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Networking and Human Nature

A Lesson in Socializing Under the Rules of 21st Century Capitalism

“You’ve all heard how important it is. Today we are actually going to practice it.”

A middle-aged white woman in a power suit smiles generously at a seminar for unemployed professionals in Austin, Texas. She holds a guru like posture in front of her PowerPoint presentation’s title slide; Networking: Connect Like a Pro.

“Networking” is on everybody’s lips these days. Self-help books are chock full of “actionable” advice, Silicon Valley summer camps encourage it in lunchroom cafeterias, and business magazines implore working mothers to network during their children’s playdates (“Power playdates” are “a really efficient use of time”).

Carey Waterman’s (Carey Waterman is a pseudonym, as this writing is derived from my graduate research which protects the subject’s confidentiality) presentation to forty-odd job seekers is about networking the individual self into a job. But it’s actually much more than that. It’s a lesson in how-to-be social under the rules of 21st century capitalism, teaching us how to reconfigure ourselves into the ideal rational and selfish creatures that the economists’ dream of.

It’s a messy process but a necessary one, Carey assures, for anyone who wants to succeed today. “Networking is not an event or a one-time thing,” she says, pausing for effect, “it’s a way of life.”

Needless to say, a lot of ink has been spilt throughout history, debating the fundamental drives behind human social relationships.

In one camp are the economists and their philosophical ancestors. Hobbes’ opening argument (“war of all against all”) was honed for capitalism by Adam Smith (“propensity to truck, barter, and exchange”) and has since become a baseline assumption for most modern social science.

Such camp, naked, self-interest has faced many rebuttals — from Marxists, Romantics, and hippies among others. However, feminists may have done the most to reveal the homo economicus to be a fantasy. As Katrin Marcal has shown, Adam Smith himself didn’t expect his dinner from the self-interest of the butcher and the baker, as he asserted – he expected it from his mother.

But debates over whether homo economicus is fact or fiction have gone rather stale. As sociologist Daniel Fridman argues, the challenge for social science today is not to disprove the economists’ model of human nature, “but rather to understand the processes through which people acquire the tools that make them similar — although with varying distances from the ideal — to what economists treat as a reality.”

Carey stalks the rows of folding chairs, handing out colorful index cards with all the enthusiasm of a first-year teacher. ”You wouldn’t go into an interview without a plan,” she says, making sure each attendee gets a pink, yellow, and blue card, “so you shouldn’t start networking without a plan either.”

On the blue card, we are instructed to write down our goals for the upcoming networking session (maybe: “meet someone who can connect me to an IT hiring manager”); on the pink, we jot conversation starters to help determine if our partner can help us towards our goal (start with light current events, she suggests, before probing industry knowledge); on the yellow, we are to write a catchy and concise “personal brand” — itself a mini life lesson for late capitalism — to spring on our partners when the moment is right.

With index cards clutched in our hands like a bouquet, we are ready to network. Following Carey’s cheerleading clap and a few grunts, the forty-odd professionals shuffle awkwardly into triads and begin the hand-shakes and opening questions they planned. Over fifteen minutes, each attendee performs their role with mixes of enthusiasm and resentment — some aggressively interrogating their partners’ connections, others rolling their eyes through recitations of half-hearted personal brands.

As we schmooze, our instructor turns coach, popping into conversations to highlight networking’s best practices: “I’d love to hear more about your marketing work,” she says, within a minute of meeting someone, “do you have a card?”

In the debrief that follows, a heavy-set man in a mustache shares that he met someone who lives on the same block. Carey glows and notes that this a wonderful point to follow-up on. Then a man with thinning hair raises a long arm and says that he connected with two others who were also recently laid off from Hewlett Packard. All of their jobs were shipped off to India, he says with a resentful chuckle. Our instructor grimaces. There are some things we might not want to share, she says, as if explaining to kindergarteners. They can bring a “negative color” to the exchange.

Carey’s indomitable positive thinking is itself a networking technique, long etched in the annals of self-help. Here it feels almost maniacal, like insisting that the glass is half full when it lies shattered on the floor.

Others report profiting from the exchange, but not in the way they were supposed to. A thirty-something year old says, “You know, it was really gratifying to help someone. It was really gratifying just to be a resource.”

People conform to grand theories with great inconsistency. But they do what they can to get by in the moment they are thrown into. In the career chaos of 21st century capitalism, we are trained to network — to approach every interaction like an interview, to cynically manipulate everyone around us for personal gain. And we take this lesson to heart to varying degrees.

Deep down, we might be self-interested, loving, or “blank slates,” but surely this kind of everyday instruction does as much to shape our behavior as any theorized versions of human nature. People may be unreliable pupils, but we all have to sit through the lessons.

A few women grumble towards the end of the meeting about feeling “pushy” and “slimy.” Discomfort with networking is totally normal at first, Carey assures. With practice and guidance, it will come to feel natural. She cites a networking self-help book on this point.

“Peeling back and shedding these layers of discomfort to maximize the power of relationships,” the book reads, “requires tools, techniques, and practice.”

Patrick Sheehan is a writer and a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. His writing has appeared in Jacobin Magazine, In These Times, AlterNet and Occupy.

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