Friday, 10 May 2013

Networking - to be or not to be?

My mentor, Khai, recently invited me to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Association’s mentoring programme launch. I’ve had to navigate in networking contexts before. Last year I was one of the delegates from Sydney Law School to the Australian Law Students Associate (ALSA) annual conference. In many ways the two events felt similar. In many ways the two events felt different.

At ALSA we were all subject to a 20 minute lecture by a managing partner of a large city law firm about the importance of networking. His speech reminded me of a scene from Confessions of a Shopaholic. Asked to write one thousand words on APRs, Rebecca proceeds to do some research. A few moments later her boss appears behind her and exclaims, “Rebecca… did you just type ‘good angles on APRs into Google?” Either that or he just copy and pasted the Wikipedia page on networking. His delivery then reminded me of a scene from the Simpsons.
Mr Burns: Did you get that report on the accounting department?

Homer: Yes sir, I did. "The accounting department is located on the 3rd floor. Its hours are 9am to 5pm. The head of this department is a Mr. Johnson or Johnstone."
Given his enthusiasm I do not think I could be faulted for not seizing the opportunity to market myself to my fellow peers. Bring together a few hundred law students there will be natural diversity of course. Some, like myself and fellow Pinnacle Scholar Veronica Mason, will devote our attention to the mooting and skills competitions. Others will be there for a week of revelry. But at the end of the day you could naturally begin with questions like “which law school are you from” and remark about the differences between their curriculum and yours. You take out your phone and you say, “hey we should add each other on Facebook!” Then you go off to use the bathroom or get another drink and you avoid that person for the rest of the night because you don’t want to talk to them again. That would be awkward. If you bump into them in the hotel lobby the next day, you nod your head in acknowledgement, smile, wave, say hi, but you do not slow down (in fact, quicken your pace in case there was any doubt in their mind about your intentions) and hope you’re not catching the same tram as them. 

Among the company of Sydney’s gay and lesbian business community my enthusiasm for networking was not exactly rekindled. I remember asking Khai at the beginning of the evening, “Do I just go up to people and ask them ‘so, what do you do’? That seems a little rude”. There is a modesty I am accustomed to, both with asking about another person’s private affairs and volunteering information about my own. So without Khai to tell everyone about my clerkship and my judge’s associateship I do not think I could have represented myself in the best light. But because Khai did, everyone was really nice and genuinely engaged me in my life and my achievements. My opinion of networking has recovered.

Society demands networking apparently. It is, at least in business, a fact. An aversion to social interaction with strangers is seen as something shameful by most people. All of my close friends have confessed to me that they feel similarly while admiring my ability to engage strangers in conversation. I don’t feel the need to resolve the question whether my friends and I are in the minority with our anxiety. But I am confident enough to admit it and try my best to overcome it.

By Nathan Li

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