Friday, February 11, 2011

On mingling

One of the more common stereotypes about diplomatic life is that ambassadors and their staff do little more than attend cocktail parties. This is not true. They also attend luncheons and dinners.

I’m joking. Life at the embassy has taught me that a very large portion of the work takes part in front of a computer, and in meetings. The diplomats take pride in representing their country abroad, and this means more than small talk over long drinks. Still, small talk over long drinks is indeed a part of the job, and since part of my job is to take part in every aspect of the embassy work, I also get to attend some of these events.

Cocktail parties and other similar events involve mingling. This is an art I have yet to master. First of all it is difficult enough to start a conversation with complete strangers; secondly I find it difficult to leave said conversation to go talk to someone else.

To initiate a conversation with someone the first step is usually to introduce yourself. Your name, and your occupation. In many professional events it is also common to exchange business cards. In Japan, this is not only common, it is crucial. My current problem is that I haven’t yet gotten a business card, both because I am new in the job, but more importantly because the embassy phone system have been changed since I got here, so I was asked to hold off ordering business cards until the new numbers were cleared.

In many parts of the world, this would be problematic, but not catastrophic. In Japan, it is social suicide. The business cards exchange is more than just an exchange of contact information. Actually, the tradition is similar to the well known Japanese gift exchange – a symbolic gesture that requires both parties to give something of similar value to the other party. There is much ceremony to this; the business card is supposed to be presented with both hands, and it is polite to read what’s on the other party’s card before pocketing it.

I cannot tell you how many times I have had to explain that I don’t have a card yet. It is outrageous. Nobody does not have a card. If you exist, you have a card. And if you meet someone else who exists, you will give them your card and expect to receive one back.

And yet, I think I have seen relief in some people I’ve met when I’ve told them I cannot participate in this ritual just yet. One less pointless card to throw away when they get home. Because surely, nobody keeps all the cards they receive? As mentioned, the exchange of business cards isn’t necessarily about exchanging contact information – no one expects you to actually stay in touch with all these people. What interest do you actually have to stay in touch with somebody you randomly met at a party, whose work and life does not at all overlap with your own, when knowing that your only mutual meeting point forever will be only this one party?

We’re back to the core of why mingling is difficult. Because there are mostly strangers, you don’t know who it will be interesting to talk to. You have to take a chance and start talking to whomever stands close by, or who’s eyes you meet, or who is standing in a half circle so that it is possible to sneak in without interrupting too much. And then you ideally should have an exit strategy in case you discover that all the people in the half circle are talking about the usage of microchips in fusion-powered transportation systems. Or some other technical dippedidoodaat you don’t understand.

As mentioned, it can be equally hard to get out of a mingle-situation as it is to get in. Once you’ve gotten through all the obligatory small talk, you have to find a way to stay interested and interesting, otherwise the conversation obviously will stall quite quickly. The awkward silences that follow are even more awkward if the other party also is not too good at mingling. You are both too polite to just leave, none of you are able to think of an excuse to leave, and yet, you’re not able to think of anything interesting to say.

The other pitfall is to get into too deep a conversation. Often I find that when asking about other people’s work, they tend to get comfortable in the conversation, since it’s (hopefully) a topic they know very well. A lot of people are very passionate about their work. The other night I talked to an archeologist who specialized in ancient ship wrecks. How cool is that? He was like the Indiana Jones of the Sea! We talked for a long time about his work, my studies, and about the incomprehensibly cold relationship between historians and archeologists. I would have liked to continue to talk to him, but since I felt obliged to mingle, that wasn’t really an option.

See, you’re not supposed to have long conversations in these settings. First of all it ruins the point of the event for yourself – networking is not-working if the net consists of only one very detailed mesh (stitch? Loop? My metaphor is failing me…). Secondly, it ruins the point of the event for everyone else – if two people are immersed in deep conversation all night; these are two people less to mingle with. If everyone is doing it, no one is networking. Third, there is always the chance that the interesting conversation you think you’re having isn’t all that interesting for the other party. He or she is probably there to meet more people than just you, and even though they might enjoy speaking to you, there is a great chance that the main reason they haven’t left the conversation to go speak to the ones they really came there to meet is that they too are too polite to leave without an excuse.

Thus, mingling is a tricky business. If done right – lots of limited small talk, exchanging contact information (or in Japan, business cards whether you expect to stay in touch or not), quickly establishing which people are useful to talk to and who are just there to enjoy the free drinks – it can be an effective way of networking. If done my way, it is a study in awkward silences and pointless conversations.

I obviously need more training in this, and fortunately, this stay gives me ample opportunities to do so. I just need to print a business card first! 


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'm not good at mingling either. And I don't have a card - guess I don't exist!

Jules said...

Ah, fond memories of working with the Japanese :) You could always just carry a portable Karaoke machine and be the hit the gathering :)
Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

Michelle Gregory said...

i haven't been to a party like that for years and forgot about the mingling. i hate it. i'd rather have one great, deep conversation with one person than fifty shallow conversations.

Michelle Gregory said...

and yet i just realized that once we move to Montana, we're going to have to attend parties because my husband is a doctor and people will want to meet us, etc. i'm going to have to figure out how to have a deep conversation in a two minute time period.

Jennee said...

I used to be good at mingling but then I got out of practice. Now I'm just awkward! It's killing my social life! haha

Hart Johnson said...

Oh, man. I'm hyperventilating just from thinking about all those details. I am totally a 'meet a kindred spirit or two and spend the party with them' person. I despise small talk, in spite of liking people. I'd much rather go someplace with several close friends.

M.J. Nicholls said...

Thanks to the Tart's misattribution blog, I read the title as "On Minging," which is a UK slang for being unattractive and moose-like. Thanks, Tart.

Judging from your impishness and outwardness on this blog, I'm betting you're a grade-A minger. I mean mingler. (Curse you, Tart!)

sue said...

Would some hand printed cards with a giraffe sketched on do the trick?

Seriously, you'll learn, you'll mingle wonderfully, and then be so relieved when you don't have to do it any more. If uber quiet me can manage, so can you. It's something you can learn just like everything else.

Channel Adam (youknowwhoImean) he can find something interesting to discuss with anyone. Can you stream the show from over there?

nonamedufus said...

I wouldn't be very good at the mingling part. But I think I might excel at the drinking part.

Cruella Collett said...

Alex - you surprise me; in the blogging world you are a first class mingler, as you get around to everybody, and then you're a superhero in staying in touch with the people who matter/respond/are interesting/are nice/etc. You just need to use those skills with a glass of wine in your hand, and you're there!
And no - you don't exist in Japan *snicker*

Jules - tee hee, sure - after a few glasses, that would be the appropriate way of getting to know people waaaay better. Of course, I'd STILL need a business card...

Michelle - that's my thought exactly. I am all for meaningful conversations. But I guess we can't have it all! Good luck with your upcoming mingling!

Jennee - I'm sure it's like riding a bike - once you've learned it, you'll always remember how ;) By the way - love the new pic!

Tami - precisely. You're like Alex though - probably better at it than you think.

Mark - I'm definitely a top notch minger. Moose + Norway = true luv.

Sue - well, those cards would certainly stand out in a crowd! Though frankly, Japan has such a weird idea of what is and isn't okay in a professional setting, that I'm not even sure it would be all that weird...
And NOOOOOO - I can't stream it! I'm so sad :( Though Adam himself mentioned on FB the other day that there might be illegal YouTube stuff for all his non-Aussie fans.. Yay!

Noname - yeah, that's what I thought too... Turns out "all-you-can-drink" doesn't mix well with Norwegians. We tend to interpret it as a challenge...

Boonie S said...

This all sounds very superficial. In your position I’d just keep swigging on the bubbly at the taxpayers’ expense with the occasional offer of, “Would you like a karaoke song from me?” The Japanese love all that – you’d be a huge hit.

All the best, Boonie

Kal said...

My father taught me to ask questions when you aren't sure what to say. People LOVE to talk about themselves. They will always reveal enough to keep the concersation going and more importantly they will REMEMBER that you cared enough to ask. As a teacher that has saved me in many a social situation and is a great way to gain allies.

Kal said...

And until you get your 'official' cards it would be cool if you could sketch something on a blank card right in front of them. Now THAT would be cool and personal. Again - memorable.

Move me to Japan and I will give you advice all day long. I look like a fine viking already so I can blend...and schmooze.

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