We talk a great deal about how important first impressions are in business, but suggestions are almost universally spelled out for our own self-improvement, leaving out how we affect the first impressions that others make through our introductions. A bad introduction can cripple a conversation, and sour relationships, whereas a good one can make a conversation not only informative, but useful, as it can lead you and people around you to a world of opportunities down the line.
I attended a conference with a friend recently. Overwhelmed by seeing so many colleagues and friends, she became engaged in conversation with everyone we met, often forgetting to introduce me. On the occasions that she did introduce me, she simply told the people with whom she was speaking that I was a friend. My friend is not a terrible person – very often, when we are among a large group, it can be easy to get caught up in conversation and not realize we’re insulating people and essentially disabling them from connecting with one another.
A list of pointers for introductions is more necessary than ever. Below are a few helpful tips from the monarch of social butterflies, my mother:
If you’re in conversation with a person or group of people and someone you know comes up to you, find a comfortable way to conclude the conversation and direct your attention to the new-comer before introducing the group to him or her.
While titles are optional, using their first and last name is preferable in a larger setting, as there may be a lot of people with the same first name present. At a conference where most of us know one another through usernames and not always our real names, it is perfectly acceptable to use these instead. For example, if you don’t know that the Bloggess’ name is Jenny Lawson, you may introduce her as “the Bloggess, a blogger, humor columnist and co-author of the Houston Chronicle’s ‘Good Mom/Bad Mom’ column.”
By including a little description with the name, you enable further conversation and provide a general idea of Jenny’s work for those who may not be familiar with it.
Tailor the introduction to the person or group
As mentioned above, including some information about a person when introducing them is optimal for conversation. If you know the person very well, consider your audience before making an introduction. For example, I was at a tech conference when I happened to meet a friend of mine who is very involved in the venture capitalist space. She pulled me into the group and introduced me to the wholly male audience as, “AV Flox, the greatest sex columnist I’ve ever read, never shy to discuss the wildest things!” While I love the description, the introduction completely disabled me from having any discussion about technology with that illustrious group of people. Oh, that she’d introduced me as a sometimes tech writer for the LA Weekly!
The more you give about the person during an introduction, the higher the quality of conversation that you can generate with an introduction. For example, introducing someone as a science writer is fine, but think of the conversation you could create if you put in the extra effort and introduced the person as a science writer for Scientific American that specializes on the topic of animal cognition!
Keep it brief! The most powerful introductions are the short ones that are tailored to offer just the right information about a person.
A little bit of order
Out of respect, introductions have conventionally followed an order: the younger or less important person is introduced to the older or more important person. It is also customary to introduce men to women. Today, these are not hard and fast rules – a good thing, since they can make introductions particularly tricky to execute in a group setting. Even so, it is always a good idea to keep it in mind when you wish to acknowledge someone of considerable status, such as a diplomat, or someone considerably older.
When introducing a single person to a group, name the group members first. This helps bring their attention the newcomer, in the event they have not yet noticed that introductions are being made.
Introduce the person who accompanied you to the event by their full name, and his or her relationship to you. Keep in mind that the description of your relationship may cause some awkwardness! I once had a girlfriend present her date as her “friend with benefits,” which grieved her date to such an extent, he soon left the gathering. Even if it’s true, you may prefer to opt for a more neutral term, such as “my plus-one.”
When you’re introducing a couple, introduce the woman first, and include her relationship to the person she’s with. This is especially useful for married women who have retained their maiden names, as surnames may be used by others to ascertain relationship status. When introducing long-term couples. couples who are cohabitating or couples in a same-sex marriage, you may use words like “partner” and “companion.”
What happens if you encounter a friend at an event with someone that is not his or her spouse? Keep your cool, of course! Remember: you may not have all the details of the marriage to determine what’s going on. Introduce them as best you can and keep in mind that whatever you do, it is not appropriate to blurt out how their spouse is doing or anything that may suggest an indiscretion in front of other guests. An acquaintance of my mother’s once made a scene at a gala when my father made an appearance with a towering “Russian bimbo” less than half his age. She had no idea that I had recently gone triple-process blonde and decided to sit in for my mother who was unable to attend!
Say you’re having an incredible conversation and someone comes up. As tempted as you may be to finish the conversation before introducing the person, find a way to pause the discussion to make the introduction. You can easily get the conversation back on track afterward by saying, “it’s so nice to see you! Anne, Melissa and I were just discussing McDonald’s new healthy Happy Meal version, which will cut down the size of fry servings by half and also include apple slices. Melissa thinks this is just a move on their part to avoid legislation.”
Some people like to follow that up with a question such as “what do you think?” But because you never know if the newcomer has the background to offer a response, I find that this approach, while good-intentioned, can unnecessarily put people on the spot when they don’t have enough details to offer the kind of brilliant answer they would if the conversation were about something they are more familiar with. Thus, by reiterating the last thing that was said, you hand the conversation back to the person who last spoke, enabling the newcomer to warm up to the discussion before jumping in.
I discovered how important that small detail was when I was visiting my sister in college. I made my entrance to the small bar just as she was wrapping up a heated diatribe about the instability of the yuan – did I have something to add about its effect on the world economy? “Oh dear!” I deflected. “We are clearly going to need more drinks for this conversation. Allow me to get them.” As much as I love reading the Wall Street Journal every morning, I knew that my knowledge was rudimentary compared to the five passionate econ majors in whose company I found myself. By ducking out of the conversation, I enabled them to continue their discussion, learning a great deal in the process.
Of course, if you don’t feel that doing so would completely derail the conversation for your benefit alone, you may ask the people speaking to explain the topic to you in a little more detail.
Oh, no! Not that person!
This has happened to all of us. We’re having a brilliant time talking when, suddenly, someone we know and do not care for approaches the group. Maybe the person is a conversation monopolizer, or overwhelmingly sycophantic, or maybe all he can do is derail conversations to talk about his personal dramas, or maybe you just don’t like her for no good reason! What do you do? You suck it up. This isn’t high school. Greet the person and, if appropriate, introduce them to the people in the group.
You can usually redirect the conversation from a monopolizer by giving them some acknowledgement, and tying the last thing they said to something someone else in the group mentioned previously (“congratulations on starting your own web video production company! Melissa Rowley here has a fantastic presence on video, she did a series of features on people in the cause space that were fascinating. Melissa, how long have you been involved with social good?”).
You can deflect a deluge of compliments by thanking the person and pointing out something you admire about someone else in the group (“thank you! I had no idea you found my coverage of issues in the web space so useful. Have you read Jolie’s work? She reported for Mashable before transitioning to Venture Beat this year – how are you enjoying the closer focus on technology, Jolie?”).
The derailer is a little more difficult to deal with, as you don’t want to be insensitive to their struggles, no matter how inappropriate you think sharing iPhone photos of his mauled body after a car crash may be right before dinner is served. The key is to be kind and courteous. There are no hard and fast rules for dealing with people: the right answer is always the one that creates the least possible amount of disruption and awkwardness.
Connecting the dots
Someone came up to your group and someone else introduced them to you brilliantly, then, instead of individually introducing everyone present, he or she simply said, “and this is everyone else!” Take the initiative and introduce yourself before the conversation resumes. People will follow your example, even if they felt awkward about breaking the ice at first. If someone else in the group returns to the conversation without paying attention to the newcomer, you may take it upon yourself to introduce everyone as unobtrusively as possible. Adopting a casual attitude toward what could be considered a slight will help avoid awkwardness on the part of the newcomer and the rest of the group. This is another reason why it’s a good idea to start group introductions by naming everyone in the group first: it gets people’s attention and lets them know an introduction is underway.
What about me?
Two people approach you and a friend and one of the newcomers introduces your friend to the person they’re with. If the person you’re with does not introduce you, take it in stride and introduce yourself. If you don’t know either newcomer, direct your introduction both of them. You may also take this opportunity to share what you were just discussing with your friend, or start a new conversation based on the information you were provided during the introduction.
When we arrive alone at big conferences, we may not be able to connect with friends to facilitate meeting new people. While it is considerably harder to introduce yourself to people you don’t know, the chances of making a successful introduction are that much higher, since it’s all you! Take the initiative!
You never know who you may meet at a networking event. Try to avoid interrupting people when you approach, and make a note to remember people’s names when they introduce themselves to you. This can be difficult when you’re meeting a lot of people in a short span of time, but do your best. The harder you practice, the better you will get. This will do wonders for you when you encounter them later and are able to introduce them to people.
The ultimate secret weapon to social success is listening and keeping that information. This is easier said than done, especially for those of us who have short attention spans and are always multitasking internally during the small talk portion of the evening. To keep myself focused, I like to pretend that I am a secret agent, collecting intelligence to prevent the destruction of the free world as I know it. Don’t laugh! It really works for me!
Paying attention to people’s names is just the start. Paying attention to what they say can greatly help you introducing them later. A good memory makes a lasting impression; it tells people that you find them important enough to remember. Of course, it’s not uncommon to forget, not because people aren’t important, but because we don’t always have the bandwidth for all the information that we pour into our minds daily. There are two ways to deal with this: you can bluff your way through or you can admit you forgot.
Bluffing is an art, and easiest when you recognize the person and how you know the person but simply can’t recall the name. My mother does this by deflecting: “how wonderful to see you again! This is my daughter Anaiis, who is visiting from Los Angeles. You moved here shortly after she headed to California, so I don’t think you ever had a chance to meet. What have you been doing? I never see you at the club house to watch the sunset anymore!” The answer provides enough information to let the person know that she remembers him and leads him straight into a conversation without letting on that she has forgotten his name.
But if you can’t recall a person’s name or how you know them, then the best solution may be to come clean. Do not panic or act flustered, as this will undoubtedly make the person feel more awkward than necessary. Greet the newcomer warmly, then admit that you have forgotten their name: “I am so sorry! I’ve met so many people tonight; I am having a difficult time keep track of everyone’s names!”
Give and take
You know how embarrassing it is to not remember someone’s name, so don’t ever put someone else on the spot by asking, “do you remember me?” If you ever get any hint that the person you have approached does not remember you, save them the trouble and re-introduce yourself, “hello, Joan! I’m A.V. Flox, we met earlier today at registration. I’m the section editor for Love & Sex.” The person will appreciate the reminder, even if they were able to place you.
What if you’re introduced by the wrong name, or position? Don’t take it personally and take the first opportunity to correct the error. At a recent gallery opening, I met a young man studying the mating habits of worms at CalTech. When my friend joined me from the bar, I introduced him to her, but instead of saying CalTech, I said UCLA! Without embarrassment, he corrected the error, and we got back to discussing his research. No harm done. To err is human, after all.
I have noticed an increase in greetings that involve how people look. You’ve probably heard them: “oh, you look fabulous!” Compliments are lovely, but they can be awkward from people who are not close friends, especially if they also involve looking at the person up and down. As wonderful as the person may look, it may be best to greet them and ask them how they’re doing. And beware the backhanded compliment! I once attended a dinner party where the woman to whom I was introduced took a look at me and said, “you are so thin, I don’t know if I should hate you or force feed you butter.” There is nothing welcoming about this kind of comment and it is never appropriate.
Under no circumstances are you to greet someone and suggest they look unwell! This is an incredibly insensitive remark, as health is a sensitive topic, not to mention that it suggests that a person doesn’t look his or her best! Offering someone water may have a similar implication, so if you know the person, find a way to pull them aside discreetly and, once you’re alone, ask them whether you can do anything to help.
Even if they look fantastic, it is also not appropriate to ask whether a person has gained or lost weight unless you are very good friends and engaged in a private conversation. Remember: you don’t know if the loss or gain is related to a health issue that may make the person feel uncomfortable. Pregnancy may also be a sensitive subject, so unless the person brings it up herself, do not ask questions, no matter how obvious the signs may be to you. And don’t ask anyone if they’ve had work done, for goodness’ sake, even if it’s obvious!
It’s also a good idea to think carefully before asking where a person got their dress, or other aspect of their outfit, and refrain from asking how much anything cost. These may be sensitive topics and this is difficult to gauge if you do not know the person with whom you’re speaking. Instead of asking directly and putting them on the spot, say that you admire their style and suggest you’re looking to expand your wardrobe, then ask the person if they have suggestions. This approach shows you respect the person’s opinion and may inspire them to tell you all about their wardrobe without putting them on the spot.
Handshaking is the main form of greeting in the United States, though this may vary depending on the person to whom you’re being introduced. If you’re unsure how to proceed, mimic the behavior of the group of people among whom you find yourself. Otherwise, stretch out your hand.
I spent my childhood in South America, so I grew used to kissing in greeting. As a result of spending my adolescence in the Pacific, I grew sensitive to people’s desire for personal space and will refrain from kissing in greeting unless I know a person well or feel that they are receptive to that sort of greeting. In business settings, and especially in the company of men I do not know, I opt for the more common handshake instead.
Whatever a person’s receptivity to your greeting, it is not appropriate to touch them or their things in any other context. Even if their hair is impossibly beautiful, their coat is fuzzy, their purse seems to be made out of the plushest teddy bears, it is not acceptable to touch it. You may ask whether you can touch their coat, but try to gauge how comfortable they may be with such a request beforehand.
This is especially true of pregnant women! Just because they are experiencing one of the greatest joys of their lives does not entitle the general public to touch their bodies! A lot of them view their bellies as an extension of their fundus and may feel such liberty to be a gross invasion of their personal space.
Time is money, they say. It may be true, but courtesy is more important than the bottom line, and courtesy dictates that we do our best not to waste people’s time. If in conversation with someone they offer a joint venture, be honest about whether or not you plan to follow up. It is perfectly acceptable to tell someone that your budget limitations prevent expansion at this point, or something similar, so as to save them the time they would spend following up with you.
If you are interested in further discussion with someone you’ve met, ask for their card. If they don’t have one and you feel they’re as interested in the prospect as you are, ask them for their preferred form of contact so you can follow up with them. Most people wait until after a networking event or conference is over to go through their cards and make contact, but this can be trying – especially at bigger events where we leave with stacks of cards.
The sexologist Megan Andelloux taught me something invaluable about connections at busy places: take a photo with the people you’re talking with and then ask everyone to input the e-mail address into your phone so you can share the photo with them. This way, people get your e-mail address, a reminder of who the e-mail belongs to, and where you bumped into them. It’s a casual and perfect way to make a lasting impression, and one I will not soon forget!
P.S. Protect yourself from the coming data-powered panopticon by getting a VPN.