I have facial blindness so I’m crap at networking, but let’s talk anyway
Jon Westernberg’s “Networking sucks” post, above, triggered one of those “It’s time to get to that post I’ve been meaning to write” moments, despite the fact that I don’t have hundreds of wannabe startups clamouring for my time and favour.
Networking is something I’ve always been crap at, but I’ve only recently discovered why. It turns out that it’s actually physiological — I have facial blindness — which makes me wonder just how much of my life has been (de)formed by some poor wiring deep within my brain.
Before you dismiss this as “a poor excuse for not caring about people” (something I’ve heard more than once), you should know that it’s a recognised condition — scientific name: prosopagnosia - and I share it with one of the great popularisers of psychology, the late Oliver Sacks:
So I’m not being rude — I simply don’t recognise you.
Tl;dr: the part of my brain is responsible for recognising other people doesn’t work well. In fact, when I finally took a test, I scored 87%.
I’ve suspected this since the 1990s, when I left Australia and washed up in Brussels, where everyone is constantly networking.
Brussels, network town
Brussels is the town of networkers. Every year, coachloads of middle-class-and-higher Communications Studies graduates are disgorged into Place Luxembourg and its environs, intern contracts clutched in sweaty paws, gazing upwards at the European Parliament building, mouths agape.
They’ve got a few months of barely paid labour to transform their toehold into a foothold, and there’s only one way to do it.
No, not work. They network. Brussels is the town where the first two questions they ask you are:
where do you work?
what’s your grade?
If they get to question 2, of course. Because if you didn’t answer Question 1 with “at one of the EU Institutions” they’re gone, baby, already gone, moving onto the next mark, smile perfectly poised, eyebrows carefully arched, hips turned just so, searching for that next opportunity, anything to upgrade from a 6month sweatshop internship into something real, and not have to return to the Godsforsaken empty space on the map they came from, far from the glitter and glamour which is a career in the EU Institutions.
Or, as Jon puts it:
Entering a networking event, you can feel the eyes of every attendee fix on you for a few brief seconds, like a pack of hungry wolves. They come up and shake your hand with a poisonously false enthusiasm, and as soon as they work through a quick calculation and conclude that you’re not “important” their eyes start flickering around the room, looking for their next meal.
- Networking sucks. Because people don’t give a shit.
That’s never been me. Because if there’s a foolproof way of being ill-at-ease in a social setting, it’s feeling that you don’t know who all these people around you actually are.
Dealing with facial blindness
I therefore adopted a number of strategies, of which Number 1 was Don’t Go To Networking Events. Because when I do:
- either I don’t recognise someone I’ve already met (result: insult them)
- or I said hello with engaging familiarity to someone who didn’t know me (result: they assume I’m hitting on them and/or trying to upgrade my 6month sweatshop internship into something real -> result: insult them).
Instead, I hid in the office and did interesting stuff.
A few years ago, however, I realised that few people knew about that interesting stuff — being a non-networker, I’d simply assumed that all you had to do was do something interesting, and people would know about it.
So when I decided to launch my own company last year, I steeled myself to get out there more often. And to my surprise I’ve enjoyed it.
Partly because for the main part I’ve gone and seen people I’ve met at least three times before, and so have a better chance of recognising them. Sometimes we arrange to meet at networking events, which involves a fair amount of me wandering around hoping they’ll recognise me, but it generally works out.
But the main reason I’m enjoying myself more than expected is that I’ve discovered the pleasure of simply helping people with their problems. Over the past few months I’ve had fascinating conversations with people about content strategy, business models, innovation pipelines, community management, information architecture, ideation stimulation, science communications, reinventing organisations, (e)participation in democracy, internal communications, event management, digital transformation, managing teams and IT subcontractors, knowledge management, populism, football and beer.
Sometimes it results in a gig. But generally what happens is that I help them see a problem more clearly, or point them to some new ideas or someone I know who can help better than I can. Having a public library of over 2300 useful resources — each of which I’ve tagged and annotated over the years as part of my morning routine — certainly helps.
So if I don’t recognise you, please cut me some slack
So if you meet me, and I don’t recognise you, please cut me some slack and remind me who you are. We might have a nice conversation. And I might recognise you next time.