path of self-growth and more confident about sharing what it’s like to try to convince people that your voice, your sound, your talent, your ability, basically you yourself are who they should want for their audiobook when you yourself think they’d probably be much better off with someone else. Because deep down, you yourself believe that you suck (for reasons that again, I’ll share at some point, just not now) and yes, you are working on unlearning the belief that you suck because it sucks to think you suck, but you’re nowhere close to not believing it yet. Someday you won’t think you suck. At least we’ll choose to hope that you won’t.
Deep breath in, hold it for a count of four, now blow it out.
Feel your feet on the floor. Drop your shoulders. Unclench your jaw.
Okay. You’re good. We’re good. I’m good.
But I think we should move on now, don’t you?
All right! Back to the people who make up the W of ST. They stand in closely packed clumps: talking, laughing, and gesturing. It seems like everyone is happy and confident and having the time of their lives as they cheerfully schmooze with each other.
Being someone who tends to be late to things like this (thank you, time blindness!), the W of ST is fully-formed when I arrive and I approach it in my typical, tentative manner. I pause at the entrance and consider how to best work my way in. The check-in table seems like a good place to start, so I sidle up to it. Find my name tag. Put it on. Take a deep breath, metaphorically plug my nose, and plunge on in.
I weave through the crowd. In the old days I would have beelined it to the bar, but thankfully it’s not the old days, so I look for gaps in the clumps to squeeze through, while also looking for people I know. There are several usually (as I said, I’ve been around awhile), but this is where the awkwardness comes in: unless you happen to make eye contact with someone whose face lights up to see you and whose body language invites you to join their clump, you have to figure out how to politely insert yourself into their clump.
(And I don’t expect eye contact, so I’m not disparaging any of the clumps. They are happily engaged in the conversations they’re already having with each other. Why would they simultaneously scan the crowd for newcomers to invite to their clump? They wouldn’t. That would be silly.)
So I’ve developed all kinds of strategies over the years to join existing clumps. One of my favorites is when there are tables. I find a table with an empty seat, and ask to sit in it. Then I chat with the people at the table, and those who come by to talk to those at the table. It’s great because it helps the crowd feel smaller. Also, I don’t have to trail-blaze through the clumps.
Unfortunately, as these events have grown in size (there were 700 people at APAC this year!) there aren’t many tables. Mostly, people stand.
…Also, I forgot about that tactic (thanks, limited working memory!). Dang it! Totally could have employed the table approach. Sure, people were mostly standing, but upon reflection, I distinctly remember the presence of tables. Crud.
Oh well. It’s something to keep in mind for the future. What I did this year was walk around the room as best as I could, and barge my way into various clumps that contained people I knew. Most were happy to see me, but I could tell I interrupted a few good conversations, and I felt bad about that. And even those who were happy to chat with me, seemed to be ready to move on after a bit.
And this is another reason these kinds of events aren’t really my jam. I love to talk to people, but once I’m having a conversation, it’s hard to know when to stop. I’m kind of programmed to try to keep it going. But of course at a networking event, everyone wants to talk to lots of people, not just me, so after a while I usually sense that whomever I’m talking to is ready to move on.
Sometimes I sense that they, realizing my awkwardness, feel kind of bad to move on and a little worried about leaving me by myself without a clump. When this happens, I want to reassure them. I want to tell them:
Hey, I get it! Really, I’m fine! Go schmooze like the wind! I’ll people-watch a bit and then go try to find another clump. Or maybe hit the bathroom and get a little break from the W of ST and check to see if my mascara is running. I’m good! I may seem a tad awkward and have some obvious insecurities, but I’m a big girl and I can take care of myself. You can move on from me guilt-free!
But I don’t say that because…well, that would make things even more awkward.
And that brings me to something I’m noticing about life and emotions and how we/I react to things. Do you ever feel basically fine about something until someone indicates that it’s something you should feel bad about? And then you feel doubly bad, both because it’s apparently something to feel bad about, so you do now, and because you didn’t know it was something to feel bad about, so that’s a problem in and of itself. This happens to me frequently.
Here’s the deal: I like being by myself. Even in cities. Even in crowds. Even at networking schmoozefests. In fact, I love to people-watch and let my mind run free to speculate about what I’m seeing. When I first got to the first W of ST this past week, I almost burst into happy tears. It was amazing seeing everyone joyfully interacting in person after three years of zooming. I loved being there to see it!
But what I don’t like is people noticing that I’m by myself. I imagine them thinking: Oh how sad. She’s by herself. Glad I’m not her. Poor thing.
So I don’t feel bad being by myself at networking schmoozefests, except when I feel like others would think that was bad. That makes me feel bad. Confusing, I know, but true nonetheless.
Of course, since I’ve been doing this awhile, I know people and they know me. But do they? Not really. And do I know them? Not really.
I’m working on this, by the way. I’m working on not only feeling more worthy and more enough (and consequently less bad), but also being open to other people. Reaching out to them and learning what could help them feel comfortable and worthy and enough. Because, I know I was not the only person feeling awkward and uncomfortable and out of place and exhausted by the W of ST.
Basically, there are two scenarios that would enable me to comfortably experience a networking schmoozefesty W of ST.
I’m a fly on the wall (pun intended) and totally separate from everyone. I’m an observer, and not expected to participate. Not noticed even. I’m completely free to take it all in, to watch and enjoy and imagine. Not self-conscious at all.
I have clumpmates! What a difference it would make to clump with just a couple of people who know me well and who I know well. Because the people who know me well, know my quirks, and like my quirks, or at least are not surprised by any quirks of mine they don’t like. So I don’t have to rein in my quirky self with them because they are used to it and accept it. Maybe even like to be around it! And in this mythical scenario, my clumpmates and I can move beyond mere ST and be honest and real with each other—have genuine conversations! We can welcome tentative newcomers, and periodically venture out into the W of ST to network/schmooze/what-have-you, and then return to our secure clump base to regroup.
Now I feel a bit reluctant to put it this way, because last week at the various W of ST events I had some lovely conversations with some lovely people whom I’ve known for years and who are warm and wonderful. But it wasn’t a clumpmate situation. They don’t know me that well, and I don’t know them that well. This is no one’s fault, just reality.
Hmm…come to think of it, I probably could have tried to set something like that up, and I didn’t….
Next time: clumpmates and a table!
Dare to dream!
Don’t worry! I’ve got at least one more essay in me about my recent time in NY. I haven’t started yet, but it could cover topics such as:
- Unsurprisingly, migraines and the W of ST don’t mix.
- The Audies: we get dressed up (yay!), it’s slightly less crowded (also yay!), and our self-confidence plummets as the awards are announced (boo!).
- To mask or not to mask: as if this whole experience wasn’t awkward enough.
And finally, on a related note:
- Another first this year: coming home from NYC, logging onto social media, reading about all your colleagues’ positive COVID tests, and wondering if you are doomed.
So many options!
More to come!
- Yay, me!
- In case it’s not clear, you yourself means me myself
- One of my biggest ADHD symptoms
- Another life-impacting ADHD symptom
- AKA: friends