Networking: Staying Safe When Meeting Strangers

Lindsey Novak on

Q: A friend talked me into accompanying her to an open networking event for people in all fields. I feel weird initiating conversations with strangers, so I like to observe people until I feel comfortable. My friend introduced me to several of her friends there, and one of them started talking to me.

She was friendly and mentioned needing to update her design portfolio, so I became more interested in the conversation. Soon after, she changed the topic and I sensed something "off" about her. As I asked more questions, her information didn't add up; she was not someone I wanted to get to know or help. I had already given her my card, so I couldn't ask her to return it. She texted me twice. The second one I ignored. I now feel my dislike of networking events is justified.

A: Networking events are a good way to meet social and business contacts, but attendees sometimes forget that these people -- including friends of friends -- are strangers. With everyone out for themselves and not necessarily being honest, those attending need to slow down and sometimes put on the brakes to an unpleasant conversation.

Attending an event with no specific industry or field focus sounds similar to going to a neighborhood bar to socialize with supposedly like-minded individuals. Though your friend's friend initiated the conversation with a job-hunting topic, the talk apparently veered into the uninteresting and perhaps odd.

The first and most important lesson in attending a public event is to understand not everyone who has a job is secure and confident. Passing out one's business card is the last act in a fruitful and enjoyable conversation. Find a good stopping point, hand over your card, and say you hope to talk again. Then politely move on. This person is still a stranger regardless of how long you two have talked; a secure, confident person should also wish to move on and meet others.

Because you can't retract your card, rushing ahead to formalize a connection can place you in harm's way with a person who may not be stable. Now this person has access to your full name and contact information. Hopefully, ignoring this woman's second email will send the message that you don't wish to pursue a connection. If she persists in texting or calling, silence is your best response unless she pushes contact. Then be busy and firm, but not rude or insulting.


A second and valuable lesson is understanding that what a friend likes in a person may not be what you like. Everyone is unique, though you may not always recognize it. That means individuals have different preferences and tolerances for certain personality types, character traits and interests, which means friendships don't automatically transfer to other friends. Once you accept this, you will observe all strangers' behavior -- verbal and nonverbal -- before going forth in any connection or relationship.

The best networking events are centered on a certain field -- human resources, writing, information technology, engineering, sales, marketing and public relations are a few -- and are sponsored by a group in the field. If you are simply looking for social connections, find a bar whose customers seem like the kind of people you'd like. The key word here is "seem."

A public gathering is no place to let your guard down. Don't fear everyone you meet but be cautious about the information you divulge. Using first names only is appropriate until you feel confident the person is whom he or she says. Anyone can print a business card with any information. If you're embarrassed to ask to see a photo ID, think about those who were harmed and are no longer here to be embarrassed. To learn critical information about protecting oneself, read "The Gift of Fear: Survival Signs That Protect Us from Violence" by Gavin De Becker, "Dangerous Instincts: Use An FBI Profiler's Tactics to Avoid Unsafe Situations" by Mary Ellen O'Toole and "Dangerous Personalities: An FBI Profiler Shows You How to Identify and Protect Yourself from Harmful People" by Joe Navarro.

Email career and life coach with your workplace problems and issues. Ms. Novak responds to all emails. For more information, visit and for past columns, see



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