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The Language of Networking

On a recent trip to India I picked up the Sunday edition of the Hindustan Times, one of the country's daily English language newspapers. After perusing the local and world news, I decided to get a taste of Indian culture by flipping to the personals and classifieds section. What I got was a crash course in the power of language as a cultural signifier.

Many of the ads seeking brides were very much reflective of the traditional masculine mindset in the country - they sought information on caste and horoscope, and specifically requested virgins with "fair skin." They were direct and to the point, making clear the attributes that needed to be 'checked off' when picking a woman. The masculine energy of these bachelors shone through in their choice of words.
However, other ads reflected a much different mindset. These would-be suitors had very different values than their more traditional counterparts, expressing a desire for educated women who could become their "soul mate." While it was encouraging to see how the romantic paradigm was shifting, it was also interesting to note the feminine energy inherent in their language. Many of these more sensitive bachelors were vague and deferential almost to a fault, with some of the ads requesting a "beautiful, homely girl" for a bride. Where the more traditional men were too forceful in demanding certain features in prospective brides, many of these modern males were too demure to voice their opinions. They had swung too far in the other direction.
It's a phenomenon I found interesting, not only for its cultural significance, but also because I'd seen it before - in the world of networking.
I entered the corporate world at a time when women in business were even more rare than they are today. As such, I didn't have any female role models to look to when it came to developing a networking style, so I decided to try emulating the men in my company. Their strategy was based on quantity rather than quality: rather than build strong relationships with a few valuable contacts, they would instead endeavor to hand out as many business cards as humanly possible. It was a bizarre feature of my company's culture that your effectiveness as a networker was largely defined by how often you had to order a new box of cards. If you weren't constantly restocking your supply, it meant that you weren't making enough contacts.
Needless to say, I found this strategy immensely unsatisfying. I was giving out cards like candy on Halloween, but I wasn't making any serious connections. And it felt like I was getting too caught up in an overly masculine culture that emphasized competition and points on the scoreboard over meaningful, productive relationships. I decided to do things my own way.
For starters, that meant getting personal. I'd begin by revealing something about myself as a signal that this would not be a conventional business connection. So often we simply present ourselves as a title and a job description, as if this is all that matters; the other person responds by doing the same, and you immediately size each other up based on your respective preconceptions of that vocation. Simply introduce yourself as an accountant, for instance, and the other person will instinctively characterize you as orderly and business-like; this kind of reflexive stereotyping is a terrible starting point for a lasting relationship. By contrast, revealing some personal detail about yourself will not only make you stand out in the other's mind, but will also signal that you're interested in more than just a simple exchange of information. Taking the next step and inquiring about their hobbies and interests will likewise signal the initiation of a deeper relationship.
Having formed the relationship, the question becomes how the two parties will benefit from this partnership. The purely masculine approach is once again deficient in this regard, as their impulse is typically to extract as much value as possible. Like the traditional bachelors in the personal ads, these corporate warriors view their contacts as commodities to be judged primarily by the benefits they bring back. While the ultimate goal of this relationship is indeed to advance professionally, viewing these benefits as the be-all and end-all is a recipe for failure. In this regard, language is once again a critical sign-post: if all of your sentences are starting with "I need…" there's a chance you're asking more than you're giving in return. It may seem subtle, but rest assured that the other party will take notice of your needy ways and be more wary to pick up the phone the next time your numbers shows up on the caller ID.
The opposite also holds true. Remember those bashful suitors who were reluctant to even admit they wanted a pretty girl? They were displaying too much feminine energy. Women in particular are often guilty of this: our feminine impulse is to take care of others first, often at our own expense. This impulse is good to a certain extent - start off by doing something for your contact, and they'll likely feel inclined or even obligated to return the favor. It's a bit like making deposits into a bank account.
The problem arises when you never take a withdrawal from that account. Monitor your conversations: are they always making requests while you nod along and agree to do them favors? Are you always telling them what you can do, without ever pausing to ask what they can do for you in return? As with all aspects of your life, it's all about striking a balance between competing forces, and it's important that the relationship is as much about "I" and it is about "you."
If you share my inclination to establish deep personal relationshipsFind Article, you'll probably find it difficult to describe those relationships in the cold language of accounting and quid pro quo (and I would never recommend that you speak in such terms to your contact!). But unless you carefully monitor the exchange of value - and the language that describes it - you may quickly find that your carefully-cultivated relationship is dangerously out of balance.

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After a highly successful career in business, including 26 years with PotashCorp where she was Senior Vice-President, Betty-Ann retired in 2007, the same year that she was named to Canada‘s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Hall of Fame™. She now works as a speaker, author and mentor and is committed to using her personal and professional experiences to inspire and empower other women.  A firm believer in the value women bring to organizations, Betty-Ann explores changing perceptions of male and female roles including candid observations about what she calls "Good Gender Physics” on her blog at She helps both men and women understand the primary energy of their gender but also accept and appreciate the strengths of their opposite.

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