Here’s the scene. It’s a big open room with tables decked out in sterile white sheets. People named Caron and Mark linger in starched shirts and black skirts, holding their drinks in defensive formation. There’s a hum of noises. It’s not conversation, it’s too rigid. Sure, people are speaking but nothing is being said – benign platitudes are traded as empty currency. A lady with a nametag that reads Susan squawks, “Oh, you must meet Jim!” She doesn’t appear to be addressing anyone in particular – you shuffle your feet forward.
“Me?” you say, and before you know it you’re standing in front of a man named Jim who is apparently an Exceedingly Big Deal.
“What do you do?” he’s asking.
This is the curious modern ritual known as “networking”. “Networking” apparently involves feigning enthusiasm for people you don’t know and promising to meet up to do lunch. “Networking” is what we now call “conversation” if it involves human beings who work. “Networking” is everything that is terrible about modern life – it’s a life-draining, reality-skewing, lie-spewing moment of social charades. It’s Alan Sugar directing your entire life; it’s The Truman Show without the gags; it’s like living in the Big Brother house with only office workers. Someone else’s office.
Look at yourself talking to Jim the Manager. You’ve had a few drinks now. You’re feeling brave. Screw it, you think. You’re going to tell him about how much you love this brand of Norwegian shoe-laces made of recycled paper you’re about to launch. Your mouth is dry with excitement – you adore these shoe-laces, you’re saying. Jim’s nodding. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, spirals around in your head like a mantra.
You’re putting on a voice. You don’t know what it is. It certainly isn’t your voice. You’re putting on Jim’s voice, hoping he’ll like that. You sound like you were put in a washing machine with the entire cast of Eastenders. You’re saying the word “man” as a subordinate clause. You’re claiming you hate Coldplay, but you fucking love Coldplay and have seen them three times. You hate Coldplay, you say, as much as you love these shoe-laces.
Jim’s raising his eyebrows – he’s impressed by your candour. He says that. “I’m impressed with your candour.”
You’re shaking with the belief; your hands are sweating; your heart is racing. This is the big sell. “I believe in these shoe-laces,” you whisper with the intensity of a thousand suns, “I love these shoe-laces. These shoe-laces,” – you raise your hands as if you’re a doctor presenting a newborn – “are going to change the world.”
And, all of a sudden, you do believe it. You’re making a pact with the Devil, sure, but you’re enjoying it. Who cares if you’re pretending to be someone you’re not if it means job success. You are no longer you, but just another body in a line of endless bodies that stretches backwards and forwards through time, who all love these fucking shoe-laces.
You’re very down with that.
But what’s going on? Just moments before you entered this room you were a human-being, an individual with loves and hates, passions and desires. You spoke like you went to Bristol University and played hockey for the 3rds. Now you’re lisping and calling women “birds”. The opinions and topics of conversation you’re now happy to indulge in could rival Global Warming in their exceeding monotony.
Who are you? Why are you talking about shoe-laces? You’re boring yourself, you’re boring Jim (he keeps staring at Susan’s tits) – his eyes are slowly glazing over, he’s having flashbacks of the womb, the abyss is closing in around him, the more you talk about shoe-laces the more he too senses that life is meaningless, a darkness, an endless misery punctuated solely by elevator pitches and name cards, and changeable faces just like your own. He hates this too. He’s thinking to himself – Why am I nodding? Why am I here listening to this? I wonder when the last tube is?
And that’s what you’re thinking. We’re all thinking it actually, but we keep on playing the game because to break the rules here is worse than anything – to say openly that you hate networking is to admit what you have sacrificed to be here: independent thought.
Your life. Outside, you can be anything, but in here, at this networking event, you will be Mark, who has a mortgage (you don’t have a mortgage; you don’t earn enough for that), a person who exists primarily to repeat phrases like ‘let’s action that’ and cares deeply about integrated software solutions.
But networking is a part of life today, isn’t it? We can’t just be up-front with each other in these circumstances: we can’t actually be truthful, can we, and just say: “The only reason we’re here is so in the future I can email directly about a job. And also I am rather partial to free drinks, thank you, Jim.” That would be ridiculous. That would be absurd. That would be utterly abandoning modern etiquette. That would be an atrocious affront to society, that would be peeling back the curtain and telling the audience there’s a trap door where the pantomime villain hides.
So I’m sorry for ranting.
Let me start again. I love networking:
Hi, my name is Dave. I’d like to add you to my personal LinkedIn network.
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