For most of us, finding just the right words to use when striking up networking conversations is, at best, intimidating. For some, especially the more introverted among us, it can be downright terrifying. Small talk is pretty much never a breeze, but chit-chat can feel even more complex because you may have more to lose than someone just thinking you're uninteresting or too talkative.
You may have a future job opportunity or business deal at stake.
That being the case, it's important to avoid bringing up anything that may give the person you're speaking to a reason to pause and reconsider working with you (or even just reaching out in general).
Here are five topics you should steer clear of:
1. Polarizing Views About Race, Religion, or Politics
I'm having this, "Do I really even have to remind people of this?" moment as I type, but you'd be amazed at some of the awkward, uncomfortable discussions I've been pulled into over the years. Am I saying it's not your entitlement to have strong views or opinions on sensitive topics?
Absolutely not. I'm saying that a professional event is almost never the forum to share these opinions, especially if you're a job seeker conversing with someone who has decision-making influence.
What happens if that person you're talking to feels strongly about the topic, too, in the exact opposite way you do? Chances are you'll reduce or eliminate your opportunity for further conversation. Even if you're not a job seeker, if you blurt out something annoying or offensive to the other party, you might alienate someone who could have been an ally or professional friend.
What do you do if someone brings this up?
Simple. You smile and say, "I'm sure this would be an interesting conversation, but I typically keep my views on this one to myself. Care for another glass of wine?"
2. Personal Issues That Are Weighing You Down
I truly understand how all-encompassing personal issues can be, especially if you're bogged down by a stressful day or slow job search. And I know it might provide at least momentary relief to share (or overshare) these problems with others.
However, this is not your audience for spilling your guts on these things.
Why not? First, heavy conversation when one is expecting small talk may make the other person feel uneasy (which doesn't make for great networking). But also--if the person is someone who may be useful to your career--giving her the impression that you're unhappy or prone to complaining isn't going to help your cause.
If you're feeling bogged down with what's happening in your life, seek out a friend, relative, or even a counselor who will listen, especially if that person can also help you sort through your challenges or support you in your time of need. (If you're unsure of who to speak to, this article lays out when to talk to a mentor, career coach, or therapist.) Also, realize that it may not be the time to put yourself in professional situations, period, and that's OK.
3. Habits That Imply (or Blatantly Announce) a Problem
Similar to the polarizing views topic, if you have habits that may lead a stranger to believe something's not quite right, consider avoiding discussion related to these habits entirely. I'll never forget an interview conversation I once overheard, during which the candidate jokingly said that she likes to go get drunk with clients at lunchtime.
I don't know with certainty what happened from there, but the look on the person across the table's face suggested that this may well have been the last conversation.
Just like in an interview, demonstrating or mentioning in a networking conversation--even casually--that you drink a lot, can't get through an hour without a smoke break, have a bit of a Facebook addiction, or just love zoning out over video poker can serve as a true "record stop" moment for the other party.
4. Lies That Aim to Impress, But Could Backfire on You
Have you ever lied to impress someone and then got caught in that lie months, or even years, later? Even if it were a "little white lie" that you never intended to be a big deal, it could come back to haunt you later
Here's an example:
Say you meet someone at a trade show mixer whose stories or credentials impress you to the point that you feel compelled to, ahem, embellish your own background to seem more interesting. Maybe you talk about a study abroad program that you never actually participated in, or a degree that you simply don't hold.
Why not, right? This person is a stranger. He won't know the truth. Maybe not. But, what if that person ends up being the hiring manager for a job you want in four years? Or, what if you bump into him again in a year and he references your global travel only to be met by your blank stare?
Put your best foot forward, in every networking conversation, of course. Just don't be a liar.
5. Gossip About Colleagues or People in the Industry
It feels good to be viewed as the one who's all dialed in and "in the know" about your industry and its players, doesn't it? But being dialed in is not your license to be a gossip, especially not at a professional event.
What happens when you share a story about how so-and-so didn't quit, but was actually fired for dating a subordinate--and the person you're standing talking to is (as it so happens) his best friend, or brother-in-law?
Enjoy that moment.
Being a thought leader or industry insider is fantastic. Being a blabber mouth? Not so much.
Certainly, I'm not intending to make banter with strangers even more challenging for you. I'm not working to make the whole concept feel stringent or overwhelming.
Rather, I'm suggesting that you keep your marbles in your head as you participate. Even when the conversation becomes super casual and loose (alcohol tends to do that to people), remember that you're still in a professional setting, and those with whom you're speaking could very well play a role in your future career momentum. It would stink if an innocent networking mistake took you out of the running for a cool opportunity.
Enter each conversation accordingly.