Now that we have got your attention: We teach a lot of students and young professionals the skills of networking and invariably this question comes up from one of the young women in the class, “It seems that when I act friendly to a man I meet at a networking event–and it may be nothing more than talking to him and being interested in what he does–he misinterprets it. What can I do?”
This is kind of a Catch-22 situation: if you don’t act friendly, engage the other person, try to establish rapport it’s hard to build a business relationship and that’s the point of networking. Networking is not about closing a sale, but opening a relationship but that’s harder to do if you feel it’s going to be misinterpreted.
To answer the question, we start by saying that while it is not always the case, this sexual thing can quite possibly be there, so the best approach is to make sure that you present yourself in the most professional manner. It sets some ground rules. That means think about everything from the business suit you wear, to the confidence you project when you hand out your business card.
Take control. Be the one to shake hands first, and initiate the business card exchange. Yes, in networking situations give out your card when you first meet someone. And those ‘bumping’ devices—danger zone—they have got all kinds of innuendo attached as this Bloomberg Businessweek article suggests.
“Analysts believe the business card has a secret lo-fi strength that even the most Asimov-esque flight of fantasy cannot replace: ‘The act of theater surrounding the exchange of a business card allows for flirtation, self-expression, and recognition,” … ‘Bumping may be fun, but in comparison to an analog business card exchange it’s the difference between having sex and merely exchanging bodily fluids.’” It seems that even the business card exchange seems to be a sexually charged act—no wonder there’s a challenge! (Note: this quote by someone named Mo.)
We also suggest that when you introduce yourself that you give your credentials. “Hi, I am Jane.” doesn’t set the same tone as “Hi, I am Jane McKensie, director of HR at Worldworks.”
The third thing is be clear. If you want to follow up with that person, tell them what you want to discuss when you meet again. Pick a neutral ground and time. “Let’s grab a drink after work” can be misinterpreted. If the only time to meet is in the evening, give the guy a chance of getting it right: “Let’s meet for an early dinner, discuss x,y, z, and then you can get on with your evening.”
While it doesn’t always work (and if you don’t have an interest beyond business with the other person)take control, be clear on why you want to reconnect and act friendly but as professional as possible.
QUESTION: what’s been your experience? As a woman has this been an issue for you? As a man, what do you think?