Why does “networking” bother me?
Building our professional network is often talked about and the importance of networks has multiple reasons. With good networks you can find help to many problems, shorter and more uncertain careers require networks for seamless transition between jobs and networks also help you to improve your skill set and stay competitive on the job market.
Although the many benefits of wide social networks and networking are obvious, I have always found the word “networking” somewhat repulsive. To me networking often sounds like the act of trying to get to exchange a few words with as many people as possible during a cocktail party and trying to make your face stick in their minds, the final goal being the broadening of the circle of people who could possibly help you. What bothers me here, is approaching people as tools, as means to fulfill my own goals. But that is hardly a basis for building any long-lasting relationships, especially if those people are to help you sometime in the future. I personally prefer a more Kantian approach, where I get to know a person because I take genuine interest in him as a person. A second aspect is possible cooperation in some field, but even then it is about me helping the other person or doing something together, not trying to extract value from him.
Networking is often done informally, meaning that it takes place alongside some other activity, like lunch or sports. In business, networking quite naturally happens over a cup of coffee or lunch. Until recently I was never really comfortable with networking over lunch. Somehow the idea of getting to know a person over lunch was unappealing, but just a few weeks ago I understood what was bothering me.
Networking vs. relationship building
Networking is about building relationships, but I would call networking as the first phase in building and maintaining a relationship, the initial test drive, if you will. For me networking is the initial meeting with another person, nothing more. It’s about establishing a new node. If that succeeds I have “networked”, but from there on I have to build a relationship.
When meeting a new person, it is natural to be more alert than among friends. The discussion starts from very general topics and the parties seek to find a common denominator. Doing something this over lunch is for me very unnatural. Sharing food is actually a somewhat intimate social interaction, even if both parties are having their own dedicated meal. Nevertheless, the symbolic act of sharing a meal indicates, at least for me, an existing bond between the persons. Now how am I supposed to feel comfortable or secure sharing a meal with a stranger? When my primal instincts tell me not to do it, any deeper relationship building can hardly take place. On the other hand, if I already know the other person, sharing food is a good way to deepen the relationship.
Three stages of sharing food for relationship building
When meeting a stranger, one question is, if there is any basis for a deeper relationship. If sharing a lunch on the very first meeting, it might be that both parties would after the initial sentences rather concentrate on their food and have the meeting over as soon as possible. If this is the case, the sharing of food is even more awkward and, if both have the intent of finishing their meal, the whole meeting can be a disaster. Therefore something less intimate and flexible would be my first choice for the first meeting, say, a cup of coffee. Over a coffee cup you can get to know a person and still have the opportunity to prolong the meeting, if both feel like it. After the initial networking phase, or node creation, sharing lunch would be a good option for deepening the relationship. Between strangers and casual acceptances I would see these two alternatives as good, complementary ways for building your social network.
When with friends, I often lover to cook a good meal from scratch. It is very relaxing and strengthens a relationship, when you cook your meal from the beginning and share it with friends. During cooking you also have time to discuss anything you like, and the atmosphere is allowing for even very deep discussions. You can also adjust the length of the meeting by choosing an appropriate dish to be cooked.
Networking is only the first step in building relationships, and networking should take place on the basis of being genuinely interested in people and wanting to get to know them and help them. Food and the many rituals associated with it are a great way to broaden your social network and deepen your relationships. Just pick the right ritual based on the relationship. In short:
- sip coffee with strangers and build new nodes
- enjoy lunch with acquaintances and deepen the relationships
- cook with friends and foster your companionships