Eating is the best thing you can do at a conference by yourself, and I was busying myself with a third piece of skewered steak when he passed for a third time.
Alone at corporate networking events I charitably, vulnerably, meet more eyes than I would ever do in any other setting. Dismally, you have to be prepared to greet other solo bystanders at the slightest upturn of a mouth. Mouthful of steak notwithstanding, I nodded.
The "summit" setting runs on absolute artifice. If you meet somebody's eye on their first lap of a room, and again on their second, the person has some unenumerated right to be greeted as if he was an acquaintance on the third. This is how I ended up speaking to TR about golf in Ireland.
What else would the conversation have been about? To your suggestions, no. Not with a badge that reads "Siobhán".
TR made allegations about his being connected to Roscommon. "Wow," I replied. The conversation continued unremarkably. A small woman with an inflamed nose joined us. She worked for a financial printer and thirstily dealt us some business cards.
Do you know what a financial printer is? A company that prints documents for other companies. I drained what was left of my red wine and walked out onto Third Avenue.
A convention of the convention, it is said, is to send an e-mail to everybody you encountered within 24 hours of the encounter. It's "networking", and it's hateful. I like writing e-mail, but I don't like or feel remotely encouraged by writing something as devoid of spirit or authenticity as:
Siobhán Brett here, we met last night at [NAMED EVENT].
Thanks for taking the time to [A VERSION OF: politely but conspicuously assess what professional advantage I might be capable of conferring on you or your organization while parting with an incredibly limited amount of information that might be useful to me].
Great meeting you. I regularly cover themes and situations related to [NAMED SECTOR OR SUB-SECTOR]. Perhaps see you at [upcoming event of a similar complexion alluded to briefly during original meeting]. We should certainly keep in touch.
I sent a handful of these dry nothings on Thursday morning after attending the M&A conference. Replies to these messages are rare, highlighting something obvious: the message is redundant. Potentially you will receive a response from a employee of financial printer, or a 23-year-old law firm intern who has no friends in New York.
By including the recent college graduate and the printing shill to a list or recipients that on a good day might include a hedge fund manager or a director of a wealth management arm at an investment bank, you are tacitly acknowledging the near-total meaninglessness of the note. I received an e-mail from TR within three minutes.
I will trump you. How about a drink this evening to really delve into all the wonderful people I can get you to interview?!!
Also, we can discuss interesting content and current trends in the marketplace.
Let me know.
During my time as a reporter in Ireland, my meetings with sources and interviewees took place in a limited number of venues: the hotel lobby, the vacant office boardroom, the innocuous city centre café.
The rigidity with which this small set of options was depended on extended to the timing of the meetings themselves. I cannot, for example, recall ever meeting anybody after 4pm.
(In August 2012, I was detained for longer than usual at the offices of a spread betting company in the IFSC, an instance memorable only because I was forced to watch Katie Taylor's Olympic final fight on a bockety swivel chair in the company of ~30 men.)
In New York City, it quickly became evident, the arrangements made between journalist and source or subject are not at all characterised by their sameness. The "grabbing" of a drink in the evening is a done thing. In Dublin, I would have baulked at TR's message and told the girls who shared my desk. The evening drink, for my first four professional years, was reserved solely for consumption among friends and colleagues.
A note on TR's appearance. I would have put him at precisely 66. He is 59. There is a very limited amount of white hair remaining. Large, rectangular front teeth. The same proportions, loosely, as W.V. Awdry's Sir Topham Hatt. A reddishness in the face, a long, even nose. An unusual sheen to the eyes, allowing them to be very black and flickering bright at the same time. I regret I didn't bother to try to interpret this particular feature prior to agreeing to the meeting.
Red flags: three minutes; "trump"; immediate availability without giving a reason for it. (I abandoned a perfectly good plan in order to manage the meeting. Please log this second regret.) "Content". This word has no meaning.
In his second e-mail, TR put forward the Harvard Club of New York City (West 44th Street between Lexington and Fifth Avenue) as the meeting place. He referred to it so: "at my Harvard club".
I left the office at 6pm that evening, bought a pair of shoes, and discarded the ones I had worn to work. I took a train uptown. The doormen at the Harvard Club paid no heed to my shoes. TR was late. The hold-up happened at another bar, I would learn.
He clocked me in the armchair I was waiting in as he arrived. He exchanged some words with a doorman, and, without looking at me, extended his right arm straight in my direction and opened and closed his right hand. It was the kind of motion that often accompanies "blah, blah, blah". It was awkward, a performer's entrance, and I thought so at the time. It was a textbook example of the studied unconcern favored by people who are in fact rather concerned about where they are and what they are about to do.
At TR's suggestion, we first completed an uncomfortable lap of the dining hall. It was a relief to take a seat at small table off the bar, closer to the fixed and familiar setting I outline above, removed, stable, and ever-so-slightly adversarial. For a limited time, these elements restored a sense of normalcy to the occasion.
"Networking", I have been led for years to believe, is a practice that can -- if effectuated -- yield a variety of special dividends and fresh fruits: new work; new jobs; new friends; money; names to drop in the dire circumstance where you are in need of a name to drop; a sense of improved influence; and arcane information with titillating potential energy.
In recent years, I have been forced to "network" in two different ways. In the first way, as myself.
I have e-mailed strangers and asked them to go to lunch with me.
Attended, more than once, breakfast at the office of the Irish consulate (and engaged both times in uncontrolled exchanges with fourth-generation Irish Americans who run jumped-up nationalist organizations).
Traipsed long distances to listen to panels agonize over the future of journalism, eat between four and five cookies, and leave with between two and three business cards belonging to people in the same hapless and professionally dissatisfied position as I.
The lunches can be good, ponderous and optimistic. I have explored an array of possibilities over sandwiches and bowls of pasta (once, the possibility of embedding myself in a delegation of property developers on a trip to Ecuador, before reluctantly determining it ethically unsound), and learned about salaries, dynasties, and unusual personal affinities.
The fruits of the consulate breakfast can be good, generally in the form of a brown bread slice, the fleeting return a forgotten slang term, or a short period of time during which, back turned on the windows that give on to Midtown East, I get this bizarre but enjoyable sense that I am in a Dublin boardroom.
The bare-faced "networking events" for individuals seeking ______ can be good, bestowing me with a warped sense of productivity and bravery. All of these can instill in me a sense, as I flee each, that I am one closer to an exciting karmic dividend.
In all cases, this is just that: a sense.
The second way I have "networked" is as a reporter.
To my mind, there is only one way in which this works. Lanyard lassoed around neck, you step into a room alone and with no fixed purpose. In America, your name-tag (bad enough) is often bequeathed an extra indignity: a narrow strip of rosette-grade plastic embossed with the letter PRESS, in gold.
The number of cards gleaned at the nominal professional-networking-event is record-breaking each time. It seems to me a fascinating example evolution. The people at these events are increasingly skilled at, in one fell motion, accepting your card and dispensing theirs. More than once I have continued limply outstretching what I believe to be my own card, only to discover that the cards have already been exchanged. Career pickpockets and magicians at children's parties across the world are capable of less.
When I started covering mergers and acquisitions in New York, I knew nothing and nobody. The networking events I attended in that capacity were desperate fishing expeditions on my behalf. Dressed in black, cards in hand, I floated with unclear intent around each pool of "delegates".
It was the combination of an unfamiliar environment and the remote promise of some important information, news, or other enlightenment that caused me to set aside years of cynicism and meet with TR.
During our meeting, he:
- insulted my shoes
- asked whether I would attend months of formal dinners as his date
- interrogated me about past relationships and sexual history
- said I reminded him of the "chaste Catholic girls" who attended Notre Dame when he did
- assessed my "figure"
- suggested we go running together in Central Park
- suggested we holiday together in Canada
- told me I needed to "relax", many times
- asked if he was making me "uncomfortable", many times
- removed his tie in an exaggerated fashion
- drank three glasses of wine to my 0.75
- laughed at every question pertaining to finance or the markets
The meeting went on for too long, I let it. Four minutes, of course, would have been too long. Prolonging it out of manners, out of fear, I asked myself: is this what people do? Is this...source development? Is this one of the 27 stages of "networking"? For how long must you subject yourself to a barrage of overtures laughable and sickening at once before you get to the point? What point?
I left, although not with the public expression of high rage I dream of for myself. I was followed onto the street, and loudly -- too late, these decibels -- refused TR's offer to pay for my cab.
The following day I received a text that read: "When is our second date?". Months later, after 11pm on Thanksgiving weekend, I received a text that read: "Who is this?".
A month after that, TR caught me languidly spearing cheese cubes at the sidelines of some fucking symposium or other, and upbraided me for not replying.
"I've been busy," I said with a very small smile, a smile the cousin of a grimace, an uncoated-paracetamol-tablet-dissolving-in-each-cheek smile. "Oh, I've been busy, too!" TR exclaimed, pivoting to look me square in the face, instantly setting aside his irritation over the ignored messages.
"Buildin' that nest egg so I can spend my retirement wooing young women!"
"Networking" is a marketed construct and a profiteering racket.
Everybody "networking" at "networking events", with the possible exception of the organizer, is a desperate fisherman. The fish sought differs in each case. Nobody wants your fish. Nobody has the fish you need.
The desperation for whatever the corporate conference attendee's end is is so intense and complete, feels to the attendee so distant and singular, that he cannot come up with a way to it, or towards it, and so parts with both a large fee arrived at by a marketing professional in orbit, and a half a day, or a day (in some cases, four, five) of his time.
Conferences and trade shows are exercises in selling, purely, and, it follows, full of people embarrassing themselves, and harrowing to be at. A "summit" is particular blend of gentle but insipid bullshit. A "forum", which masquerades more energetically as having a purpose, is even worse.
It is a further appalling feature of these events that their cost is normally onerous for the paying bracket of attendees who, blind, tripping on whatever noxious Kool-Aid served, believe they can access some inspecific value by placing themselves there.
They may not encounter TR, although I can't promise that. I can promise them that they're not going to arrive at anything else, either.