The art of striking a conversation with strangers

May 25, 2024 | 02:00 am PT
Nga Than Researcher
When I started my first corporate job, I explored the company's career services, where an HR counselor would guide me through various steps in my career. Each year, I could make three such appointments to discuss about my career development.

In my first appointment, I asked what to do when I did not know how to find a mentor or a more experienced colleague to guide me through corporate life. I felt disoriented in a corporation of more than 20,000 employees, whose workforce was globally distributed. Additionally, I started the job at the tail end of the working-from-home policies. I felt a sense of isolation, and directionlessness.

Susan, the HR representative, suggested I view finding a mentor as an opportunity to expand my professional network. She advised attending in-person or online events and then striking up conversations with presenters or other attendees during and after the events. She recommended using the prompt: "what you talked about XYZ really resonated with me," when writing a follow-up email for a one-on-one conversation to get to know the person better. They might become a mentor or a sponsor, both at work and in life. They might connect me to other colleagues, business partners, and new opportunities.

Susan consistently provided me with invaluable insights on how to make the most of my work experience. She gave me actionable items, and a framework to begin expanding my network.

Having recently left graduate school, I was new to networking in a professional environment. Initiating the first conversation was often the hardest part. Following up with the same person and understanding whether our interests aligned in the long term or short term took both time and courage. Furthermore, maintaining such a professional relationship over a long period of time took further time and care.

The idea of "strength of weak ties" often comes to my mind when I network with other professionals. Sociologist Mark Granovetter introduced this concept to describe how friends of friends, whose ties to us are neither strong nor direct, but can still play pivotal roles in helping us land a job, secure a business deal or earn a promotion. In the corporate context, this means cultivating weak ties with the hope that they will become beneficial at some point in the future.

Recently, I attended several events with college students and young professionals in Vietnam, focusing on AI and computer science. I found that Vietnamese youths had no issue with striking up conversations with me during the events. The issue was that there was no follow up. No one followed up with me about the conversations we had during the events.

The attendees were quick to add me on Facebook and LinkedIn. Yet, they did not send me a text saying something like: "Hi. It was great talking with you the other day. If you have time, I’d love to ask you a couple of follow up questions regarding point ABC." They often just added me via social media without mentioning where we met or how I could help them further. It was a silent, and mostly useless "click."

A few weeks ago, I was at International Conference on Learning Representation, a premier academic conference on Artificial Intelligence in Vienna, Austria. I heard from AI researchers that they had met researchers from Vietnam and had brief discussions with them. However, the Vietnamese researchers never followed up regarding opportunities discussed. This behavior was in stark contrast to other researchers, who would straightforwardly ask if they could collaborate on future projects. This observation resonated with my recent experiences engaging with young Vietnamese professionals.

It is often said that Vietnamese youths tend to be shy and are not encouraged to talk about themselves, their interests, and aspirations. I slightly disagree. From my conversations with machine learning engineers in Vietnam, I found them to be very smart, highly motivated, and coming to meeting well prepared full of pointed questions. What they lack is primarily a framework to communicate effectively, one that will result in long lasting and meaningful relationships with other professionals, especially on a global level.

Reflecting on my conversation with Susan, I followed her suggestions and began attending internal events organized by other departments. I blocked half an hour every week for one-on-one conversations with colleagues at work. I used these half-hour sessions to talk to enough people to learn about their interests, their work, their challenges, and opportunities for collaboration. This exercise helped me feel more connected to the company and its people.

I hope that other young professionals also strike up conversations with strangers, following up with a quick note via email, LinkedIn, Slack, or Facebook to deepen that the relationship beyond just meeting someone at an event. If possible, schedule a quick chat with these new contacts to learn more about their work and explore how both sides can benefit from each other professionally or socially.

Small talks change us in subtle ways. However, when aggregated, proper small talks with appropriate follow-up communications can lead to significant outcomes.

*Nga Than is a senior data scientist, living in New York City.

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