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!