Columns

Zeng ’20: The net wrong with networking

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Several months ago, I attended a networking mixer for a business organization I had regrettably joined. For three hours, I sat at a table in a stiff white collar and listened to a fellow student puff himself up to corporate executives. I did not care at all about what he was saying, and when it was my turn to speak, I doubt he cared either. We were there with only one goal in mind: to schmooze and impress. From what I’ve heard, this experience is fairly representative of the average networking experience.

I don’t understand why people think networking sessions are productive spaces. After all, they essentially consist of a room full of sweaty people who don’t actually want to be there but fake-smile and exchange insincere pleasantries anyway. When you attend a networking event, every one of your interactions is underscored by the awareness that you’re only there because you’re angling for something. You know it. The person you’re speaking to knows it;. But both of you will carry on pretending as if you don’t.

The format of networking sessions promotes a very specific aim: to help connect as many people as possible. But all this setup does is contribute to an atmosphere of superficiality. Conversations don’t last long, and true connections aren’t made when the objective is to expand networks rather than strengthen them because people just don’t have the incentive or time.

Networking events also fail to support professional development and the sharing of knowledge. With the pressure to appear knowledgeable, poised and professional, it’s easy to be dissuaded from asking sincere questions and engaging in more honest conversations. In the end, it is fairly common to leave the sessions feeling dissatisfied and with a host of unanswered questions, regrets and frustrations.

So it’s no wonder that most of our networking hours prove fruitless. The context is painfully ill-suited to meaningful communication. It forces us to become more concerned with the impressions we make on potential employers than with any sort of authentic human connection. We think more about how we’re coming across — if our smile is right, if our words are coherent — than how we can connect with and learn from others. Perhaps it isn’t likely that we’ll develop an instantaneous, lifelong connection within seven minutes, but at least some depth and sincerity are necessary to find relevant people to connect with later.

Furthermore, the social nature of networking sessions means that introverts are often left in the dust. As a rather introverted person myself, this aspect is incredibly frustrating because we have no choice but to engage in sessions of idle chatter. Some argue that networking sessions are good preparation for future careers, but career success is not so dependent on making instantaneous impressions or being the most vocal person in the room. Since companies rely on this skewed mode of recruitment, the process favors extroverts and makes companies miss out on a more varied pool of talent.

The unfortunate truth is that networking is essential for discovering new opportunities. Its purpose can include learning about companies on a personal level, learning about other people’s experiences and gaining industry and interview tips. At its roots, it is a way to meet new people and expand your professional web. And if that were all networking were, I wouldn’t mind so much because meeting new people can be socially and professionally enriching. But our notion of networking has devolved into a series of never-ending, banal conversations — a hollow competition to collect the most hellos and business cards.

How many of those numbers are we really going to call? Wouldn’t a better system be one in which we don’t rely upon follow-up conversations but start making real connections on the spot? Some organizations are beginning to reflect this way of thinking by adapting their outreach methods. For example, finance and consulting groups now hold coffee chats for juniors and seniors interested in recruitment, so students can talk with and learn from recent alums in honest and constructive ways. These efforts are worth appreciating, but more needs to be done. Our entire outlook on networking needs to change before we start to see a more inclusive, accessible and enjoyable recruitment process.

I don’t think networking is irredeemable. If we all approached conversations with the intention of sincerity, we might actually get something out of it. We might not leave feeling emotionally drained — our only real gain being the stack of business cards in our pockets.

So the next time you’re invited to a networking mixer, you should ask yourself two questions: Are you interested in meeting these people — not because you want the practical benefit, but because their stories and career journeys genuinely intrigue you? And are you prepared to think more about the conversation at hand and less about your professional image? If the answer isn’t yes to both of these questions, do yourself a favor. Don’t go.

Cindy Zeng ’20 doesn’t want to think about networking until she’s at least 25. She can be reached at cindy_zeng@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to letters@browndailyherald.com.