I recently attended a professional conference in Louisville, Kentucky. I have not felt so uncomfortable around a group of people I theoretically have something in common with in my entire life! Well at least since I made the mistake of signing up for a free group trip to Israel back in 2009.
The big difference was, this time I realized that I wasn’t crazy to feel like everyone was judging me—they totally were. Conferences are like what Charles Darwin would invent for a high school project on survival of the ambitious, and his group members would be Becky Sharp, Attila the Hun, and a honey badger.
I decided to treat my time in the conference cooker as immersion therapy. All my worst fears about being evaluated and rejected by others were going to come true, and it was my job to get down with that. It was not the best experience of my life, but I learned some things for next time.
1. People will walk away from you in the middle of conversations. Try not to take this personally.
That is what networking is about. One woman I was chatting with about filing systems announced that she was going to go take a nap, and ten minutes later I saw her kicking back with a beer across the room. Of course that happened, because a) look what we were talking about and b) that’s what you’re supposed to do at a conference.
Sometimes I’d try heading off a prospective ditching by being the first one to bounce, and I also tried wildly inviting more people I didn’t know to join the conversation in order to keep the pressure off me in one-on-one scenarios. All these options went… weirdly, but that was fine!
When someone wanders away mid-sentence, it also helps to imagine that they are leaving to rescue an injured fawn, or deliver emergency pancakes to a team of orphaned kindergarten football players. It’s possible.
2. Dress appropriately. Everyone walks around staring at each other’s torsos like they’re trying to pick out the star-bellied Sneetches. Because: nametags.
If yours has a name with caché on it, you’re a star-belly, and people will happily chat with you while standing in line at the Hilton branch of Einstein’s Bagels. If not (raises hand), they will ask thoughtful questions like “So why are you here,” or else look wistfully past you as if they are looking for Mr. Darcy or someone else dreamy and important.
Sometimes I got tired of this and flipped my nametag around so that it was blank, which forced people to ask me what my name was and what company I worked for. It was sort of satisfying, but really it only delayed the inevitable for a few seconds.
3. You will be called on to explain yourself. Maybe have something ready to say.
This was the most awkward part of the conference for me. The successful networkers had well-developed elevator pitches that summed up their professional lives in a sentence or two. One very cool girl said that she’d spent her twenties “collecting stories” as an art student, seamstress, and carpenter before finding her way to her current career. Another guy had worked at the Federal Reserve. He said the day he quit to pursue his professional dreams, he ran out of the building, stripped off his coat and tie, and threw them in the garbage. I did not have a story beyond, “Me friendly, you too?” Will fix.
4. Make friends based not on who can clearly help you with your career, but instead based on whoever seems nice and fun.
It wasn’t a very Attila kind of move, but it made me much happier and more comfortable. And since people who I like and admire usually do things that I think are cool too, I don’t see how this approach could possibly hurt, professional development-wise.
5. Go off in a corner somewhere from time to time.
At conferences there’s a lot of pressure to be on 24/7 like a dutiful Roomba, but that’s not sustainable. When I felt overwhelmed’ I’d duck off to text people back home or step outside to grab a coffee. This helped me remember that I was a human being with a life that extended beyond windowless blocks of hotel conference rooms. Also, it turns out that sometimes when you’re just sitting by your self, people will actually approach you. (Nice change.)
6. Even if everyone is judging you (and they are!), lots of other people are feeling judged too.
At one workshop, I overheard a guy with gelled hair whispering frantically to the girl beside him. “I feel like everyone here hates me,” he said. “I’ve never felt so uncomfortable.”
“They don’t hate you,” the girl said with a reassuring head-tilt. The guy did not look convinced. But she was telling the truth. Conferences are not places of hate. They are places of vast, bottomless neurosis. Which means that when I attend my next conference later this month, I’ll saunter up to the registration table knowing that I fit right in.