Assuming Rapport Rather Than Rejection

People are always talking about the importance of networking, but the entire concept fills me with dread. Networking gives me the heebies. The idea of cold calling total strangers makes my palms sweaty. The idea of doing some obligatory networking feels like my ongoing struggle to eat enough vegetables. (No, I am still not eating kale. Now I read that I’m supposed to “massage” kale to remove the bitterness? Still yuck.) The word networking makes me think of it as actual work (because it is); it conjures up images of chasing down hapless strangers with business cards and begging for meaningless endorsements on LinkedIn.

Last week on the #withaphd chat, we talked about networking. Turns out, lots of people have networking anxiety. As we discovered, fears range from being perceived as desperate to failing at small talk to outright rejection. These are real and valid fears, but I’ve come to the conclusion that networking as an academic outside of academia is critical. People helping people is how we’re going to succeed.

 I’ve been working on bumping up my networking efforts recently. I often forget that I should be networking regularly, not just when looking for new opportunities or clients. I’m trying to network with new people who are outside of my usual circles and people who do things in life that are not the same things that I do in life. It’s been fun and challenging and terrifying all at the same time.

Even while trying to be out and the world and meeting new people, I’ve never quite gotten over the feeling that every interaction might lead to rejection. Recently, someone suggested to me that instead of operating on assumptions of rejection, I might try to assume rapport instead. I confess that the idea shocked me, as I’d never given much thought to my assumptions about how I connect with people.

I did some research about this idea. It was the brainchild of Nicholas Boothman, author of How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds. This is not the type of book I normally read, so the idea of assuming rapport is brand new to me. (Full disclaimer: I have not read Boothman’s book. I just happen to know that the idea of assuming rapport is a part of his work. He might have some other ideas as well that I am not aware of.)

The idea of assuming rapport felt like a small revelation to me. Thinking over my interactions with people, I realized how often I don’t do this. So often in life, I’m approaching potential relationships with the assumption that other people are out to reject me.  Approaching people with an attitude of rejection makes creating relationships harder than I suspect it has to be. I find that I’m trying too hard. I’m focusing on me rather than them, because I’m determined to prove that I’m worth someone’s time and consideration.

As I thought about this situation some more, I realized that if people are wired for connection, people actually WANT to connect with other people.

We’re making assumptions all the time about ourselves and other people. If we’re going to tell ourselves some stories about our attempts to connect with others, why not make them empowering ones rather than disempowering ones?

I have absolutely zero proof that assuming rapport has changed the way that I connect with people. I’ve only been testing it out for the last few weeks. Now when I’m meeting with someone new and I’m a little nervous about it, I get stern with myself and tell myself that yes, I’m freaking out (always good to validate feelings, even if they aren’t real), but then I tell myself to assume rapport. People WANT to talk to me, right? I psyche myself up, telling myself that people genuinely want to connect with me, even if they don’t know it yet.

Although its too early to tell, approaching people with assumptions about rapport rather than rejection seems to have changed the quality of my interactions with them. Now I just assume that the person I’m trying to get to know and I will be pals from the get go. Just in my personal, rather than scientific experience, I’m more open with people and feel like I have less to prove. I don’t work as hard to try to prove to people that I’m worth talking to and I’m more able to just be me on my own rather than me trying really really hard to get people to like me. The conversation gets to be more about genuinely getting to know the other person and enjoying their company. In fact, assuming rapport feels much like the whole “fake it ‘til you make it” strategy for dealing with impostor syndrome.

Dealing with my fears of meeting people got easier when I realized this: people actually want to connect and help. Sometimes people are looking for someone to help them solve a problem they’re having. Other people might be looking for new friends and connections too. People are incredibly willing to help if we’re brave enough to ask. Of all of the times that I’ve called up a stranger, tweeted someone I didn’t know, or invited a new person out for coffee, only two people have ever outright said no to me. (One was busy taking care of an invalid elderly parent. The other was just a weirdo.) The majority have been totally awesome and cool people to connect with. Some professional connections have turned into new personal friends. Based on my non-scientific completely anecdotal evidence, my chances of connecting with a cool person who wants to help me are incredibly high. Logically, I should be basing my ideas about networking on actual evidence rather than assumptions of rejection.

This week, I’m practicing assuming rapport.
That is all.



Social Writing As An Introvert

I decided that I want to publish an article by the end of this year or early next year.

I finished my dissertation in January of this year. After a five-week marathon of writing, revising, and reformatting (and final submission at the eleventh hour), I took some time off to enjoy doing absolutely nothing for a few weeks. I read fiction. I cooked food. I napped. I needed to rest for a bit.

Since then, however, my intellectual production has been at an all-time low. It's not that I haven't been writing. I have. I write regular blog posts. I'm still working on writing my (awful) novel. I’ve been busy reading, editing, and commenting on other people’s work instead of working on my own. I’ve got the itch to do something with my research and thought that writing an article would be a good goal.

I wrote and published a few articles when I was a grad student, but received so much help that the process seemed simple and easy. Now on my own, without helpful professors or an institutional affiliation, I realized that I was going to need some help. The idea of writing and publishing an article (who, me?) seemed intimidating.

Fortunately, my public library carries Wendy Belcher’s excellent book, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. Armed with her book, I’ve been working through the exercises and making a writing plan.

Belcher argues that academic writers who publish regularly share four common keys to success. In order of appearance, they are (pp. 5-10):

  • Successful academic writers write.
  • Successful academic writers make writing social.
  • Successful academic writers persist despite rejection.
  • Successful academic writers pursue their passions.

The part about making writing social stumped me for a bit.

I’m an introvert by nature. I’ve known this about myself for years. I fit all of the criteria. I love being around people, but find that I become exhausted after spending time with too many people for too long. I feel anxiety when I look at photos of open work spaces. I sometimes take a long time to decide something because I want to consider all angles. I feel overwhelmed by too much light and noise. I do my absolute best work in silence and solitude.

When I first started writing my dissertation, I tried to write in coffee shops, as most of my colleagues did their best writing there. The sounds of people talking and clinking their coffee cups on saucers distracted me. Even with noise-canceling headphones, I couldn’t concentrate, as all I wanted to do was watch people. I found writing in noisy, busy settings difficult, but reasoned that dissertation writing was supposed to be tough. I felt anxious that I made little progress.

I made much better progress when I started paying attention to how I felt when I wrote in different places. I discovered that I could focus at home or in a library study carrel, far from the din and bustle of the outside world. I wrote alone and without noise; my ideas and writing began to flow. I’ve learned that to do my best work, I need to be alone and in a quiet place. When I finally connected my need to work alone to my introverted personality, it made perfect sense to me.

But back to article writing and academic publishing success.

Belcher writes about how isolation is a particular problem for scholars in the humanities. Writing dysfunction, she argues, is much higher in the humanities because we don’t view our writing and ideas as part of larger debates with actual people. We don’t generally work in teams, like people in STEM fields or even scholars in the social sciences. Historians, in particular, conduct their research in solitude in quiet archives and then write up their findings alone. We do not collaborate: we rarely, if ever, co-author articles. So, given that I’m an introvert in a field that endorses solitary writing, how could I possibly make writing social?

Making writing social, I’ve come to realize, doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to write in loud public places with other people. It does, however, mean that I need to talk about writing and share ideas with other people.  Academic writing doesn’t take place in a vacuum or on a planet devoid of other humans. We write in order to exchange ideas with other people.

What I realized was that even though I have to write alone, I am never alone with my ideas. When I was writing my dissertation, I regularly called up friends and colleagues to discuss my ideas with them. My car turned into a space of intellectual production, as my dissertation-writing bestie and I talked out all of our ideas on long drives. We exchanged rough chapter drafts ; we proofread each other’s work for grammar and as a way to flesh out ideas. We wrote in solidarity with each other, setting timers and checking in with each other to see what we had written that day. We encouraged each other, cheering each other on as we struggled to understand and express difficult ideas.

Even an introvert, I need to strive to make writing more of a social activity. Though I may have to work alone, I can still share ideas with other people and receive helpful feedback from them.

Here's what I'm doing to try and make my writing more social:

  • Blogging. A blog post on the Internet has a much wider reach than an academic article. People sometimes read and comment on my blog, so that it’s more like having a conversation with people than a solitary effort. I learn a lot from other people’s ideas and comments on the blog, tweets, and Facebook. I might write a few posts about my research article in progress and update people on how I'm doing with the writing and hammering out ideas.
  • Tweeting. Twitter is my social network of choice. I follow and am followed by a whole bunch of writing people: novelists, bloggers, dissertators, and the occasional poet. I’ve found it really helpful to talk about writing on Twitter (using the hashtag #acwri, #amwriting, or #writingpact). People discuss their writing projects, progress, and problems, all through 140 character messages. I’ve received writing encouragement from total strangers and do my best to cheer on anyone who seems to be struggling through a particular writing problem. I’m considering hosting a Twitter chat about academic writing (#acwrichat), which I think would help all kinds of people talk about their writing.
  • I’m hesitant to share my early drafts with a wide online audience, but I’m considering trying to get some more article writers together to work through Belcher’s book with me. A lot of my graduate cohorts are in the early stages of academic careers and need to get some articles published. I’m thinking about creating a Facebook group for article writers, where we could share ideas and help each other.
  • In the future, I’d like to co-author an article with a fellow historian and break the stereotype of the lone historian. I think it would be particularly fun to co-write with someone whose area of expertise is outside Latin America.
  • I’m stepping up my networking efforts. Networking is particularly difficult for me, but I’m always amazed how willing people are to help when I get brave enough to ask. I’m setting little networking goals for myself: emailing a scholar I don’t know, reconnecting with a colleague I haven’t seen for a long time. I’m also going to the American Historical Association meeting this year, despite the fact that I no longer have an institutional affiliation and am not even presenting a paper. I’ve got a much better idea of how to make the most out of conferences and am actually excited to go.

Finally, I’ve pinned a note above my desk with a sage piece of Belcher’s wisdom: “Without Community, writing is inconceivable.”

What are you writing? Let’s talk about it!