Say you were out at a summery corporate function, doing the schmoozy thing, and quite without warning - right beside the veggie dip - you found yourself talking to the Big Cheese.
You start to chitchat. You keep it light. He asks about your kids. And you tell him their ages, what you might do as a family in July. Brevity is the watchword. He nods, says how very nice. You ask about his family too. And so it goes back and forth for a minute or two, a playful volley of personal information.
Now admit it. The exchange makes you feel pretty good. Not just when you're conducting it, but afterwards. Actually, it makes you feel a little euphoric. You go home feeling a little more optimistic about your career, about the better cubicle you might score, about your future earnings and the likelihood of your glorious ascendancy in the corporation. You walk a little taller. This is networking! you think. This is going to lead somewhere! I have a connection with the boss!
Networking, we're told, is the elixir of success. It's what everyone must do to get ahead. "It's about who you know" goes the adage. Which explains why many parents send their children to expensive private school. They're thinking not just of their education, but about the connections that might serve them in their adult years. And in the era of social networking, "we're made to think that networks are even more important," comments Nicole Haggerty, associate professor in information systems at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.
But is networking all it's cracked up to be? It works in many instances, sure. Some people get appointments not entirely on merit - welcome to the world. There is such a thing as an Old Boys network - and increasingly an Old Girls network. It helps to know what's going on in your industry - information you can only get by talking to others, and that in turn can lead to opportunities. Also, the ease of social networking gives you access to novel information. "What your friends know is generally what you know," says Ms. Haggerty. "The connection to passing acquaintances [on social networks]can create greater complexity in your understanding" of issues related to work and life, she adds.
But could it be that the urge to go about connecting to others, through glad-handing or schmoozing or Facebooking, is simply a refection of insecurity? And could it be that whatever security you do get from it is false?
You have 1,000 contacts on your Linked In profile, and you feel like you're a mover and shaker. Hey, even that Important Banker Guy accepted your invitation to link with you! You have 800 friends on your Facebook account, and you feel that you're part of a golden community. They pay attention to your status updates, to how you're feeling that day, hour, minute! Gosh, even a leading politician will listen to you, should you invite him to. Hundreds are following you on Twitter.
Sure, it satisfies the ego, but is it meaningful?
"The biggest question is how many [contacts]are too many?" says Ms. Haggerty. "I think there's a bit of trophy-hunting going on out there. The perception is that the more I have, the better off I am. But they're only valuable if you make use of them, and we have only a limited amount of time to devote to the management of 'friendships,' " she points out.
Frankly, I sometimes feel a bit of "friend" ennui. What is one to do to satisfy all those virtual friends, those followers? It can be a burdensome responsibility to be connected to them. After all, if they're interested enough to want to be your "friend," then you somehow feel obligated to keep them interested in you, to post something of value, to share a good tweet. And would they really help in a crisis?
Let's be honest about the schmoozy face-to-face thing too. It can feel downright transactional. You're being a sycophant, there in your nice suit by the veggie dip. You're interested in your boss only in so far as the acquaintanceship has a possible benefit for you.
Sorry to be your reality check, but here's the upshot about the euphoria you feel after the conversation: It's nice but it fades.
I once had a long dinner with Lily Tomlin in Hollywood when we were supposed to have a short interview of only 20 minutes. We met at the Dresden, a fabled Hollywood spot, and soon we were sitting at a table in the restaurant portion, ordering martinis. After three hours and a delicious dinner, she decided to drive me back to my hotel in her white Rolls Royce. I sat in the passenger seat, and she leaned over to buckle up my seatbelt because I couldn't figure out how to do it up. She then chatted to me about her plans to visit her mother that weekend in Palm Springs.
Who wouldn't be thrilled? Suddenly, you're in the inner circle. On their level. Like a friend. And I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I have felt special after such an encounter.
But it's not what it seems. A month or so later, I e-mailed her - she gave me her personal address - to ask her about something for a related project. No response. Perhaps she had forgotten our dinner. Maybe I was just a distraction that night. She was being nice, and I was being polite in return, because I was attempting to draw her out for the profile I had to write. We are not friends.
I prefer my real ones. It's a small handful of people. I see them often. I talk to them. I tell them what really matters. They're the ones who know me. They hear the good and the bad and the worry and the happiness. Some have even helped with job opportunities for my children and given me tips on career-related issues. They're the meaningful network of my life, ready to point out a step ahead when I need one and willing to catch me should I fall.