Confessions of a Recovering Introvert
Networking When You Don’t Want to Talk to Strangers
Attending my first AHA annual meeting as a graduate student almost 25 years ago, I knew only my advisor, whom I saw for all of five or ten minutes as we waited for the plenary session on Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land. For the rest of that very long weekend, I felt entirely alone. I did not know anyone in the profession. As a novice historian and (I then firmly believed) a natural introvert, I had trouble imagining ever turning into one of those middle-aged people gracefully greeting old friends and warmly meeting strangers. Certainly, no one knew me, and I did not even yet know enough to recognize the big names I might want to introduce myself to. I went to sessions that interested me, but I probably did not hold a conversation with another person the entire meeting.
Planning my trip to Denver this year, as a middle-aged full professor, I am looking forward to rooming with an old friend, connecting with scholars I know only from their scholarship and the Internet, and even chit-chatting at receptions. I must confess that I am no longer sure that a natural and unchangeable introversion accounts for my now mostly dissipated aversion to networking. Although the transformation was slow in coming, multiple professional and personal experiences over the past decade have all pointed me toward a new understanding of how and why to connect with strangers. Talking with new people at the annual meeting does not have to be as intimidating, as awful, or as oppressive as I imagined a quarter century ago.
Oddly, parenting—the most intimate of relationships—is largely responsible for the shifts in my perspective. My older daughter is possessed of a gregariousness that rivals Bill Clinton’s. Though she was never shy to begin with, I have watched with a never-ending wonder as she has greeted legions of passers-by in public places, dauntlessly seeking human interaction. Although not everyone notices or chooses to respond, an astonishing number of people reciprocate her “hellos,” sharing their kindness, humor, and wisdom. Contradicting my assumptions, no one who engages her has been rude or even boring.
Raising this young person, I have also had occasion to learn more about intellectual “giftedness.” Apparently while only a quarter of the general population is introverted, some three quarters of gifted learners are. Watching my child who effortlessly chats up adult strangers struggle with uncomprehending age-mates has prompted me to wonder about the origins of introversion among the gifted population, many of whom seek refuge in academia. I wonder whether many of gifted introverts are really disappointed extroverts, who disciplined themselves at an early age to keep their thoughts quiet (or put them in writing) rather than share them with unreceptive interlocutors. Perhaps I should go through world as my child does, opening myself up to the possibility of turning strangers into friendly acquaintances. Watching her consistently positive example has made it easier for me to speak with people at the store and the pool and the street.
While my daughter has taught me that I might want to talk to other people, a 12-year-old interrupter is not the best model for how to strike up polite conversation with colleagues. Small professional revelations instead have shown me how to navigate a large conference with greater ease.
A colleague’s offhand observation, for example, provided me the most important of epiphanies: think of the party (or the conference), she said, as part of the job. The reception is not just a reward for the extroverted people who have sat through boring papers or a punishment for those of us with poor small-talk skills. For an introvert, the party is just an unlovely but integral part of the process. We may not love grading, but we still teach our classes. Formatting footnotes can only be entertaining for so many hours, but we nonetheless complete the paper. Once I realized that talking to other scholars informally was part of the job, I stopped resenting how much time it was taking from my “real work.” It is possible to confront an unwanted task and still do it professionally and well. And, blessedly, among historians, it is often possible to skip right over the small talk and dive right into discussion of exciting new ideas about the past.
I’ve also come to realize that I do not have to throw everything about myself into the initial moment of acquaintance. A cliché suggests how much first impressions matter. But one of the most cited articles in sociology, Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties,” famously argues for the importance of shallow relationships as professional bridges. Meeting someone in the hall at a conference may be the source of a key piece of information, the opening wedge of an invitation to participate in a future project, or a link to someone else I really do need to know. Introducing myself to someone at the annual meeting is laying a foundation, not building the whole structure of a relationship.
Finally, wandering through the conference, covertly reading name tags while hoping to be recognized, I remind myself that it is nerd heaven. The AHA’s annual meeting gathers together hundreds of people who are professionally excited about history. Starting a conversation can be as easy as asking what they are working on.
Knowing that my tale of transformation will not apply to everyone, I offer a last word of caution. If it turns out that you truly are an exhausted introvert rather than a disappointed extrovert, remember to take care of yourself. Build some downtime into your schedule: retreat to your hotel room for a nap, find the hotel gym or pool to exercise, buy yourself a quiet cup of coffee, or peruse the Exhibit Hall in search of new materials for your courses or research projects. But brace yourself—unless you are behind a closed door, some other networking historian might strike up a conversation with you.
Amanda I. Seligman’s badge at the annual meeting will tell you that she belongs to the history department of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she is professor of history and urban studies and chair. Find her at the AHA professional-acquaintance scavenger hunt and introduce yourself.
This post first appeared on AHA Today.
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