Networking for the Highly Sensitive Introvert

I went to a holiday party last night. I’m not a party person, but I’m looking for part-time work, and every recruiter and guidance counselor I’ve ever met was jumping up and down in my head, urging me not to miss this opportunity to “network.” I carefully chose my outfit (festive but classy), and created a conversation-starter name tag.

In my imagination, I saw myself chatting and joking with each stranger standing near me, circulating through the room until every person there knew how witty and sharp I was. If they had an opening, they would immediately want to hire me. If not, they’d want to create one just to get me on their staff.

Where do I get these ideas?

Here’s how it really went. The music was loud. I could hear it through the closed door. The only person I knew was greeting guests. I hung out with her for awhile, not only because I didn’t know anyone else, but because she was the only person far enough away from the music to actually have a conversation with.

As I gazed over the room, I noticed two things.

1). People had arrived in groups with their friends. No loners.
2). Everyone in the room was in a radically different age bracket from me by about 20 years.

Guests were gathered around activities. There was intermittent raucous laughter. It must have had something to do with the activities. They couldn’t possibly have heard each other well enough to laugh at each other’s jokes.

I hovered around the buffet for awhile. I hadn’t had dinner, so that was partly about the food. The teaspoon-muffins with the tablespoon of frosting and the mini mozzarella balls were delicious. And who can resist a marinated artichoke heart? Then too, juggling a plate with miscellaneous party items took all the hands I had, and then some. Seating was limited and isolated.

But mostly I didn’t want to mozy up to a crowd and find myself invisible.

However, I was there to interact, so I squared my shoulders and ventured out to a less populated activity. A paid party assistant was running it. She was trying to save her voice (understandably), so no conversation there. Eventually the person next to me remarked on my name tag and we exchanged the basics – name, job. This conversation was punctuated frequently with “what was that?” and “pardon me?”

At the end of the night, she was the only new acquaintance I had made.

Once upon a time, when I thought I was an extrovert, I might have left that party feeling like a failure. Now I’m looking at it from a new angle.

For HSP-me, even though I liked the music, the volume was a deal-breaker. For introvert me, it was the groupiness, age difference, and utter impossibility of meaningful one-on-one conversation. Clearly a party like this was only suitable for an extroverted version of networking.

So what might HSP-introvert networking look like??

Maybe more like an introvert’s gathering I recently attended? The organizer was warm and nurturing. The environment was quiet, with plenty of seating. She made sure everyone had arrived before we started with introductions. When one woman introduced herself in a very soft voice, everyone leaned in to hear her. Not one person told her to speak up.

Even the games we played were different. One required all players to reveal their hands, and together plot out moves several turns in advance to reach a group goal. When the first round was lost on the first turn (mine), it was literally forgotten. Not that I could have done anything differently, so I wouldn’t have minded the expected joke about it later, but it never came. Bullying, even in jest, simply did not occur to this group of people.

The second game involved sussing out each other’s characters, but in a non-invasive, anonymous way. There were age differences, but I hardly noticed them. What I did notice was the intent, yet reserved attention the participants regarded each other with – engaged, but never intrusive, or hurried.

After the gathering, the organizer checked in with me to see how I felt about it. We had a long email dialogue over the next few days about topics of mutual interest.

Now to be honest, this was probably no more useful for jobhunt networking than the party above. But it was a heck of a lot more satisfying as an evening spent in the company of others.

So if that’s not HSP-introvert networking, maybe it’s this. In the context of my current job, I worked with someone from another organization on a joint project. We may have been involved in a phone conference or two early on, but mostly we communicated by email. He works in another state. We’ve never met, or even seen each other.

We gradually built trust over time. He valued my critiques, and acute sensitivity to details. I valued his gentle communication style and sense of humor. We had shared interests and concerns.

After working together for two years, that project ended, but he said he’d liked working with me, and I should let him know if I was ever looking for work. As it happened I was, and his organization had an opening, so we will continue to work together. Note to a self exhausted with endless perusal of craigslist job ads: that job was never posted.

But that seems so serendipitous, and took a long time. I don’t quite see how it translates into an effective search strategy for immediate work. Are there more experienced HSP-introverts out there who can give me some tips?

UPDATE: To my fervent relief, I currently have no need to “network” in the conventional sense, or any other. If you are not so lucky, check out this column by an introvert Forbes magazine blogger (who knew) on networking survival tactics for introverts.

And for those in-the-headlights moments, there’s this article on handling questions you don’t want to answer. HSP-me and Introvert-I do not see eye-to-I on many of the article’s suggestions. HSP-me feels that fibbing, redirecting, and game-playing are unsavory behaviors, and I ought to be able to figure out ways to protect myself without stooping so low. Introvert-I snorts at this, and tells me I don’t owe anyone any information about myself that I don’t choose to share. So much for the “natural” affinity of high sensory processing sensitivity and introversion! We do agree that we would like to be divert the question without calling attention to the fact that we are doing so.

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