[Even when they seem strange....]
I hate “networking.” At least in the traditional sense.I hate the small talk and the callousness of it all. Recently, I attended a journalism conference where nametags were noticeably absent.
I was intrigued, and a bit irked, by the number of freelancers in the room who would warmly say hello, enthusiastic and friendly as they sussed out your worthiness. Then upon determining you probably weren’t useful enough, they moved to the next, and hopefully more connected person….often rather abruptly…
I try to take a different approach. I talk to the people I happen upon…whether we meet coincidentally on a bike trail, or while standing in a queue for a festival, or seated near each other on public transport, or we’re staying at the same hostel or sipping coffee across a communal table. I talk to people in airports, and on trains and in the Greyhound and on planes and in museums. If I say G’day and they respond in a manner that’s disinterested or standoffish, I let them be.
Sometimes people need space. I don’t take it personally, but I take the hint.
But I make a habit of consciously casting aside any initial prejudice I might feel, and conversing with the random people I meet.
What have I gotten out of it?
I once sat next to a jittery man on a plane from Atlanta to Los Angeles. He had stringy bleached blond hair, an 80s rocker look. He kept slumping over in his seat, landing on me and waking abruptly. When he was awake, he was violently shaking. At one point as I lamented my inability to sleep, he offered me some potent sleeping pills they’d offered him in rehab.
My instinct was ‘this guy’s a freak,’ and I probably would have ignored him, but the stand-up comedian on my left struck up a conversation.
Turned out we were sitting beside an 80s rocker.
‘Jack Russell…you know like the dog’…he’d said.
was Great White. 'We had two platinum albums…You might remember the single “Once
Bitten, Twice Shy?’ he'd said, not boasting, just trying to refresh my memory...
I’d listened to his band, thanks to the influence of two metal-head older brothers, no doubt, but right then I couldn’t make the connection.
‘Remember that fire that started from pyrotechnic in a night club in Rhode Island? And 100 people died…?’
‘Oh yeah, I remember that!’
‘That was my band…’
Of all the times for my mind to go blank….
Jack told us his story on that flight, raw and thoughtful. He spoke of his triumphs and success…and the gritty bits too: addiction, jail, heartbreak, legal battles…that fire that killed 100, including the band’s guitarist. I can’t recount his story here. He hasn’t given me permission and we never kept in touch. Despite his public persona and his openness that day, he seemed a private man.
I feel privileged every time someone chooses to share their story with me. But that’s not all I’ve gained from these random conversations over the years. What else?
Strangers can be the most objective and supportive ‘champions’ of new ideas. Because they are not emotionally connected to you, they are far less likely to offer fear-driven commentary. They’ll commend you for taking risks, compliment you on your friendly demeanor, and otherwise boost your self-esteem.
Many of my random encounters have led to lasting friendships. On a flight from Delhi to Adelaide, a girl sitting diagonal from me saw me reading a newspaper article on someone that interested her. She asked to read it once I was done. It seemed like an odd request, but I obliged. Later, as we got talking, we learned we had many common interests. Not only did my partner and I end up crashing at her flat that night, but we have remained friends and visited each other in several cities in the years that followed.
Sometimes it’s worth removing the headphones and engaging with strangers, even the quirky ones. You never know who you might meet…
More about Jack Russell.