advice · emotional labour · heavy-handed metaphors

Least important person in the room

Have you read the advice? The one for the start-of-year mixers, the meets-and-greets, the orientation events for undergraduates and graduate students? The one for faculty events, and conferences? You know, the advice that encourages everyone to seek out the least important person in the room to talk to?

Of course, no one is really “unimportant.” Obviously. But the idea is that those with less … power? cultural capital? who are new to the area/program/position? have a hard time breaking into social circles or even conversation at these kinds of events. And it is the duty of the better established to ease the path of social inclusion with chit chat about home towns or yoga or how to get a photocopier password.

I’ll bet that what you’re thinking right now is: but that’s me! I’m always the loner off to the side, wishing I was at home watching Community on Netflix in my pyjamas with my dog and a scotch launching witticisms into  the friendly atmosphere of Facebook!

I know that that’s my problem. I go to faculty events, for example, and what I want to do is, first, make a beeline for the bar to muster my courage. (Hey, I’m just being honest. It’s that or the cheese tray and the gin has fewer calories and a better effect on my wit.) Second, I want to find someone I already know just so that I have somewhere to purposefully walk to, and thus can avoid standing alone fruitlessly scanning the room, chin aloft, face anxiously expectant. Shudder. Third, I want to catch up with that someone, because I probably haven’t seen them for awhile. Or if I have seen them recently, they’re probably a close friend, and there’s always something fun to talk about with my close friends. What we’ll probably talk about is how awkward we feel at this social event: we will commiserate about our loner-misfititude or some such. What I am always trying to do is grab a lifeline out of a sea of sharklike social awkwardnesses: standing by myself while drinking, trying to make eye contact with anyone, aiming to insinuate myself into a conversations that’s already going strong between two people who aren’t looking at me. Oh god. The awful. But is it?

I’m going to also bet that, actually, the social disaster of cringing shyness you see in your head was you a couple of years ago, and that you’ve got more power than you think. Not least the power to make that social event a little less awkward for someone newer / younger / more tenuous / completely lost than you are.

It has recently occurred to me that what this looks like to others is that I am ensconced in a group of people with tenure, laughing loudly at in-jokes about department happenings from five years ago, blasting an aura of belonging and exclusion. Or when I’m at DHSI, it looks like all the instructors forming a closed circle, because we stopped accepting new friends around the time the semantic web became Web 2.0. Or when I’m at a national conference, it’s the clique from my graduate program hanging tight.  I mean, I feel like Cady Heron, but I look like Regina George. Uh-oh.

It turns out that lots of people are surrounded by many more sharks than I am. And it turns out that sometimes I am the lifeline. I mean, by this point, I actually do know a lot of people most places I go. These things shouldn’t scare me so much: I mean, it’s not 1997–I’ve been doing these things for 15 years, if you want to count from that first faculty / student mixer in my MA year. So even though I still feel just as insecure and adrift in that shark-filled sea as I ever did, I’m forcing myself to leap off the lifeboat of friends and peers, into the ocean of strangers.

Am I getting salt water up my nose? Yes. I say dumb things. I bore some people. I make unsuccessful attempts to introduce two people to one another. I forget names. I repeat stories. Some of my jokes fall flat. But my swimming is also getting stronger: I ask questions to draw people out, I remember what they tell me when we meet again, I offer words of encouragement to those who need them, and I laugh at everyone’s jokes.

I’m not going to lie to you: I still find it a lot easier to talk to people I already know, and that is probably always going to be my inclination whenever I walk into a room full of people standing up and wearing name tags. But with practice, this kinds of mingling gets easier. I’m meeting really nice people, and, bonus, they sometimes look really glad that I’ve come over to talk to them. And that’s pretty much the payoff for me: making someone else’s experience of these kind of events a little more pleasant, a little less scary.

How about you? Do you skip these events? Relish them? Are you the shark or the bait? What are your coping strategies?

2 thoughts on “Least important person in the room

  1. I go to a conference every year (a small-ish group of feminist scholars of German lit) and we hash and re-hash this issue every couple of years. Yes–our organization has an excellent track record of taking in and mentoring graduate students on their way to professorship and beyond (look at my recommendation letters and tenure file!) but we also hang w/those who came in the same time we did, our peers from grad school or other trenches. It's a fine line to walk between playing Old Home Week and really reaching out to those who could be the new best old networking pal.
    My solution: I try to make one new real contact during the conference w/someone who is more junior than I am. It's great to hear about what others are doing and discover that I have tips, tricks, and names to share.


  2. Thanks for this . . . I dread these events, even though I seem to be very lively (it's merely an act). I can use all the advice I can get about these things :s I try to talk to everyone, and flit in and out of groups (including international students and new MAs), but I am pretty well known for saying the wrong thing(s). Maybe someday I'll make it through an event without offending anyone. Come to think of it, that really is my goal–I'm still very very new so I like to think there is hope for me yet.


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