The Art of Working a Room
There’s an art to working a room. In my dual life as a sociologist and a novelist, I’ve had ample opportunity to develop my skills at in-person social networking. This has been a process of trial and (a lot of) error.
I attended my first sociology conference as an undergraduate when a paper I wrote won an award. The night after my presentation, I attended a cocktail reception, where I knew no one and was also still too young to drink. I stood in a corner of the room and people-watched, thinking about how I didn’t belong here among the accomplished grown-ups and doubting that anyone would care to talk with little old me. I spoke to no one and left early.
A few years later, as a graduate student on the verge of job hunting, I attended another conference. This time I had a glass of white wine in hand, but still hung back from the crowd. There were people I knew I should meet—researchers whose work I admired, heads of search committees at universities, even other graduate students. I had again presented a paper, but I still felt like an imposter. I had not published anything, had not yet completed my degree. I was no one. Luckily, Ruth, a friend who was a year ahead of me in our program, suffered no such illusions of unworthiness. She grabbed my hand, pulled me into the crowd, and told me we had paid the price of admission and were going to work the room.
Neither of us recognized any of the preeminent sociologists who were supposedly in the ballroom. People stared at our nametags, decided we were not anyone important, and passed us by, confirming my own reservations. Ruth hardly noticed. Knots of people stood together, and she bravely approached one after another, pulling me with her. She made eye contact, smiled, made introductions. And then she did the thing that made us welcome in every group we approached. She asked questions. She asked people what they studied, how they chose their topics, if they had any advice for us as we completed dissertations and hit the job market. We smiled, said little, and, I think, made very good impressions. We also met a lot of people that night. I’d had my first taste of social networking success, but it took a while before I mastered the art on my own.
Fast forward a few years. I had just taken a new job and moved to New York and was eager to meet colleagues in the area. Unlike in the previous conferences, I now had an agenda—social networking with a purpose—and was quite self-satisfied with my little bit of savvy. I was determined to use a particular networking event to good advantage. Having earned my doctorate and published a book, I now felt a full member of the secret club, and I didn’t have trouble approaching strangers and striking up conversations. Still, I was keenly aware of my junior status as a new professor, and I was over-eager to make a good impression. Unfortunately, on this occasion my whiff of desperation turned into a stink.
I insinuated myself into a group where the head of a program with which I wanted affiliation was talking to others. The hour was already late, and the nametags had disappeared, but a colleague had pointed my quarry out to me. I quietly waited for an opening, but when I had my chance, nerves took over. I overcompensated, bragged and babbled about my recent accomplishments, while he looked on politely, seemingly unimpressed. I talked faster, said more, determined to win him over and bumbling badly. Others in the group, perhaps bored by the rambling I couldn’t seem to stop or else embarrassed for me, siphoned themselves off one by one. Finally, the gentleman I had cornered congratulated me—ah, relief!—and shook my hand. Before I could broach the subject of affiliation, he politely excused himself. Moments later, when someone else called his name, I learned I had monopolized and tortured the wrong person. I left immediately afterward, hoping no one would remember my name.
More recently, I’ve had occasion to attend events where people have wanted to meet me. On one notable occasion, I was swarmed after giving a presentation. People wanted to hug me. They wanted me to sign their books. They wanted to ask me about collaborative opportunities. Everyone wanted something. They were by turns shy or aggressive or effusive, and part of me wanted to laugh. I’m just a person, the same person who had stood in their places on other occasions.
Having been the target of other people’s social networking efforts has changed the way I approach the art of working a room. In the fiction-writing world, I’m not yet published, and when I attend conferences, I’m back to being a novice, no one special. There are no fans waiting for my autograph, no agents or publishers queuing up to talk with me about my latest projects, no writers keyed up to ask me the secrets of my success. None of this bothers me. In fact, it’s freeing.
What I’ve learned about social networking is not to let my insecurities or ambitions get the better of me. I know that the people around me may feel just as insecure or shy or awkward as I sometimes do, even if they are famous. Working a room is about meeting other people, lots of other people, not only the few ‘celebrities’ in the midst. The unknown person today may be tomorrow’s rising star or a kindred spirit. Particularly at conferences of writers and academics, one never knows who is on the brink of making it, of being the next big thing.
I allow myself the serendipitous delight of discovering who else may be in the room, of meeting new people. I’m not a social butterfly or an extrovert. I don’t flit about collecting names and handshakes. I take my time with the people I meet, but I’m careful not to corner them. I strike up conversation with anyone. And when I’m not sure what to say, or my tongue is feeling particularly loose, I stop and ask questions. Most people delight in the chance to talk about themselves. I am not stingy with my attention. Instead, I’m curious and interested. Who knows what amazing, intriguing person I might next meet?
If you happen to be attending the New Jersey Put Your Heart in a Book conference today and tomorrow, please come and say hello. I’d love to have the pleasure of meeting you.
Dana Beth Weinberg is Associate Professor of Sociology at Queens College – City University of New York. She writes fiction as D. B. Shuster.