It always feels good when you actually feel comfortable at a networking event. Rather than standing around awkwardly and pretending to receive urgent emails on your phone (What? The office blew up? Sky high! Well I never! I have to go right now…), you’re mixing and you’re mingling and you’re handing business cards to people with the same enthusiasm you usually reserve for “drop your business card here to win a free lunch” buckets.
And then you say something awkward. Or stupid. Or worse, straight-up offensive. Suddenly the vibe goes from “fun ’n friendly” to “back away slowly.” I know, because I’ve been there—on both sides of a networking conversation gone wrong. Now, instead of being remembered for a project you’ve discussed, or insight on recent industry news, you’re now known as the person who made everyone feel uncomfortable.
So, how do you avoid this in the future? A good first step is to stay far, far away from these topics:
1. Politics and Current Events
Look, I enjoy debating politics as much as the next person who loves getting outraged on Twitter. But, you truly never know where people stand on issues, and a professional event is not the place to find out. So many political issues and current events are so personal to people that it’s unlikely you’ll get through last night’s Jon Stewart bit without offending someone.
If the conversation starts to veer into that territory, and you know you often get heated over certain topics (or, like me, make exaggerated faces when disagreeing with someone), excuse yourself politely. Say you need to get a glass of water, or find an outlet to charge your phone, or use the restroom. Just remove yourself from the situation before you blurt anything out that you’ll regret.
2. Details About Your Personal Life
Often times, when networking conversation veers into the personal, dating, significant others, and single life does come up. I’m not suggesting that you clam up and shuffle away if someone asks if you’re in a relationship—that’s (obviously) weird. But I am saying that you should be careful to keep the chit-chat on the safe-for-work side of things. That means refraining from pulling out your phone to show off a perverted Tinder message you received. Or complaining about this weird thing your significant other tried to do the other night. Basically, anything that could be filed under “oversharing.”
There will always be those people who feel very (very) comfortable talking about these topics—and you should let them talk. If nothing else, it’s usually entertaining. However, you want to be remembered as the professional, upstanding person you are, and the best way to do that is to keep your personal life personal.
3. Work Complaints
Even if you love your job, you’re going to have those days when you leave the office feeling a little negative. That’s totally OK. What’s not as OK is showing up and venting about work to total strangers. While people will most definitely get where you’re coming from—again, everyone has those days—no one wants to listen to it. One, it’s boring to hear about a stranger’s problems with the shared office printer. Two, you’re there to extend your professional network, which means putting your best foot forward and presenting yourself as a person who’s worth getting to know. And—spoiler alert—the person ranting about a conference room mix-up is not in that category. (Imagine how a future introduction would go: “Hey Karen, meet Jim. He, um, hates the way his office assigns conference rooms. Also I think he has a thing about printers.”)
So, if you find yourself in one of those moods before a networking event, take a moment for yourself after leaving the office. Inhale deeply a few times, scroll through social media, text your friend who always makes you laugh, go on a walk—basically, do whatever you need to do to enter the venue in a positive mood.
4. Things You Find Stupid
You hate cats with a burning passion. In fact, you think they’ve single-handedly ruined the internet. And you know what? That’s a great discussion topic for a dinner party with your friends. Or, better yet (for your poor friends), your Facebook status. It’s not, however, appropriate to bring up when you’re networking. Because, here’s the thing: What you may find stupid, someone else may love. And by putting it out there that you think something’s trivial or wrong or “OMG, the worst,” you’re taking the risk of offending someone—even if you’re only kidding. Trust me on this one: Saying “C’mon, it was only a joke” never works.
It’s better to avoid your jokes and complaints and instead bring up subjects that you can discuss positively. The more enthusiastic you are about something, the more likely you are to engage with other people and attract their attention. Even if they’re aren’t as obsessed as you are about the topic, they’re going to want to learn more about why it makes you so excited.
5. How Drunk You Are
Often times, you’ll go to networking events where the alcohol’s free-flowing. And that’s great—I think we can all agree that open bars make talking to strangers so much easier. But it also makes the evening a lot more dangerous, because it’s incredibly easy to go from “I’m just having one drink” to “Excuse me bartender, do you have anything harder than wine?” While you should most definitely refrain from drinking too much, you should also refrain from ever announcing the status of your sobriety. This isn’t college, and no one’s impressed by the person who is “soooo drunk” right now.
The second you find yourself even thinking this, it’s time to excuse yourself from the event and go home. Best way to avoid having to leave early? Don’t get drunk. Only you know your limits, so only you can be the person to say “no, thank you” when someone asks if you want a refill.
Contrary to popular belief, networking can be a lot of fun. It doesn’t have to be an uptight and formal affair where you’re forced to talk about how exciting synergy is and why upcoming strategic opportunities at your company bode well. However, casual conversation can be a slippery slope, and it’s easiest to avoid saying the wrong thing by simply avoiding certain topics. Instead keep it positive, fun, light, and ideally, unrelated to your ex.