By Dan Moseson
In one week, I’ve met with two students who expressed concerns that networking is “cringe.” A pattern like that suggests to me that a meme is taking off here, and I want to address it head-on. Merriam-Webster defines “cringe” as “slang : so embarrassing, awkward, etc. as to cause one to cringe.” UrbanDictionary.com has several similar definitions from people with usernames we can’t print. A Google search of “networking is cringe” turns up dozens of think-pieces on how to make networking less “cringey” (and fonts of sublime nonsense like r/LinkedInLunatics and the Twitter account State of LinkedIn).
If you make a career coaching appointment with me, we will almost certainly talk about networking. At the Career & Professional Development Center, we define networking as maintaining relationships with people. These are informal, reciprocal relationships with people whose friendship could bring advantages such as advice, information and referrals. Networking is the single most efficient and impactful way to advance your career.
Most of the “cringe” factor comes down to the idea that networking is inauthentic or exploitative – you’re being dishonest, you’re using someone, or both. But if you approach it with the right attitude, networking need not be either of these things.
Let’s start with understanding the purpose of networking. The purpose of networking is not to get you any particular job. It’s to build out your professional connections and gather vital information by developing authentic relationships based on shared interests. These relationships can later help you find job opportunities (if you approach them authentically), but they’re equally important for learning what kind of role you might want to apply for in the first place, and for getting your name out there in the professional communities you want to join.
For me, authentic networking starts with curiosity – your curiosity about a particular person’s career path, their experience working at a particular company, what opportunities and challenges they see in their industry. Before you start reaching out, do some research. Study the field you want to explore and the people you may want to speak with. Find things you actually want to know. Read LinkedIn profiles until you find a biography, role, or post that sparks your curiosity. Go into networking with genuine, natural curiosity by finding things you really are curious about. You need to actually care. If you don’t, consider exploring a different career path.
Now, for the worry about using or exploiting people: recently, I’ve seen a couple of folks who were concerned about “instrumentalizing a friendship” or “goal-directed social interactions.” First of all, let’s remember that nearly all social interaction is goal-directed, whether the goal is food, fun, romance, a shared purpose or value, or a paycheck. We’re social animals living in a massively interconnected world. We cannot do most things alone. To function in our lives, we almost always need some kind of support from someone else. Living involves taking. Most people understand that to be kind, fair, and fulfilled, we also need to give. Networking, done right, involves giving. First, you’re giving someone the chance to be a mentor. Most people like helping, and they like being looked up to. Second, by asking to learn about their career, you’re giving them the chance to talk about themselves, which is another thing most people like doing. Third, you’re giving them a new connection – you. By helping you build your career, they’re building their own. When you’re succeeding in your career, you can return the favor and help them if they need it. Finally, remember that authentic connections have a value of their own, most of all in the world of work.
So, networking doesn’t have to be cringe as long as you are not cringe. Be genuine. Be curious. Do your homework. Show gratitude. Stay in touch. Pay it forward when you get the chance – to the people who helped you, or to the next person who needs help finding their way.