Grouchy nights: Reluctant networker confesses

I met a not-friend at a not-cool-but-not-cheesy restaurant. I was networking, because this is what you must do to further your career. Even if you hate it, you have to do it.

I did not wear work clothes, because even though networking is work, you're not supposed to look like you're on the job. I knew we weren't really friends, because I wasn't wearing my really ratty overalls.

We discussed segmented marketing, but in a cool, maybe-we're-not-working kind of way. For example, we talked about who is using Napster now, and about which bands get downloaded most. We moved a little in the direction of which bands we each like, but my not-friend didn't share my musical tastes, so we danced away from the topic quickly.

If I were really looking for a friend, I would have gone full-steam ahead into topics that may be controversial but can weed out inappropriate people: politics, money, sex. These are make-or-break topics. But I could not afford a "break" on this occasion, because this person was one of my best connections in the advertising world.

Early in my career, my boss was having trouble because someone who reported to her hit on her, and was upset that she said no. The story got out, and soon the whole office knew about it.

She pulled me into her office one evening and said, "What do people think of what's happened with ____?" At the time, I was flattered that I was the one she pulled aside. Now I realize that I have to be extra careful to edit myself as I go. Complete honesty is not completely good: It alienates people– specifically, me.

The not-friend I went to dinner with asked me if I liked her yellow scarf. I thought it was gross, but I was afraid to tell her the truth. (In fact, I'm not even telling you the real color of the scarf, in case she ends up reading this.)

Maybe if I told her the scarf was awful, we would have immediately become good friends, and she would always love me for my honesty. But maybe not. It was the maybe-not part that kept me from telling her the truth– because I would rather have a good network than a good friend. (I don't need a Rolodex full of friends; I do need a Rolodex full of contacts, people who will have dinner with me at innocuous locations and help me navigate my career.)

Still, I wanted to tell my not-friend that I hated her scarf. I want to show people who I really am. I want to see if they would still like me. I want to distribute surveys (to be put on file later in my Rolodex) that ask people if they enjoyed my honesty, and if they would be willing to do favors for me now that they know the real me.

Instead, I ordered a cosmopolitan because she ordered one– even though I don't really drink. And I told her little things about me that she didn't already know, so she felt like she was getting to know me.

I did not tell her that I find networking so exhausting that my Rolodex is actually shrinking from atrophy. I decided that maybe a good step would be to buy her a new scarf– a way to express my true feelings in a positive way. If I could only be more positive. I told her things that are so banal that they would annoy almost anyone.

When we parted, I pretended to take the train home. Instead of going straight home, I bought a milkshake at a diner and sat in a booth to decompress. The most tiring part of networking is having to be clever and interested for so long. And the cruel truth of the work world is that people who love to network don't need to do it.

People like me (who hate networking) need to be diligent. I tell myself I have to endure one of these nights each month. I remind myself that I might meet the perfect person to help me later, that networking is like money in the bank.

So even if someone has terrible taste in music and scarves, I work hard when I'm with her, because you never know when networking will pay off, but I really believe that it always does, even after all my complaining.