Why Networking Sucks for Introverts (and one way I'm trying to fix it for us)

Networking can really suck for introverts. I know because I'm one of them. You're probably thinking, "Of course! Introverts are shy and have trouble with social interactions." However, introversion is much more complex and encompasses an overlapping spectrum of feelings. Here's my take on it:

In general, the terms "introvert" and "extrovert" describe social preferences, not social capabilities, and it's important to remember that there's nothing wrong with tending toward one side or the other. Both have advantages and disadvantages (many that you can overcome with practice or adrenaline).

Problems that Introverts Have with Networking

These observations stem largely from the software-related meet-ups I've attended in NYC (Hackers & Founders, Hadoop, Android, etc), so they may only be applicable to technically-oriented introverts.

1. Making small talk

"The weather sure is ____." When introverts hear this, we immediately disengage. It's a struggle for us to realize that a little upfront investment in small talk can lead to a great conversation. Small talk is all about finding something to have a deeper conversation about, but often times, introverts get stuck in small talk ruts or completely blank on what to talk about, leading to awkward pauses.

2. Inducing awkward pauses

I've been a party to plenty of awkward pauses, both on the "caused" and the "affected" side. Awkward pauses happen for two reasons: struggling with turn taking or blanking on what to talk about. Blanking on what to talk about can happen because introverts have other interesting ideas we're mulling or we've run out of conversation topics. In the past, I've thought about keeping notes on conversation topics, but it's pretty weird to see someone whip out a notebook in the middle of a conversation, so I haven't done it.

3. Politely leaving conversations of no interest

If an introvert can't get out of the small talk stage or genuinely has no interest in the person they're talking to (imagine getting stuck talking to a someone from a recruitment agency that snuck in to a MySQL meetup), the conversation is over. Time to escape.

The polite introverts needlessly stick with the conversation, trying to think of a way to break it off nicely. From personal experience, these dreaded conversations can last up to half an hour. All the while, you're catching bits and pieces of interesting conversations all around you.

The less polite introverts either have "I don't care" plastered across their faces or just walk away. I have seen both. The latter is much more entertaining.

4. Having group discussions instead of 1-on-1 conversations

If there's a type of conversation that introverts love, it's 1-on-1 conversations. It's nerdy, but it's great to get into an intellectual property debate with one other person. However, at most "networking events" it's tough to get a 1-on-1 conversation. Often times you're stuck with a group.

Introverts have a lot of trouble with group conversations. We feel like we can't get a word in - other people are always talking! We feel like we have to keep up with the main conversation and all the little side conversations that keep splitting off. And a lot of times, it's hard to even join a group conversation.

Joining a group conversation is hard because everyone already involved is participating in the conversation. It's hard for them to include someone who has just popped in. It sounds strange, but I've seen people walk up to a group conversation, stand there for 10 minutes, and then walk away without ever saying anything.

What I'm doing about it

I've resolved to help fix these problems for a subset of introverts in a subset of networking situations. I want to help software engineers, who are definitely more introverted than the general population, network to find jobs and meet companies. To accomplish this goal (and others - a subject of another post), I'm introducing Hirelite.com: Speed Dating for the Hiring Process.

At a Hirelite event, software engineers will go on 5-minute "speed interviews" with companies. Making small talk and creating awkward pauses will be less of an issue because the conversations will be short and focused on how each party can help the other. Starting new conversations and politely leaving conversations of no interest will be of little concern due to the 5-minute time limit and rotation to the next conversation. And group conversations will be minimized: one company (possibly two people) speaking with one software engineer.

Hirelite is having its inaugural event on March 16th in New York City. For this event, there is only space for 20 companies and 20 software engineers, so let us know early if you would like to attend.

17 responses
I really like your definition of introversion (there's only 10,000 of them out there) -- "energized by their own thoughts and actions" -- it has taken me a LONG time to realize what this really means -- for the longest time I always associated this with the leader/follower idea -- basically those who can't come up with their own thoughts are followers rather than leaders -- but I do recognize now that it's more of just how people react to their ideas versus other peoples ideas and does not necessarily mean that some people are inferior because they get their energy from other people instead

as an introvert you correctly point out that many of us can wax intellect for hours on end when it's a 1-on-1 but in group settings we don't achieve as well -- although as much disdain we might have for others who don't get as energized by their own thoughts -- we must remember that many extroverts are guilty of the same thing -- shunning us as shy or not worth anything -- I have carried that brunt quite a bit in my own life

There is also a guide to how to network that will explain to anyone (introverts included) why asking the question "how can I help you" puts you back in control and gives you a problem to solve: Work the Pond by Darcy Rezac, Co-authors Judy Thomson and Gayle Hallgren-Rezac, http:://www.workthepond.com.
To overcome all what is mentioned you need to watch Real Social Dynamics - The Blueprint, it's how to approach girls in different settings, with elements of "old thought patterns changing" by NLP, ~20 vids, there should be torrent
haha awesome post, Nathan! I thought we had a super awesome, non-awkward convo last night at the meetup, but, of course, it was a nerdy 1-on-1 convo just like you mentioned above.

And yes, I got totally trapped by a recruiter last night and couldn't escape! Even worse, the recruiter broke up another awesome conversation I was having with another startup person just to drag me away into useless-recruiter-convo-ville ugh. Any good strategies on disengaging?

I had to wait until someone offered the recruiter a Tandori chicken strip before using that as an excuse to jettison.

Well stated. This is a very clear outline of the difficulties that introverts have with networking. Too often, they give up on the process rather than work around their own preferences.

Extroverts have the same problem in that they have to fight their own nature in order to be great networkers. What? Extroverts are natural, perfect networkers. Heck no! They need to learn to shut up, haha, once in a while especially when talking to an introvert. It would make it a lot more comfortable for everyone. Extroverts need to slow down a bit and introverts need to push themselves to speak up.

Both types of networkers can learn from each other. I really appreciate your insight into the introvert side.

Beth Bridges
The Networking Motivator (tm)

Nice post, I relate to it. Thought I'd mention two things, that may be peculiar to me, that affect my conversational abilities.

1. I am slow to talk and tend not to interrupt (especially with people I don't know). I will form and build my thoughts before I speak in a group setting. One-on-one I am more spontaneous, but in a group setting there would have to be a significant pause (a few seconds maybe) before I'd make a contribution. Someone else has usually chimed in by the time I am ready to talk. Although, this characteristic reduces as the topic of conversation moves closer to an area in which I am competent.

2. Unless I am being particularly careful, I speak too fast and I mumble. This results regularly in what I say not being understood and either I get asked to repeat myself or have to see that awkward face on the listener as they try to decipher my garbled speech. As I've picked up on this over the years, I think I now tend to stop myself speaking to prevent such situations. However, speaking clearly is something I could (and should) practice.


Nothing special to add here, just thought I'd say I really, really love how well you've captured introversion - I can completely relate to everything you've written, from struggling with small talk to the difficulty experienced in group discussion. At the end of the day it doesn't change anything, but maybe when I feel awkward in the future I can point people at this blog and say "that's how it feels from my perspective!" :)
@cac that was a great conversation! In general, I learned to stick to the people wearing jeans. Disengagement methods: getting a new drink, dealing with an important email, and straight up saying "I see someone over there I want to talk to" (if it's a networking event, they'll understand)
Nice post, I can definitely relate as a fellow introvert.

You might be interested in this iPhone app called HappenOn: www.letshappen.com. It's an interesting way of finding common interests passively. I thought other introverts might like it, and it would definitely be useful in a business networking context.

What helped me thus far is learning how to crack jokes. Jokes that work for everybody, not just nerdy ones. Observe stand up comedians, especially on their pauses and how they deliver the climax. Humor is a really cool thing in social events, helps break the ice and can help you skip the small talk phase completely if mastered. I'm still struggling on it but when I get it right everything else flows beautifully.
Nathan you hit it on the nail as to how introverts are when we are trying to converse both in a 1 to 1 and group settings.

One of the best things that can help introverts and extroverts starting a conversation is to join Toastmasters. They have a Table Topics exercise in which you learn how to do impromptu speaking which is often what is required in starting off conversations. Toastmasters can often help introverts come out of their shell and to assist them in approaching new people and to join into group conversations and starting up new conversations in a 1 to 1 situation. It is essential for all situations that everyone get out of their own made box and push themselves out of their comfort zone if they are going to possibly meet their next new friend and great network acquaintances that can help one another in career opportunities.

I'm not to sure I like Suzanne's comment. Okay. I know I don't like it. I do understand the intent behind it though :)

Introverts do not need to "come out of their shell". It's not a shell we live in. The comment reads as if it's addressing shyness not introversion. Also, what a dubious term that comfort zone is, I do dislike it a lot - so buzzwordy :)

Unfortunately, we do exist in an extroverted world, where its tendencies are exonerated. Puts us at an unfair disadvantage and to move up in this world we sometimes have to play the extroverted game, which can be sooo draining.

Being this way is not really a preference though, it's hardcoded on our brains. Realizing this and what it entails are the first steps towards managing the social situation.

What I hate is when somebody hires someone who walks the walk and talks the talk, and then acts surprised when they find out they've hired a sociopath. When will people learn that you can't judge a book by the cover?

Networking sucks, period. Personally, I can't think of one instance when it actually worked.

Being an intovert even i feel the same and i'm happy to know that there are others out there who are just like me...
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