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Being social at a distance

Being social from a distance
Being social from a distance

Social situations have always been problematic for me (see previous blog post – Social Anxiety & The Networking Event), not least in a business context, so it was with some trepidation that I set out for my marketing referral event on Wednesday the 14th. As things turned out, everything went well on the day and I even learnt something very interesting – that I was by no means the only one in the room who was nervous about these sort of business events.

A fellow attendee said that it was a massive effort for her to come to them too, even though the particular event is fortnightly and she’s been to loads of them. She went on to say that it’s even harder to find the motivation to attend for someone who’s a reluctant networker AND self-employed as there isn’t a Manager or boss to compel you to go! I was surprised to hear this coming from someone who outwardly seemed very confident in that environment, but also heartened by the fact that I was by no means alone in my unease about having to actually talk to people.

Aspergers & social anxiety

As an Aspergers (Aspie) male, I often find social situations very difficult. I’m not alone in this. Fellow Aspie and Staffordshire resident Paddy Considine used to stay in bed rather than face the day, and hide under the table when there was a knock on the door. Speaking to people was all too much.

There are many unwritten social rules that people without an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) seem to learn and put into practice instinctively. As these rules are unwritten, people with an ASD often have to work hard at learning them, and they can be confusing. Add in an Aspie’s fear of being anything less than perfect, worries about being judged negatively by others, and the feeling of dread about having to step outside our comfort zone into the mix too, all making the perceived lack of social skills and the inability to “fit in” and “mingle” a cause of much anxiety. Sometimes it’s an achievement to even get out of the door! Even if an Aspie appears to be doing well in a social situation, it could be that it’s taking so much effort on their part that they are eventually and inevitably going to crash. Hopefully this will be behind closed doors once they’re home and are able to “decompress”, but sometimes spectacular ‘meltdowns’ happen in public.

Networking for people who hate networking – business situations & social anxiety

Meltdowns are bad for all concerned at the best of times, but especially so when it happens in front of your work colleagues or potential clients.

I’ve shown my face at work functions only to flit ghost-like around the room, not say a word to anybody or be noticed by anyone, make for the door and then beat a hasty retreat to the sanctuary of my hotel room. The fact that I wasn’t missed as all of the extrovert Neurologically Typical (NTs) “had fun” spoke volumes.

I mentioned ‘Networking for People Who Hate Networking’ by Devora Zack (Berrett-Koehler, 2010) in my previous blog post, Social Anxiety & The Networking Event, and that book could just as well have been called ‘Networking for Aspies’. In fact, there are many other books on Aspies and business, as a quick Google search on the topic shows. We’re a niche and captive market. Such business luminaries as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are (suspected to be) Aspie too.

Why is it that Aspies fear social situations yet often excel at social media? Being social at a distance

All this leads me to ponder the key question at the heart of this blog post – why is it that Aspies fear and loathe social situations so much yet often excel at and revel in social media? In other words, being social at a distance.

Sherri Schultz, AKA Pensive Aspie, says in her blog post on Aspies and Social Media:

Online communities allow Aspies to make friends – real friends – for maybe the first time in their lives without the stress of being socially correct.  Being online removes the stress of eye contact, correct posture, correct tone and appearance.  You can sit in your favourite ratty pyjamas and make a friend without ever having to brush your hair or put on shoes… No painful conversations trying to find some mutual connection. No internal dialogue about remembering eye contact or not standing with your arms [folded]. There is safety behind the screen.

This also applies to the business sphere. In other words, you can just be you without having to concentrate on being you (or the more business-y version of you), whilst working from home wearing an old, comfy sweatshirt and joggers or remain safely ensconced in your bullpen cubicle in the far back corner of your open plan office floor.

In real life social situations, the back and forth of conversation doesn’t give you much time to process what someone has said to you and formulate an answer. If I pause during conversation to think about what I’m going to say next someone else often jumps in and fills the gap. It’s not an awkward silence, and I’m not lost for words, I’m thinking what I’m going to say next! I find it really irritating when I’m not allowed to finish what I’m trying to say, and I often come away from those sort of one-sided conversations feeling angry and frustrated.

You don’t have to react and reply instantaneously with social media. You have time to read someone’s Tweet or Facebook post, absorb and process it, then come up with a well-honed reply. We’re usually good with the written word you see, and we can delete and re-write our Tweets or posts before we hit the Enter button. You can’t rewind and re-phrase an actual verbal conversation.

Is social media killing the art of conversation?

However, some people think that Social Media is actually killing the art of conversation.

bunnies rabbiting
Social Media is killing the art of conversation

If you use Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, everybody already knows everything there is to know about you. That sailing trip you took? Liked. Breaking up with your girlfriend? Replied to on Twitter. All these over-sharing, always-on social networks create situations where there’s nothing left to talk about! [Shoebox Blog via Neatorama]

So, what’s the answer? Perhaps there’s a third way. If you know it, feel free to Tweet it to me; or, alternatively, arrange a 1-2-1 and we’ll have an actual real life, face-to-face chat. If I can make it out of the front door, that is.

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Social Anxiety & the Networking Event

Networking
Business Networking – blah blah blah

I hate networking. There, I’ve said it.Perhaps you love it? Good for you. Can’t say the same. Perhaps you hate it too? In which case, welcome brother, welcome sister. We’re all friends here. Read on.

Aspergers, Social Anxiety, Business & the need for Networking

I have Aspergers Syndrome, and the Social Anxiety that goes with it. I’m fine with social media interaction, quite good at it in fact (even if I do say so myself). But, I find it hard to make small-talk in real life with people I don’t know.  I can handle 1-2-1s and small groups where I can hear myself think. I’m able to process what’s being said and formulate an answer with no problem at all. However, a large room full of extroverts is my idea of hell. I hate the noise levels, how far out of my comfort zone I feel, and I’m envious of the way extroverts make it look so easy.

I’m also freelance self-employed, with the need to attract new business and keep clients onboard. Given the need to actually sell my professional services to other people (so to speak) participating in networking and related events is a necessary evil. But how do I reconcile the business need to do it with my fear of social situations, especially networking events?

Events & the ‘6 P’s’

I’ve been invited to a popular Staffordshire-based marketing referral event on Wednesday. It’s not networking as such, but, you know, same ballpark. I’ve ordered 250 spot laminated business card to hand out whilst I’m there and I’ve paid in advance for my lunch and refreshments. How I’m going to manage to eat as well as interact with people I don’t quite know but I’ll get back to you on that one (update: with difficulty. Hint: you might want to get your money’s worth, but don’t overload your plate with food if you plan on talking to people as well)!

On top of the effort of actually attending an event where I’ve got to speak to people, I’m expected to stand up and give a 60 second presentation to a room full of people I don’t know about myself and my business. Horror of horrors!

The Scream - fear of the networking event
The Scream – fear of the networking event

Now, I’m very aware of the ‘6 Ps’:

Prior Preparation Prevents P**s Poor Performance

and that “failure to prepare is preparing to fail” so I’m going to do all I can over the next few days to get my presentation nailed down. Plus, you know, it could be worse… I could have to talk about myself for 2 minutes, or 5 minutes…

The third thing I did after booking my ticket for the event (1), and designing and ordering my 250 business cards (2), was to head for the bookcase and dig out my copy of ‘Networking for People Who Hate Networking‘ by Devora Zack (Berrett-Koehler, 2010). I interviewed Devora on the topic of her book and advice for introverts in business around the time that the book was published. The interview is still available here – albeit a subscription is required.

What does a book about networking & the film Kung Fu Panda have in common?

Just as the Dragon Scroll in Kung Fu Panda contains the secret to “limitless power”

You will never be the Dragon Warrior until you have learned the secret of the Dragon Scroll

– the book seems to hold the key to networking for the introverted, the overwhelmed and the under-connected. In fact, (spoiler alert) just as the Dragon Scroll is actually blank – very Zen

Kung Fu Panda Dragon Scroll
The secret of the Dragon Scroll

– the book tries to equip the reader with the tools he or she needs to navigate the networking minefield. There is no secret, no magical formula, just you yourself with hopefully a better understanding of introverts and extroverts once you’ve reached the end of the book. Lest you think that the book promises much but delivers little, it really doesn’t. There are many useful and practical networking hints and tips contained within it, I refer you back to the ‘6 Ps’, and it also offers a valuable insight into Devora’s own personality – one that as an Aspie I can readily identify with.

Devora states, towards the end of the book:

A sure way to fail is to pretend to be someone you are not. This sounds obvious, yet it is a path many of us attempt in vain. An enormous factor in successful networking is being comfortable with who you are and putting your best self out there.

And there’s the rub. Once you understand this you will become the Dragon Warrior of networking.

More Networking tips – 9, to be exact

Lydia Ramsey covers a lot of the same ground as Devora and gives us a fair few handy tips in her blog post on the same subject:

Here are a few tips to help you deal with the fear of networking and turn each one of these events into a profitable experience.

  1. Understand what networking is not. It is not about seeing how many hands you can shake or how many business cards you can collect.
  2. Understand what networking is. It is an opportunity to connect with people and build your business relationships.
  3. To be a successful networker, you need to know who will be attending the event. If you can’t get names, at least know which organizations will be represented.
  4. Plan in advance what you will talk about. Have specific topics in mind for those people whom you plan to see.
  5. Be prepared with a least three subjects you can discuss with anyone, whether they are strangers or people whom you already know. The best way to do this is to be up to date on current events. If you can’t make conversation, you can’t make connections.
  6. Listen more than you talk. People enjoy talking about themselves so give them the opportunity. You will learn more by listening, and the people you meet will think you are a great conversationalist.
  7. Arrive on time so you can become comfortable with the venue and be able to meet people as they arrive. If you join an event already underway, it will be more difficult to join conversations.
  8. Have plenty of your business cards with you and have them readily accessible. The person who has to fumble for a business card appears unprepared and unprofessional.
  9. Have a follow up plan for those people with whom you’d like to create or maintain a business relationship. As soon as you get back to your office, look at those business cards and decide whether you want to call someone, send an email or invite a person to lunch.

The successful networkers always attend events with confidence and assurance. They have a plan of action and a goal of growing their business by connecting with people face to face. Social media is no substitute for a personal encounter.

So, there you have it. I’m going back to preparing for Wednesday now. I’ll post on how it went at the tail end of next week. ‘Til then, happy networking.

Update: the follow-up blog post is now live – Being social from a distance