Navigating Awkward Networking Situations

Lea Alcantara

There are a lot of books and articles that explain the benefits of networking and ways to handle yourself during an event. However, what's lacking (or at least isn't emphasized) are tips on how to gracefully handle awkward situations. Some of the main reasons people avoid events or anything with the word "network" in it is mostly due to to fear of The Awkward Situation™.

Even me! I've gone to and spoken at my share of conferences, groups and networking events. But despite all that experience, I've committed my share of faux pas when meeting someone new in a new environment. And so I offer you my Top Awkward Situations—all of which I have been guilty of—and my humble suggestions on how to deal with them.

Awkward Situation 1: Food and Drink Get in the Way

  • Problem: OMG, free food and beer! Great, right? Except when crumbs are dribbling down your chin, and maybe the beer is loosening your tongue a bit too much. Or maybe this is happening to the person you're talking to! What now?
  • Solution: Make sure whatever you're holding—whether food or drink—fits in one hand. That allows you to have the other free for handshakes. If you're really hungry, go grab the free food and place it down on a table to make it as easy as possible to always have a hand free to brush away food crumbs.

    If it's the other person juggling food, offer to take their plate for them and put it down, so their hands are free. e.g. "Here, let me get that for you."

    As for drinks, give yourself a limit and stick to it. Yes, it may be free, but tell yourself one is enough and have non-alcoholic beverages for the rest of the night. You will thank yourself later.

    If you think someone else has had a bit too much to drink, casually offer to get them a glass of water so they don't get dehydrated and have a headache the next day—both true statements, and it's a polite way to get them on the right track.

Awkward Situation 2: Being Monopolized

  • Problem: Sometimes you find someone at a conference and really hit it off. You get into a deep conversation that leads to another, then another… Before you know it, you realize that you've only spoken to one person the entire evening. You want to be able to chat with others, but you don't want to be rude to the person you're currently speaking to.
  • Solution: Start moving. Often times, you can use the bathroom or even the food table as excuses to start moving. This doesn't mean you just bolt while offering these excuses. Definitely suggest that they follow you, especially if they are an interesting person. This prevents them from feeling like you're brushing them off, because you're not.

    Another suggestion is to find someone else to introduce them to and explain what the two of you were just talking about. This gives you a way for them to continue their conversation without abandoning them, and now you've included someone new. The new third person will also add to the conversation and give you someone new to talk to, or you can safely leave because you haven't just up and left the other person behind with no one else.

Awkward Situation 3: Forgetting that Person's Name

  • Problem: You've met this person. You've interacted with them, even dined with them. You follow them through social media! But for whatever reason—man, that conference was long and you're brain dead—and now you're blanking! (Not gonna lie, this has happened to me several times.)
  • Solution: The first thing I do is try to look up their name via social media. People are used to others checking their phone in the middle of an event, and you could do so quietly with no one the wiser.

    Or, if you don't follow them on social media, ask them what their handles are or how to spell their last name! They usually, naturally, provide their full name.

    Lastly, just cop to it. In the end, if you forgot their name, just say you're having a "brain fart" and be done with it. Apologize with a smile, explain you're bad with names (true!) and ask for their name. No one should take offence.

    People have called me "Leila" or "Lee-yah" enough times. It's not a big deal. Make it into a conversation and joke!

In the end, we're all human and awkward situations happen. For me, it takes a bit of conscious effort to navigate through social situations because not all audiences and environments or even moods are the same! Even bringing up the same topic at a different conference can have different reactions due to the culture of the city you're in, or what level of technical knowledge someone has. With all these variables in play, it's easy to forget about checking for crumbs on your chin.

Hopefully these strategies I've evolved for handling my Top Awkward Situations will help you navigate networking landmines at the next event you attend! 

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