Talk to the least important person in the room

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’Tis the season for department functions, such as new faculty or graduate student orientations. I look forward to these gatherings at the start of the year as a chance to get reacquainted with colleagues and meet new ones before the pressure of the semester shortens (though never dispenses with) social pleasantries.

Let me suggest a hack you might try at the next academic gathering you attend: go out of your way to talk to the least important person in the room.

From ProfHacker, the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, or virtually any publication that dispenses professional advice, you can get tips on how to talk to important people—networking, it’s called. Those people might be important because they share some connection to your work (what else could be important?). Or they might be important because they are weighty in the prestige scale of the academy (by what other measure could we judge people?). As a person who is not very outgoing myself, advice about networking has helped me a great deal. (Here is one of my favorite posts in this vein.)

But at the start of this academic year, try doing the opposite of all the networking advice, and talk to the person who probably can’t help your work and who doesn’t have any prestige.

You likely remember someone who talked to you when you were the least important person in the room. When I gave a conference paper as an undergraduate, there were not questions about my paper during the Q&A, but a professor came up to me afterwards and talked to me about my work. I can think of many other conversations with people who had nothing to gain by talking to me and something to gain by talking to someone else.

Striking up this kind of conversation might help, might hurt. On the one hand, it could go a long way towards setting the culture of your department for the upcoming year. On the other hand, your conversation might lead you into some kind of recurring obligation to help the person.

But gains and losses aren’t the point. Reaching out to the least important person might just be the right thing to do.

What ideas do you have for striking up conversations with people you don’t normally talk to?

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