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Should I Really Admit This? How to Find Common Ground at Networking Events

I belong to a private club in downtown Chicago. It occupies a regal, historic building. Membership requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, three letters of support from current members, and an ability to shoulder a monthly membership fee that will dwarf the cost of a daily latte habit.

I belong to this club, and yet I don’t belong.

The shade of my skin is darker than that of the average member, and I have 15 to 20 fewer years of work experience.

A relative of mine, whose company uses the club for corporate functions, once commented on how “different” I seem from the typical member. No kidding! Is it that obvious?

Despite feeling like I don’t belong, I stay because the club consists of kind, brilliant, friendly and thoughtful people. It has one of the best squash facilities in the country. And because I lack a religious or cultural community, I need to belong somewhere socially. So it might as well be here.

However, breaking the ice at club events is an ongoing challenge. I find myself recalibrating what I do and don’t do. At any given moment, I can shine like star or stink like a goat, and I wouldn’t even know why.

Several months ago, I found myself in just such a state.

I was at a reception for new members, representing an interest group I had co-founded. I ended up talking to two men— a brand new member and a long-time member. Both of them were at least a head-and-a-half taller than me. And I was already in heels.

As my neck grew stiff from craning my head, the conversation veered toward guns and hunting. Eventually, the hunting enthusiast turned the conversation toward me. “What’s your hobby?” he asked. “What do you do for fun?”

The two men looked at me, and it was at precisely that moment that my mind went blank. Hobby? Fun? What fun? I run a business and have two little kids. I’m lucky if I get a workout and sufficient sleep. But that answer wouldn’t suffice. So I searched for the most honest and appropriate response.

“I … um … I enjoy open houses.” Finally, I had remembered going to a few recent open houses in my neighborhood. That answer seemed good enough. It was about real estate, which could start a conversation about investment, and it showed my curiosity.

The new member smirked and said, “That’s very voyeuristic of you.”

I was stunned. I wasn’t prepared to be made fun of. In any other setting, I would have retreated, said something apologetic or abruptly switched the topic.

But this time, I decided to double down.

“Well, that actually isn’t the most voyeuristic thing I enjoy doing.” Two sets of eyebrows rose, and neither pair was mine.

In my day job, I teach storytelling to business clients. I preach that before they get into the nitty-gritty of processes and solutions with their audiences, they must intrigue and delight them. My doubling-down might have done just that. Or, it might have repelled this particular audience. I had no way of knowing. And it was too late.

“I really enjoy going to cemeteries,” I said. “Cemeteries where I know none of the deceased. Walking around, and taking it all in.”

The new member’s eyes lit up. “I love visiting cemeteries too!”

Every weekend when this man was living in Paris, he had visited the famed Parisian cemetery where Oscar Wilde, Chopin and Gertrude Stein were buried. For the rest of the reception, the new member and I talked about nothing but our fascination with cemeteries. I was no longer second-guessing my words. Instead, I felt like I had reunited with a long-lost friend.

For a long time, I felt embarrassed by my fascination with cemeteries. I thought others might find it creepy. But each time I have shared this interest with strangers, their enthusiasm has matched or exceeded mine.

The key is this: someone needs to step up and be curious and respectful. That day at the club in Chicago, I had a choice about whether to forge a connection with complete strangers who seemed to be making fun of me. That day, I learned that even when I feel like I am surrounded by people I believe I have nothing in common with, chances are good that I can forge a connection. And so can you.

Learn how at Catalyst Ranch on January 26, when we’ll explore “How to Craft a Brief & Brilliant Introduction”—an introduction that is sure to connect you with others as you reveal memorable aspects of yourself and the work you do!

Esther Choy is the President and Chief Story Facilitator of Leadership Story Lab

Esther Choy speaking 1