May 16, 2004 in Features

Networking seems to mean not working

Jeanne Marie Laskas The Washington Post
 

What happens at a conference for professional development is, they give you a name tag and a string. You’re supposed to attach the name tag to the string. I know this. But I am not, on command, immediately getting the configuration. The clip on the end is apparently supposed to hook here into this plastic flap. Um.

“Can I help you?” says a tall man with a red beard and a string around his neck attached to a name tag announcing Sam from Arizona. Well, that’s awfully nice. I hand him my tangled mess.

“My first time,” I say, awkwardly. He probably thinks I mean my first time at this particular annual conference, when in fact this is my first time at any conference for any kind of development, professional or otherwise. No wonder I feel so underdeveloped. There are reportedly 4,000 people crammed into this Chicago hotel, a dark cathedral, baroque and solid.

Network. I’m here to network. I am not sure I know how. I’m here to sit in little rooms and watch PowerPoint presentations. The directory of presentations is as thick as the phone book of many small towns. I have to choose. I have to network. I have to hang out at the hotel bar until dawn, downing cocktails with all the people I’ve networked with.

Sam from Arizona fixes my name tag, hands it to me, says, “Here you go, Jeanne Marie.”

“Why, thanks, Sam,” I say.

Well, wow! I think I just networked. For an instant I want to grab hold of Sam’s arm and beseech him, “Please don’t leave me.”

But he leaves me, disappears into the crowd. I am alone. Everyone can see through me. Everyone can tell that I want to go to my room and watch “Law & Order” reruns, “Oprah,” “Lassie.” I want room service. I want to put on my jammies. I wonder how many of the 4,000 people are doing just that, how many are wishing they were, how many have transcended shyness and how they did it.

The line for the professional development meeting in Parlor B on the sixth floor is snaking down the steps, so I move on to the one in PFR 4 on the third floor, but there are no seats left there, either.

“You have to get in line 20 minutes early,” an upset woman wearing a cape tells me. “Can you believe this?”

No, I can’t. I tell her I hadn’t figured on quite so much earnestness in the convention culture. I tell her I figured booze and small talk and business cards and flirtation and promises for same time next year. Heh heh. I am making small talk. I am trying to network. She is too upset. She is going to file a complaint.

Downstairs in the lobby I see a gathering of six people from my home town whom I never knew I loved as much as I do. I rush up to them and cling.

Hours later we are at the bar, clinging. “We are not networking,” I say. No one seems to share my guilt.

Bruce asks me if I want to go shopping; he says you can’t leave Chicago without seeing the Tiffany atrium in Marshall Fields department store. I head off with Bruce. He grew up in Chicago, so he knows architecture. I’ve known Bruce since grad school. He was the first professor to speak to me in that big, scary orientation. I trusted him instantly because I had no choice; I was suffocating in shyness. I said to him, “Don’t ever leave me.” He didn’t. Over the years we became friends, then over more years we drifted apart. Now that we’re colleagues, working in the very same building, we barely have time to say hello.

We stand like tourists looking up at one of the biggest Tiffany mosaics in the world.

He helps me choose a souvenir Cubs T-shirt for my husband, and two stuffed toys for my girls. We split a salad in the lower-level sports bar and watch ice skaters on the big screen and tell the waitress that if we were casting agents we’d sign her up for our next movie. Bruce talks about retirement, and I talk about tenure, and he talks about getting back with Pat, his ex-wife, the two of them reuniting for old age. “You and Pat belong,” I tell him. “You belong.”

But — I am not networking. I need to get back. I tell Bruce we didn’t have to come all the way to Chicago to hang out. But then again maybe we did. I tell him the one thing I may have never said over all these years. I tell him thank you. It comes out of nowhere, a forgotten obligation.

On the walk back, I think about doing my own PowerPoint presentation next year — pie charts and bar graphs illustrating the playing of hooky and its impact on professional development.

Or maybe just a slide show about the importance of spending time with an old friend.

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