Monday, November 21, 2005

Will Work For Food

BY MICHAEL WATT Ask Mr. Long Island

I hit the Trifecta the other day.

No – not that kind of Trifecta. I couldn’t pick a winning horse if the race was limited to two horses and Star Jones was the jockey for one of them. The Trifecta I hit was the work-related meal Trifecta – breakfast, lunch and dinner all tied around some kind of business networking event – and all paid for by someone other than me. Those are almost always the best meals.

With as much networking as I do as part of my day job I am surprised it has taken me this long to accomplish such a feat – not that doing so has been some lifelong dream. There have been days, for instance, where I have had breakfast and lunch on somebody else’s dime, or lunch and dinner. There was even the time when I had lunch and dinner in the same catering hall for two different events on the same day. But never did I get all three in one day.

Until this past Wednesday. I attended a breakfast event at the New Huntington Towne House, lunch as the guest of some corporate and governmental honchos in Bethpage and then a business association dinner at the New York Institute of Technology’s Culinary Institute in Central Islip. Not bad work if you can get it, right? Right. Seeking free meals and networking is an odd way to go about one’s business. For the uninitiated, basically “networking” involves voluntarily walking into a room full of strangers and endeavoring to make sure as many of those people are no longer strangers – at least to you – by the time the event is over.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. For one thing, it helps to know at least one person in that room so you can strike up a conversation with that person. That way you’re not standing there by yourself, pretending to be fascinated by the pattern of the wallpaper. “But wait a minute, Mike,” you’re probably saying. “Didn’t you just say the whole point of networking is to meet people you do not know already?” I did. But just like the adage about how it takes money to make money, it takes acquaintances to make acquaintances. It is a lot easier to meet people, for instance, if you are talking to someone and then a third party comes up to the person you are talking to and says hello. Ideally the other person will introduce you to the third person and voila! A newfound friend.

Well, that’s how it is supposed to work, anyway. Sometimes you find yourself having a conversation with someone and all the while you are trying to remember that person’s name. Take the other night, for example. I was having a conversation with a fellow I had met recently – at a networking event, naturally – but whose name I could not remember. As we were chatting a young lady walked up to me and called out, “Hey, Mr. Watt!” Panic City. I knew I knew the young lady but for the life of me I did not know from where. Given her relative youth and her use of “Mr. Watt” I had an inkling that she might be a former student, but I was not certain. I asked her clue-seeking questions like “how’re you doing?” and “what are you up to these days,” but her responses – “fine” and “not much” offered no helpful insight.

Then the real nightmare started because there was a pause in the conversation and I realized it was incumbent upon me to introduce the young lady to the fellow I was having the conversation with. It can be a little tricky, of course, introducing two people to each other without knowing either person’s name. Well, my predicament was short lived, and you might say it was Mother Nature to the rescue. In addition to being young, you see, the lady who approached me was also attractive. So the guy I was talking to originally was, shall we say, quite emphatic in making sure she knew his name. Interestingly enough the woman did not reciprocate with her name and it took me many hours of mental Rolodex flipping to finally figure out who she was. (She was indeed a former student from three or four semesters ago).

When all else fails, on the other hand, you can always rely on one of my favorite ways out of this scenario: the old, “You two know each other, right?” Of course they don’t but usually one will step up and say, “No, we don’t. I’m so-and so.” There are other perils to networking besides not remembering the names of the people you are conversing with. Many of these events revolve around food, for instance, and sometimes the food is even edible. You hate to do it but ya gotta eat. While there aren’t too many certainties in life, you can be damn sure the minute you put something gooey or chewy in your mouth, somebody you need to speak to will walk by. Your full mouth will prevent you from saying anything, however, lest you run the risk of having the first impression you make forever be associated with projectile food bits being shot out of your mouth as you speak.

Such is the life in the world of networking. The chow’s often free, but the price you pay can be horrific.

Thank you for reading this column. [2005-11-17]

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