Interacting at Interactive
A social experiment in schmoozing goes a little too well
By James Renovitch,
10:36PM, Mon. Feb. 23, 2009
Conventional wisdom holds that gaming and tech industry types are not the masters of social skills. An overgeneralization, yes, but I unashamedly identify with that demographic and embrace my awkward “charm” in social settings. Five years of South by Southwest attendance has taught me that the festival doesn’t suffer charmers for long. And while individuals may be kind, the mob is ruthless. I decided to make a concerted effort this year to network and schmooze – both words that until this point needed air quotes for me to even say.
I decided to attack SXSW head on and address my inability to schmooze at a networking party at Shangri-La on the Eastside. My initial plan was to ask a stranger if they had a “pick-up line” to meet people and then use that line on the next stranger and so on until I was slapped silly or basking in the attention of industry bigwigs.
Enter doorman and general Eastside go-to guy Chauncey whose line was, “What’s your goddamn name?” and insisted it be spoken with a string of drool dangling from the chin.
Abandoning my original plan soon after that had me introducing myself to Kristina who made a strong argument for “What do you do?”: a classic that felt a bit too clinical for me. She later admitted that “What’s your handle?” (a pick-up line only an Interactive panelist could get away with) was once used on her and advised me to avoid such tech-laden introductions. Chron colleague and intermediate schmoozer Mike’s suggestion of “Do you tweet here often?” was scratched off the list.
Singing the praises of the nametag, Rachael claimed that a lanyard or other conference-identifying objects opened people up and facilitated interaction. I would be told to put my place of business on my nametag repeatedly over the course of the evening, but stuck to my guns and tried to brand my own name into the lexicon of the festival. Unsuccessfully.
From there I spied a breakthrough in schmooze possibilities: the line for the ladies room. Quickly realizing that the length of the line was directly proportional to networking capabilities I started at the end and talked to Emily and Monica who had stories of female camaraderie and, believe it or not, love stories all set amongst the silent torture of waiting to pee. Both had never faked the urge to go just to wait in line near someone, but if I knew a writer from the New Yorker had to go, I would miraculously have to go as well. I’ve got to look out for No. 1. (Bathroom humor doesn't go over well with people holding it.)
Managing to rein in my social experiment short of interrupting a name-tagged couple making out in the corner, I had the luck of running into Kim (literally bumping into someone can be a great way to introduce yourself) who, upon hearing of my schmooze woes introduced me to the Yoda of networking. Thom literally wrote the book on connecting at conferences (The ABC’s of Networking) and had enough advice to make me think he could start a cult before the night was through if he so desired.
Things quickly started to jell as Kim introduced me to Billy (who insisted schmoozing was bad and that the end goal should be relationships) who introduced me to Matthew, who was looking to get into video-game writing. So happens that I knew a video-game writer at the party and introduced the two. The circle of schmooze was complete, and all I wanted was a shower.
The night drew to a close and I remembered the caveat given to me by a friend in line at the entrance: “You’ll also need an exit strategy.” I learned this lesson the hard way and vowed to learn the best ways to get out of awkward conversations at the next gathering. In the meantime I worked up some spit and the courage to drool. Perhaps Chauncey intended it as a valediction.