Illustration by Ruby A.

Illustration by Ruby A.

About six years ago, an ex who was quite proud of his self-proclaimed “Scandinavian reserve” remarked that he was amazed by how much I knew about everyone who worked with me at New York University, from the housekeeping staff to senior administrators. After he saw me wishing one of the security guards farewell before his first day moonlighting at another gig, he said that one of his favorite traits of mine was how much I genuinely gave a damn about anyone and everyone, and he (somewhat snarkily) added that he didn’t understand how I had the time.

It wasn’t just him—countless friends and partners over the years have become annoyed with me for talking to strangers too long at parties, or even missing my subway stop to chat with inquisitive elderly folks or interesting tourists on the train. But I’m not just making small talk—one thing I abhor is shallow conversations. I’ve always believed there is something to learn from every passerby in our lives, and you can’t know what it is without asking questions and really sharing your story. I honestly just love meeting new people—it energizes and comforts me.

Now, there have been those who find this trait annoying. People have accused me of being “fake,” because how could anyone actually be so curious about strangers if they weren’t doing it for personal gain? I will admit that most of the jobs and internships I’ve gotten in my life came my way via personal contacts who helped me get my foot—and my résumé—in the door. But that’s how lots of jobs happen—that’s why people tell you that it’s important to “network.” If that word makes you wanna hurl, I feel you! It implies that you see people as just points along a trail leading you to a job, or a fellowship, or some other opportunity. But at its heart, traditional networking is just a tool you can use to connect with other people, and there are lots of ways to do that. In this article, I’m gonna teach you how to “network” without feeling like a phony—and without having to endure a single painfully boring and superficial conversation. But first, a story:

I born in South Carolina and raised with Southern hospitality. I also, despite all my outward (and heartfelt) friendliness, have a secret shy side. I might love asking strangers nosy questions about their lives, but the thought of acting aggressively on my own behalf, especially professionally, has always made me uneasy—I had to take a class as an adult just to learn how to ask for a raise. So when I graduated from college in Washington, DC, and started working in the same city, it was really hard for me to adjust to my new professional environment. DC is not just political in terms of actual federal politics; everything there feels political, including the culture of work. Everyone seemed to be hustling all the time, schmoozing, networking—in the worst sense of the word. Every bit of socializing felt goal-driven: people were trying to find the “right” people and then say the “right” things to them, like they were trying to accumulate points in a video game rather than have a real human interaction. “What do you do?” was a more popular greeting than “Hello.” I was asked more about where I worked and who I knew in DC than I ever had before, or have since. been before or since.

Drawn in by my own ambition, I played along for a while. I talked more about my job description than my dreams; I always had a well-formed pitch at the ready about how my role fit into a given social movement and its goals. I got very good at this kind of goal-driven socializing, but I found it exhausting—the opposite of how real human interaction makes me feel. I enjoyed my work, and I liked relating to people I encountered through my job about shared political and artistic interests, and discussing with them the headlines of the day. So I focused more on those real conversations, the kinds I naturally strike up with people all the time, and, as ever, they energized me and made me feel like myself again.

My new behavior didn’t go unnoticed—more than one mentor pulled me aside to gently chide me for my reluctance to make the expected rounds at fundraisers and for failing to collect as many business cards as they thought I should. But you know what? That was OK with me. I’m much happier this way, sticking with my instincts. And you know what else? They were wrong on this one: Doing what makes me happy turned out to be every bit as “effective” as the frankly creepy methods they were advocating. When I engage people authentically and act like myself, they tend to respond with relief, and reciprocal honesty, and those are the people who call when they need a speaker for a panel, or to encourage me to apply for a job with their organization. And I’d do the same for them, because I feel like I genuinely know and like them. (I want to pause for a moment here to recognize that work relationships are different from personal friendships—for one thing, I would never call a conversation with a friend “effective.”)

So this is why I don’t even try to officially network anymore. I’ve elected to truly connect with people instead. So for those of you who might be embarking on your very first jobs and who, like me, are grossed out by the idea papering “social” gatherings with your business cards, who cannot even heard the word schmoozing without cringing, here are some strategies that work for me; maybe they will for you, too.

1. Ask questions.

This applies whether you’re at a party or at a professional conference: asking other people questions takes the focus off of you, and helps alleviate whatever anxiety you may feel about initiating conversation. It’s a great way to build a rapport with another person before you’re comfortable talking much about yourself. Plus, your inquiries will help you find some common ground. Curiosity in general is beneficial, because you may find out about opportunities that you never would have known about and jobs you never knew existed—or you may just make a friend who shares your love for Taylor Swift.

2. Have the conversation you want to have.

Instead of worrying about perfecting a formal summary of yourself that only focuses on your school, or your credentials, or your current job, define yourself in a way that feels comfortable and truly speaks to who you are. Think about what you want to get out of an experience ahead of time, and what you want other people to know about you. For example, keep in mind something you’re proud of or a project you’re working on that you’re excited about in case you have a chance to mention your accomplishments or aspirations. From high school on, you’re likely to be asked on a somewhat regular basis about your goals and plans and what you want to do with your life. It can be stressful, and if you don’t have an answer, be honest and say, “I’m still figuring it out, but I’m really interested in X, Y, or Z.”

Have fun with this! As you meet lots of new people, you’ll learn which tactics work and which ones don’t. If it feels uncomfortable when someone new asks you to talk about yourself, it helps to remember that you’re the best narrator of your own life. My friend Courtney often quotes Mary Lou Kownacki’s beautiful words: “Engrave this upon your heart: there isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you heard their story.” I like to think about this when I feel awkward about introducing myself, not only to remind myself that my personal story matters and has the potential to inspire others, but also to remind me why I want to be reaching out and listening to other people, too.

I also rely on Marshall Ganz’s “story of self, story of us, story of now” framework to help me create a narrative of my career/life that reflects my values and passions, rather than just giving people a boring run-down of my résumé. To briefly summarize: the story of self means you introduce who you are as a person—an artist, an advocate, a student, a volunteer, etc. The story of us involves mentioning how you, your work, or your passion relates to what you’re trying to do in school or the community or the world. And the story of now is telling a new acquaintance about why you’re passionate about X or Y, and giving whomever you’re talking to a takeaway about how they can maybe get involved or take action.

So forget the negativity and doubts for a second: you’re interesting as you are, and you don’t need any more credentials, experiences, or titles to make you and your contributions valuable.

3. Show up early and with a plan.

When I venture into networking land, I like to show up to an event a little early, so that I can meet people as individuals before they start forming cliques, making it harder to listen as closely or sincerely. If you end up in a situation where you’re expected to mix and mingle and it is not your thing, make a plan. It often helps me to tell myself: I will meet three new people before I head home tonight. Putting a defined cap on it helps me feel less overwhelmed. And don’t fret if you don’t have time to meet everyone in the room, because it truly is a small world, and you’re likely to cross paths again.

4. Draw a line.

If you’re talking to people who ask you obnoxious questions, or a particular conversation is draining you for whatever reason, it is perfectly cool to say, “It was great to meet you,” and then politely excuse yourself for a bathroom break or a sudden call you need to make. Don’t be afraid of keeping mum if you’re asked questions that make you uncomfortable. While honesty is generally the foundation for a strong relationship, this doesn’t mean you should tell someone you just met things that could come back to bite you. Don’t speak ill of an employer/professor/co-worker or repeat gossip, because you never know who this person might know. (And also, if they’re ever in a position to offer you a job, they’ll have second thoughts about hiring someone who badmouths the people they work with.)

5. Branch out.

You will all be in a situation at some point where a high-profile someone is in a room and everyone and their mother is elbowing their way to the front to meet her. Many will differ from my approach, but I avoid getting caught up in the melee if a networking opportunity doesn’t come naturally, or if it doesn’t seem like we’ll be able to have a meaningful exchange. Look around you: maybe there are other people there who aren’t quite so shiny; they might be better (and more fun) bets. I’ve gone to meetups and volunteer events with friends who work and socialize in different arenas, and those have ended up expanding my knowledge more, and introducing me to a wider variety of people, than a 30-second face-to-face with a bigwig ever could.

6. Follow up.

Now that you’ve made so many interesting new contacts, make sure you keep in touch with them. This isn’t icky, especially when you genuinely like someone. Ask for their name and email address and follow up with them the next day to let them know you enjoyed meeting them. If you feel comfortable, stay connected through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or LinkedIn so you can remain on each other’s radar for future collaborations or, even better, so you can be friends. ♦