Dental Conferences are like rushing for a sorority; endless small-talk and prattle of where you’re from, what school you go to, what year you’re in, and what position you hold. It almost feels like a rapid-fire competition of who can ask the most questions and how quickly someone can fill those awkward silences (my favorite). At this point, I could probably say I’m a small-talk aficionado given that most of my extracurricular activities have involved this sort of interaction with people. However, I have slowly come to the realization that these kinds of conversations, although I do them mindlessly, leave me exhausted and apathetic.
One of the beauties of student dental conferences is the myriad of networking opportunities. We have the ability to expand our little black book of contacts in the hopes of making connections with the people that will be in our future professional community.
Networking: “interact with other people to exchange information and develop contacts, especially to further one’s career” – Google
That last line has never sat well with me and I doubt anyone would like to be described as an opportunist or a carpetbagger. This type of “you scratch my back I scratch yours” mentality limits ourselves to the facts and figures of conversations instead of digging deeper to who we are as people. It seems that having one insignificant conversation with somebody and handing out our business cards like they’re Halloween candy will automatically put us in a position to ask for favors in the future.
Why does Networking only have to be small talk? Why can’t it also be big talk?
I understand that some people are uncomfortable with getting straight to the big questions right off the bat. But I will argue that you can definitely turn insignificant pleasantries into meaningful dialogue and part of it is getting over our fears of looking too inquisitive or intrusive. We all know what open-ended questions are; we do it with our patients all the time. Why can’t we do the same when networking?
This mentality may be in due part to my ENFP personality and my will to find the deeper meaning in anything and everything (I strongly encourage everyone to know their own Myers Briggs letters). I don’t mean I will always try to have existential conversations or discuss the nature of the cosmos with every stranger, but I will absolutely try my best to leave an exchange of dialogue knowing something enticing about a new person. Opening-up and having a moment of feeling listened to will make a person much more likely to “do you a favor,” if that’s what you’re looking for in networking. I know it sounds like common sense, but I challenge you to make an effort and skip the small talk when meeting a new person.
I decided to try this out at this year’s ASDA Annual Session with the first person I met, a foreign student who came to the USA at age 12 and also identifies as gay. Right after our exchange of names and schools and right before I asked him what year he was in, I stopped myself and went straight for it: “Tell me about your experience being in the LGBTQ community while going to school in Kentucky”. BOOM! He looked a bit taken aback by the question and I started regretting my decision. He tilted his head to the side, looked at the floor and started rubbing his chin. Suddenly, 30 minutes passed as he was telling me about a horrible but character- defining incident, the people in his life who stuck up for him, and how lucky he is to live in a city where he is much more accepted than the rest of the state and his native country. It was beautiful.
In the days that followed, we would happily run into each other and exchanged our excitement for the day’s itinerary. By the end of our time in Orlando we said our goodbyes, and as he hugged me for the last time he smiled and said, “if you ever need anything or if you’re ever in town, you always have a place to stay.” And that, to me, is real networking.