How to Survive a Networking Event as an Introvert

by Leda Marritz

The thing I dread most about work is attending events like trade shows, all-day business meetings, or ghastly “networking opportunities.”

I like working with people, but am fairly introverted and feel stressed out by large groups and meeting too many new faces at a time. In the day-to-day, I work behind a desk and in a small office, but several times a year I need to take multi-day trips to meet with business partners or to attend trade shows or conferences. Both types of events strain my natural capacity for steady socializing and arouse anxiety about having to feel “on” for the whole day.

At these events, there is a general sense that I should be talking to people, meeting new potential customers or partners, or just getting inspired by ideas and the energy of a shared sense of purpose. I feel responsible to my company to be there and try to make things happen, yet struggle because the social demands of meeting so many new faces makes me want to run back to my hotel room. So here are some things I do to help motivate myself, while also keeping myself from becoming overwhelmed.

Take breaks

The first rule of introversion is to make sure I have time alone periodically throughout the day. When I’m at an event, these opportunities are usually limited, so I have to make sure to create them for myself. For example, I’ll take myself out for a walk around the block in the afternoon (I can use an excuse like needing to grab a tea or make a phone call if I feel like I need one). Lunch and dinner are often meals where more business gets done and attendance is mandatory, but I try to have as many meals on my own as possible.

Find one person to talk to

If this is a work event, you may not be able to opt out of socializing entirely, nor may it be advisable. Instead, I attempt try to control who I socialize with. I steer clear of big groups of people I don’t know; instead I’ll initiate a conversation with just one person. It’s way more comfortable to do this, and I also find it more productive from a work standpoint. When I’m in conversation with just one or two people, it’s much easier to get beyond hated small talk and into a more satisfying interaction.

Get comfortable being an observer

Whenever I’m in a social situation where everyone else seems to be speaking to someone and I am not, it makes me feel a little panicky. Although I may not know what to say or who to talk to, I do wish to feel the comfort of fitting in, and socializing confers a feeling of belonging. As soon as one conversation ends, I feel like I need to cast about to find a new one, which leads to more panic. Instead of frantically ping ponging around (not a great way to enter a conversation, I find) I’m trying to get comfortable with not needing to have someone to speak to. I love people watching and, as long as I have a comfortable spot to the side, this feels OK — at least for limited periods of time, and occasionally someone will approach me.

At events, I prefer to have a notebook or reading material if possible. This is especially useful when waiting for a talk to start, or if you need a break but can’t actually leave. I also like writing things by hand, and taking a few minutes to record my thoughts or things I’ve learned is a good practice and buys me some time to myself. Reading material can also be a useful prop for starting conversations with others if/when you’re ready (“Did you read the latest article in the Journal of Arboriculture?”).

Give yourself permission to leave

Sometimes the anticipation of an event is way worse than the experience itself. To try to reduce my sense of dread, I’ll make deals with myself ahead of time. For example, I’ll give myself permission to just stay somewhere for 30 minutes or speak to one person. That is my goal. After that, if I want to, I can leave.

I’m never going to look forward to work events that involve meeting lots of new people over many hours (or days). But for now, it’s a reality of my job at least a few times a year. The best thing I can do for myself is come up with ways of handling the discomfort that help me feel more at ease while still fulfilling my work obligations.
Fellow introverts, what tactics do you use?

“The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Leda Marritz lives in San Francisco. You can read more of her writing at

Photo: Texas A&M

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