How to mix

A quick guide to awkward networking events


By Ted Hawkes

Mixers are a great place to make business contacts as well as friendships. But initiating contact with strangers isn’t all that fun for everybody, particularly introverts and those new to this work/life phenomenon. We’re pleased to tell you that mixing well can be both fun and advantageous to your career. We’ve decided to finally write the unwritten rules of mixing for your benefit. Aren’t you lucky?

Nobody mixes like Janet

But first, a dash of perspective. Remember, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know that counts. No, scratch that. It doesn’t matter a bit who you know–it’s who knows you that matters. Being a voyeuristic wallflower when you should be connecting your way to the top achieves about as much as staying at home to play video games. Yes, connections matter. There are all kinds of inept people who are wildly successful because they have the right relationships, so imagine what you can do in life with a few connections to magnify your many talents. In case you’re trying to talk yourself out of meeting new folks because it’s uncomfortable, just think of all the horrible things you’ve put already yourself through for the sake of your future. Like jogging and algebra. This is way easier than that.

Now, hold on to your pants and let the wisdom come pouring in.

1. Remember that you’re already one of them

If the mixer is industry-specific, as Houston IMA mixers are, you’re going to have a lot in common with the people you meet. Everyone waiting eagerly to meet you spends sixty hours a week doing the same kind of work, using the same tools, and pursuing the same objectives. Add this to the fact that you also spend five of every twenty-four hours sleeping, three hours eating, two hours sitting in traffic, and forty-five minutes in the shower, and you’re basically looking at a room full of your clones. There’s plenty of common ground.

2. Be preemptive

In Jane Austen’s England, it was taboo to introduce yourself to a stranger. You had to be presented by someone willing to be–in effect–your social sponsor du jour. An introduction in those days was the equivalent of a verbal letter of recommendation. This is exemplified in Mr. Collins’ self-imposition on Darcy, and the ensuing awkwardness.

Statue of Darcy in a wet shirt
Here’s an immortalization of Mr. Darcy in another socially compromising situation. It’s no wonder he gets so stuffy when he perceives a threat to his dignity.

But we don’t live in that society, as evidenced by the fact that nobody is wearing fall front trousers or cravats. It’s perfectly acceptable to introduce yourself to someone who’s already deigned to “mix” with someone like you. They’re there to meet people, just as you are. So walk up and stick out a hand!

3. Be candid about your objectives

Everyone is present to do business of some sort–you don’t need to be coy about the fact that you’re trying to connect your way up in life. If you’re looking for new business, ask questions about where they’re currently getting whatever wonderful thing you’re trying to sell. If you’re looking for a job, find out if their company is hiring. If one person isn’t a match, shoot the bull for a few, then ask them if they know someone who is. Business is not a zero-sum game. Most folks are eager to help if you give them a hint as to what you need.

4. Be cool

Not Fonzy cool. Just be pleasant, polite, and easy to talk to. Mind your manners, and don’t talk about religion, politics, or your gastrointestinal misadventures.

5. Target odd numbers

If two people are engaged in conversation, inserting yourself will either disrupt their conversation, or worse, not disrupt the conversation and leave you looking like a third wheel, nodding emphatically at what’s being said and politely trying not to be ignored. It’s way better to approach the odd man out. Someone standing by themselves will give you their full attention.

In the unlikely event that there are no loners and you have to join a group, go for groups with odd numbers. Conversations tend to have no more than two key participants, and it will probably be obvious as you approach who’s getting passed over with the talking stick. Even if you can’t tell who the free agent is, they’ll reveal themselves as soon as you sidle up, by talking to you. You don’t need those other guys, anyway.

Unhappy third wheel in a conversation
While our mixers aren’t typically as convivial as the two on the right would have you believe, it’s very common for third wheels to feel like they’re getting the mouse’s share of the allotted talk time. This guy would be real happy if you just walked up and introduced yourself.

6. Remember that they’re more scared of you than you are of them

Growing up in the wastelands of Arizona, my mom used to remind me of this in the event I encountered a rattlesnake or Gila monster. When faced with the unknown, it’s natural to assume that the unknown is out to hurt you (in this case, through disparaging thoughts and gossip rather than venomous fangs). But the fact is, people standing alone aren’t doing it because they’re aloof to their compatriots. They just don’t have anyone to talk to, and will be eternally grateful when you help them not look like a loner.

Roaring hippo with huge-ass teeth
When confronting wildlife, it’s important to remember that they aren’t ALWAYS more scared of you than you are of them. I grew up in Arizona, not Tanzania.

7. Talk about pertinent things

In most social situations, “pertinent things” means “the other person”. Ask lots of questions. Odd as it may seem, unless you’ve been to the South Pole or keep bees in your backyard, folks are way more likely to remember you if you ask about them than if you talk about you. Granted, socially savvy people will turn the tables and ask you lots of things about yourself, and you can have a real conversation. Don’t ramble, preach, spout, pontificate, regale, or otherwise monopolize the dialog–have a conversation.

8. Ask for introductions

Remember what we said a few lines up about not needing introductions? Well, you don’t need them, but they sure come in handy. “Who do you know who…and can you introduce me?” is a great question to ask if you’re trying to reach an objective. People love to be matchmakers and show off how connected they are. Not to mention someone already well acquainted can cut in to a two-party conversation.

9. Don’t be a leach

If you cling to the first person who talks to you, not only will you be parasitizing their time; you’ll be sucking your own as well. Get to know each other, grab a business card, and move on. Five minutes is plenty of time to spend with a new acquaintance, and the more folks you meet, the more likely you are to meet the right folks. That’s math!

Two kinds of parasites
The foolish leech (left) latches on to a single host in an attempt to lazily engorge itself with minimal effort, and in so doing, risks being dusted with table salt or cast into a fire. The industrious mosquito (right), on the other hand, is a constant opportunist, flitting from host to host, imbibing what it may. It is thus able to transmit significantly more malaria and dengue fever than its lumbriculid compatriot. We can learn so many things from nature!

10. Follow up

If you’re proactive, you will probably make great contacts at a mixer. It’s very likely that you’ll find someone with whom you have amazing synergy and alignment and overlapping objectives and lots of other swell business terms that basically mean “good fit”. But unless you actively foster the relationship, it’s not likely to advance very quickly. Here are a few non-Cable Guy things you can do to keep tabs on people while your relationship blossoms into a billion dollars for the both of you:

  • Send a follow-up email. Reminding them subtly who you are by referencing a unique aspect of your conversation, but don’t insult their powers of recollection by saying “remember me?”
  • Connect on LinkedIn. Include a personal note citing a mutual interest you either established at the mixer or read on their public profile.
  • If you really hit it off, go ahead and friend them on Facebook, Tweeter, etc. But be measured in your social media advances.
  • Check in the next time there’s a Houston IMA event to see if they’re going. The industry group that brought you together can serve as a touch point for months, or at least until you come up with something better to talk about.
  • Act on your objectives (see Tip 3). If you’re selling and they intimated that they might be interested buying, ask for a meeting. If you’re looking for a job and they know of an opening, send a resume and ask them to pretty please forward it. However it seemed they could help you, ask them!
Ariane-on-the-phone

Epilogue

Mixing comes very naturally to some people, and for others it takes more work. We touched very little on soft skills, tactfulness, and interpersonal communication in this article, so for the time being, you’re on your own as far as how firmly to shake a hand and what to do with awkward pauses. But with the understanding that it’s a positive, collaborative activity, and people are committing to being open and friendly merely by attending, you should be able to take a few of these pointers and have a very productive time.

We’ll see you there!


Ted Hawkes with a very charming smile
Ted Hawkes is an interactive designer and member of the Houston IMA board. He is adept at mixing, mingling, and making friends.