ARCHIVED – The Art of Networking

ARCHIVED: Please note, whilst every effort has been made to update blog posts, this blog post has been archived and may present outdated and incorrect information and terminology.

I have entered a new episode in my life in the saga of Asperwars entitled ‘networking’. Just when I think I have grasped the intermediate level of human to human contact, 7 years late, I have been thrown a curve ball. Week one of my research doctorate course and the words ‘key skills’ and ‘networking’ have been casually thrown around like confetti, littering all over my research plans. I have already received two lectures on the ‘art’ of networking and it has become apparent that the rest of my career from this point onwards will depend on it. My first practical taster came in the form of a compulsory ‘networking lunch’; an abominable combination which as it transpired actually equates to just a sandwich and chat. Needless to say I remember no names or research projects as full concentration was required to eat said sandwiches, whilst standing, whilst pretending to be engaged in conversation, whilst not missing my mouth in front of a large group of strangers. However, rest assured I have many more courses on mastering the skills necessary to becoming the Perez Hilton of the academic world we must all be aiming to be; after all, it isn’t what you know, it is who you know.

Which brings me on to a niggling question which has been annoying me since I started this new venture: what the hell does ‘networking’ even mean and how has it become some such a substantial concept that courses can now teach it – what is to teach!? After consulting my twenty page ‘key skills’ booklet, emphasis on ‘key’, I have come to the conclusion that it is another weak concept spawn from the corporate world, which aims to make clinical work of even the most basic human interactions. The reason being? So we can all spend less time working and more time in meetings and on courses and thus more time eating free sandwiches. This should be a dream for anyone with Asperger’s, being taught how to communicate, yet instead it brings a sense of dread to the pits of my stomach.

The aim of the game is to create an impressionably good still image of yourself, like a walking talking business card that can be ready to present even when you have just be rained on, soaked through to your skin and then found yourself standing up on a crowded bus squashed between the local bum and the leery guy from your office. Create your ‘elevator pitch’, a short synopsis of your professional self which is short and punchy, or ‘sexy’ as one of my professors described it, which could be delivered in the time it would take to share an elevator ride. I don’t know about you but my elevator chat is limited to “up or down?” and “excuse me” – short but definitely not sexy. So what can I include in this ‘chit chat’? Would it be a nice touch to mention what my partner and I did at the weekend or can I go even further and mention my niggling tooth pain?  The next step is to start weaving people into your networking web, selecting who to target with your schmooze and then pouncing with confidence until you can calmly walk onto the next, contact details in hand. Eventually all these links grow stronger and wider, until people starting seeking you out with their elevator chit chat. 

No matter how many times I read how this works I can’t help but imagine myself in the computer game The Sims, standing on my porch waiting for neighbours to pass by so I can wow them with my excellent ‘serious talk’ and ‘joke’ combination. Ultimately, so when my career promotion demands it they are there ready in my contact list to invite over to take our friendship to the next level. So a lot like real life networking! Except it isn’t, because it is a superficial game and not a framework for long lasting real life relationships, we are not characters in a game, calling someone you’ve barely spoken two sentences with for their support. Facebook, Twitter, Tindr, Grindr and all those other instantly gratifying social networking sites and apps have replicated a very simple system of networking, but one that only has full effect when you actually meet in person who you are speaking to, know them already, or at least take the conversation past “a/s/l?”. Fortunately the internet gives you the space and time to do this, networking in real life situations seems like an altogether more bizarre concept; it is one thing being able to fool a stranger online half way across the world you will never meet, but another thing to pull off that performance in front of an actual person.  It is an abstract man-made conception which really goes against our instincts and predispositions to form bonds with people and meaningful relationships which give us our worth and support. Imagine a monkey travelling around the jungle to shake hands with all the other monkeys, picking out the best of the bunch to mentally recall should he have a suitable business proposition he needs help with. No, he would have been eaten by bigger badder monkeys for entering their ‘hood’ suspicious of his motives.

On the surface it seems like something all humans do on some level every day. I go to several public places in any one day, people may say ‘hi’, someone may stop for a slightly longer chat, it is a network of sorts but not one I have deliberately orchestrated, it isn’t meeting people for the sake of meeting people. Maybe this is what is most discerning about networking for the autistic mind, its purposeful superficiality. Everyday pleasantries aren’t exactly my strong point, I do not have an exhaustive list of polite conversation, I am eager to get beyond the surface so I can breathe a sigh of relief and have a discussion that matters and is actually interesting with people I actually like. So my network is probably going to grow a little bit slower than most and I may make it into more of a circle instead, I am willing to forgo free sandwiches for that.

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