Networking Refresher–Is This Seat Taken?
See also Networking: Stumbling Block #1–Fear
One of the worst things for many of us when it comes to attending writers’ conferences is mealtime. Especially if it’s our first conference or one where we really don’t know many people attending. It always takes me right back to those horrible school days when our social status was defined by which table we sat at and whom we were surrounded by at lunchtime.
This feeling has manifested itself in my life in the last year as I’ve become a regular attendee at my church’s Wednesday evening supper before choir practice. Because I get off work at five o’clock and supper starts at five thirty, I go straight there from work–but it only takes me about fifteen minutes, twenty tops, to get there. Most people don’t start arriving until right at five thirty. So I usually go in and sit at a table by myself. Sure, I chat with the senior adults (who are always there early as they come for a prayer time at four thirty), but they all have their “seating assignments” already worked out. The same people sit at the same places at the same tables from week to week. There are some weeks when, as I watch acquaintances from choir or Sunday school (I’m in a class where the other members are all married and in their 50s and 60s) go sit at other tables, I feel like that little girl no one invited to sit with them. But then something amazing happens. Various people come up and ask, “Is this seat taken?” And guess what—I end up sitting at a table with people I might not have met otherwise and usually have a really enjoyable time!
So this past week, as I was sitting there at a table by myself, I started thinking about that in the context of next week’s ACFW conference. This is my sixth ACFW conference, seventh conference ever. Having been a member since 2001 as well as serving as an officer for two years, I know tons of people in this organization. Now, I know a lot of my friends and close acquaintances won’t be there. But there are others I will be meeting face to face for the first time (waving at Rachel and Gina and Sally) and others I haven’t seen in a couple of years whom I look forward to sharing a couple of meals with.
But this can become a danger zone for me. Because I’m an introvert, because I’m so uncomfortable meeting new people, it’s so easy for me to just stick with sitting with only my friends. I did this at a couple of conferences—hanging out with just my crit partners or the group from Nashville and not really meeting anyone new. When I was an officer, it was really easy to just sit at the table where the other officers—and several published authors and editors—hung out. And I didn’t meet anyone new.
At the 2005 Nashville conference, one of the best things I did was hang out with my friend Allison—at the registration window. It was the place people came to ask questions, to get information. And I met so many people whose names I’d only seen in passing on the loop or forums. Then, when I walked into the ballroom/dining room for a meal, when I looked around, I saw hardly a table where I didn’t recognize someone I’d met.
Yet I still feel like that little girl who wants someone to stand up and say, “Kaye! Come sit with us!” And when it doesn’t happen, I’m sure no one likes me, no one wants to be with me. That I’m the least interesting person in the room. That I might as well just leave.
If that sounds familiar to you at all, my heart goes out to you.
Writers’ conferences for most writers are both a blessing and a curse. They’re a blessing because we get to be with a bunch of other people who share our unique disorder; people who understand us when we talk about our characters as if they’re real, living people; people we can talk to about our writing without feeling like we’re boring them to death. But conferences can also feel like a curse because most writers are introverts. Being around other people for an extended period of time with no time to be alone to recharge is one of the hardest things we can force ourselves to do. Then there’s trying to get over those feelings of inadequacy and rejection when it comes to mealtime or whom we’re going to sit with in our courses.
It is one of the most basic fears we humans live with—fear of rejection. We spend so much of our lives trying on our own terms to fit in, trying to make friends, trying not to offend other people (most of us, anyway), that when we’re thrust into a conference-type environment, where we’re no longer on our own terms, the fear instinct to flee, to withdraw, kicks in. And even though it may not seem like it while I’m in Dallas next week, I’ll be struggling with this the entire conference. I have a very strong “flee” instinct that I’m continually fighting against. So I have to remind myself that it’s up to me to walk up to a table and ask, “Is this seat taken?” or else I may never have a chance to get to know the person who’s sitting there feeling the exact same way I do.
So, if you’re going to the ACFW conference for the very first time and feel like you don’t know anyone, come find me. I’ll be the one smiling and saying, “Come sit with us!”