Make Friends, Not Contacts

Posted: October 9, 2010 in Uncategorized

“Remember that it didn’t used to be called networking. It used to be called being alive and human and a social animal and having relationships.”

—Catherynne Valente  Twenty to One

When I was in college, I made very few friends.  I’m still not really sure why.  At the time I thought it was because I had somehow turning to some kind of horrible monster that no one would ever like, care about or even remember once I left the room.  Years later my main theory is that I was depressed, painfully shy, not doing so well in the self esteem department and I didn’t deal with it in the best ways.  Or they were all jerks.  I swing between both theories.

Ok, it was a combination of the two and probably a splazillion other factors.  BUT what didn’t help was the idea of “Networking.”  This was a new idea to me when I came to college.  My parent were not businessy people.  Whatever businessy skills or stories they had were not the ones discussed at the dinner table.  This idea was new.  It hit me hard.  It hit me fast.  It hit me repeatedly.

“Look around, ”  My teachers said.  “These are the people you will be working with for the rest of your life.”  The implication being that on top of getting my insane amount of schoolwork done and figuring out how to live on my own, I’d better make some fucking friends and make them fast because if I screwed this up MY LIFE WOULD BE OVER.

This was bullshit, of course.  The vast majority of theatre students don’t end up working in theatre.  And those that do are dispersed among the billions of other theatre professionals in this world.  It’s possible you’ll end up working with your classmates.  But it’s exceedingly more likely that you won’t.  (Especially if you end up being a burlesque performer.)  There are, like, three people from college who are a part of my professional world and only one of them is in a position to hire me.

The point is, this was added pressure that I did not need.  I didn’t have a fucking clue what networking was.  I wasn’t that clear on how to make friends.  In high school it was easy.  Walk over to some one, or a group of someones, who looked cool and ask if you could sit with them at lunch.  Problem solved.  But I went to a weird high school.  I didn’t know how adults made friends, let alone contacts.  I bumbled my way through it, doing a terrible fucking job,  trying to figure out who I SHOULD be friend with, and hating myself more and more because OMG EVERYONE HATES ME AND I’VE RUINED MY LIFE AND I’LL NEVER WORK IN THIS TOWN AGAIN!

Forgive the dramatics.  I was in theatre school.

But I graduated and things got better.  I made friends in bars, just by kind of hanging out and chatting with people or laughing at their jokes (and it didn’t hurt that I took my clothes off.  That’s a huge ice breaker.)  A friend coached me on how to get conversations going.  Eventually I gained some self esteem and I dated someone with a great amount of social dexterity who said to me “Just ask them out for dinner.”  And it worked!  They didn’t laugh at me or spit on me or call me horrible names or anything.    For whatever reason asking someone if you can eat near them is the way to cement human relationships.  There may be other ways but that’s the only one I’m really sure of.

Most importantly, I did this with out the pressure of “Networking.”  I talked to people because I wanted to talk to them.  I made dinner plans with them because I thought they were cool and felt confident that the two of us could sustain an interesting conversation for at least an hour or so.  I did this with people because I liked them.  Not because I thought they’d be useful to me.

I’ve seen people come into the burlesque scene looking to network.  (Not very many.  Thank god.)  At first they kiss everyone’s ass.  Then they figure out who they SHOULD kiss up to and they ignore everyone else.  These people don’t last long.  Often it’s because, friendly though most burlesquers are, a lot of them have pretty good bullshit detectors and they can tell when you genuinely like them or when you’re kissing ass.  But even more than that, it’s really exhausting to constantly be doing what you SHOULD be doing.  Ass kissing is hard work.  Figuring out who’s ass to kiss is also hard work and it’s really easy to get wrong.

The golden boys and girls I went to school with are now nowhere.  The ones who are doing well didn’t really fit in or have that many friends/contacts.  There’s no way to know where people will end up or who you SHOULD be friends with.

And here’s the thing:  I made friends with people I liked.  And now they hire me.  Or they refer me to jobs.  Or they help me with projects I’m working on.  Because they like me.  And I like them.  And it’s easy and fun and even when you’re working on something it doesn’t feel like work because the people you’re working with are so awesome.  Yes, it helps that I generally like people who are smart and talented and driven enough to get to places where they can help me.  But that’s not what I’m thinking when I start a conversation.  That’s not what I’m thinking when I ask someone to share food with me.  I’m thinking “Wow that person is cool.  And we have x,y and z in common.  Maybe they’d like to hang out with me and do or talk about x,y or z.”

Obviously you can’t have dinner with everyone you like ever.  If you know me and I have not asked you out to dinner, please don’t be offended.  But do let me know if you’d like to have dinner with me.  It is possible to have connections with people that may not be close but are still friendly; you say hi when you see them, make some small talk, if they need something, and you can help them, you do so.  Sure, you’re not BFFs but you’re still friends or at least friendly.  This should apply to, like, 90% of the people you know.  Why?  Because they’re all human beings and unless they’re total assholes, they deserve your respect and kindness.  Also, you never know when you might need them to help you and, trust me, people notice if you only talk to them when you want something.  They really, really, do.

I’m always worried about keeping that balance with people I’m not in touch with that often.  A good way to avoid being that jerk is, if you need to ask someone a favor and you think it’s been too long since you connected with them to ask a favor, try to come up with a way you can return the favor before you even ask for it. This is also a good idea for super big favors.  For example, a friend of mine is a professional photographer and there’s no way I can afford a shoot with him, but I had an idea for a project he would be perfect for, so I offered to barter some of my sewing skills for his photography skills.  I got awesome photos and he got awesome clothes, everyone is happy.  Another solution is to give them a nice present if they do the favor for you.  A large bottle of decent liquor is usually a good bet.  For smaller favors, buying someone a drink or a meal is good.  I always endorse giving presents, though I’m usually too broke to do so.  Still, if you’re really grateful, it’s worth spending the $20 to make sure they know.

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