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How to schmooze

April 7, 2011

Alcohol: an essential ingredient in any networking strategy

Geneva is a city punching waaaay above its weight – it’s tiny, really, with a population of less than 200,000* and is not particularly beautiful, fun or interesting. And yet it is home to the headquarters of most of the world’s major humanitarian organisations and UN agencies, not to mention 10,000 evil CERN scientists, and at least as many evil bankers**.  As a result, there are a lot of high-profile, intelligent and/or extremely conceited people getting around town, each and every one of whom has an agenda. Networking, then, is the order of the day, and no place is sacred – you’ll find people doing it in bars, on the train, in grocery stores, even on ski lifts. Business cards are passed out like confetti. “Let’s do lunch” is such a common phrase that you slowly begin to forget what a douchebag you sound like when saying it.

The high church of networking in Geneva is The Conference. The Conference is where the networking magic happens – people are less inhibited, what little small talk there was in the first place is dispensed with, and the result is a networking orgy climaxing in a great explosion of business cards. These conferences can be found any day of the week at the shiny hotels scattered throughout Geneva and in the musty rooms of the Palais Wilson, and they come in all shapes and sizes – small and cramped with stale coffee in paper cups (the ones hosted by human rights organisations), big and formal and translated into six different languages (the ones hosted by the UN), and manageable, slick, and well-produced with a well-stocked bar and gourmet lunches (every other conference). It doesn’t matter what the topic is – in fact, in most UN conferences participants ignore the topic and talk about Israel and Palestine anyway – the common theme running through these events is what can you do for me?

Chances are at some point or another you’re going to end up at one of these conferences. And though you may not consider yourself a consciously upwardly mobile person, you’ll find that merely being in the presence of professionals gets your networking blood flowing. So, while you’re at it, remember the golden rules:

You’re never fully dressed without a business card

Although it is so true that it is now clichéd to say that social networking has revolutionised the way we make and maintain personal and business contacts, you should never underestimate the power of a business card, which stays with its recipient as a tangible reminder of your meeting long after your impression has warn off. Good networkers know this, and as such most meetings you attend in Geneva begin with an exchange of business cards even before eye contact is made or hellos are issued. It is a strange, strange phenomenon, not unlike some sort of animal mating ritual. But, it works – in my thoroughly unstatistical research a person who maintains a presence in the life of the recipient via the business card is far more likely to be called/emailed. This may be a bad thing, when the recipient is a conniving intern looking for a job – this is a professional hazard when networking in Geneva, so beware. But the general rule still stands – never leave home without a business card. Trust me – I’ve yet to receive my business cards despite being in my job six months, and on a number of embarrassing occasions I’ve been asked for my card and had to make up some lame excuse about accidentally leaving them at my office which only serves to convince the other person that I am a liar and an imposter because only a socially suicidal person would walk out their front door without a business card.

Don’t underestimate the power of body language

I was at a conference just yesterday and prior to proceedings beginning everyone was standing around the coffee area mingling. This is the hardest part of networking, sidling up to a group of people you don’t know who are talking about something you know nothing about and nodding your head along until someone actually acknowledges your presence. I’m more of a ‘play hard to get’ kind of networker, which perhaps explains my incredible lack of success in the networking game. But as far as I can tell, when you’re in an environment when most people are unfamiliar to each other and someone has to make the first move, body language is key. Playing, messaging, or pretending to talk*** on your phone is a big no-no. People don’t want to approach you if they fear you’ll respond with a finger and an over exaggerated whisper saying ‘I’ll just be one second!” because then they’ll look like a fool. So, be unoccupied, except, perhaps, by the conference program or some other non-involved piece of reading material – do NOT stand there absolutely engrossed in The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo or some similar tome. Despite the fact that some people (not me) will judge me for your literary taste, others will simply assume you’re not interested in talking to them.  Other than that, all the normal body language rules apply – no crossed arms, stand up straight, make eye contact (but not too much, you don’t want to be the creepy eye contact guy that everyone else is talking about) and smile if someone comes your way. And apply these rules in reverse – approach the people who look open, friendly and aren’t giving you a creepy amount of eye contact.

Talk the talk

This is where networking is make or break – do you have the right chat? This one’s a veritable minefield, but there are some definite dos and don’ts:

DO:                         Use people’s names.

DON’T:                 Call them by the wrong name. This is uuuuuber embarrassing and will only convince them that you are NOT the type of person they want to be networked to. Expect imminent withdrawal of business cards.

DO:                         Ask lots of questions.

DON’T:                 Ask questions that you should already know the answer to. This is a difficult one in a place like Geneva, where the odds of actually saying to the slightly decrepit man you meet at the drinks reception “so, what do you do?” and him answering “well, actually, I’m the British Ambassador” are quite high. Clearly, you can’t be expected to match the face of every dignitary and high-ranking UN official to their name and title, can you? WRONG. Yes you can. Get studying, lest you want your next assignment to be in somewhere a little more exciting than Geneva, like Mogadishu.

ALSO DON’T: After one too many cheap wines, ask questions like “have you ever been to therapy?” Not a great idea. Just sayin’.

DO: Have two glasses of wine in your hands at all times. This will provide you with the perfect opportunity for escape when conversation becomes boring – “oh, I’m just taking this to so-and-so, I’ll be right back!”

DON’T: Drink both drinks while you’re talking to the British Ambassador.

ALSO DON’T: Have two glasses of wine in your hands if it’s a breakfast meeting. While the conference will certainly be more interesting because of it, your career probably won’t.


*Around the same size as Little Rock, Arkansas; Dudley, England; or Geelong, Australia.

** You no doubt know that, due to it’s long tradition of privacy in banking affairs, permissive banking regulations and low tax rates, Switzerland is a major financial hub, but did you know that apparently 30% of all private wealth in Africa is held offshore in Switzerland? This seems… wrong.

*** Oh come on, we’ve all done it, right?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2011 10:28 am

    This is so funny! And very well timed. I am off to a round table seminar in a couple of hours on making fiscal policy more stabilising. The attendee list is extremely small, and I am dreading the networking that might be involved. Sadly, I too am still waiting for my business cards (I’ve only been here a month, though, so I should probably be a bit more patient). Anyway, thanks for sharing your advice! Will do my best to stay away from playing sudoku on my blackberry. xx

    • April 7, 2011 10:33 am

      Thanks Meera! Great timing then… I have to say I think the smaller the better, it’s much easier to approach people I think! And what a FASCINATING subject 🙂 xx

  2. mskaydee permalink
    April 7, 2011 11:57 am

    Also a no-no: talking to the person who’s just given a speech that you were meant to be listening too (Facebook was more interesting) and asking them who they are/what they do. I can say from experience, that’s embarrassing. Especially if you try to dig yourself out of the hole by saying “Oh don’t be silly, I know who YOU are, I was only joking…”

  3. April 7, 2011 12:16 pm

    I did that to the American ambassador, week 1, at an event she was hosting. In fairness, she asked who I was, I told her, and since she didn’t reciprocate by volunteering who she was, I thought it polite to ask. Error.

  4. maz permalink
    September 14, 2011 11:45 am

    Bonjour Geneve Girl!,

    Well I have finally landed on a decent blog and can read up on all the happenings in Switzerland particulary the canton where we will soon be living. We are on loan to from Australia and spreading our wings in new beautiful Switzerland. I would love to hear more about how you got your visa and whether you can apply for Switzerland residential visa in a consulate there?

    Any feedback would be fab!

    • September 15, 2011 10:49 am

      Hi Maz! I am also an Australian living in Switzerland so welcome! Glad I could be of some assistance (I have been a bit slack with the entries but nevertheless)! In terms of applying for a residential visa, from my understanding this is done at a cantonal level, so you should approach the Office Cantonal de Population in your canton (if Geneva My residential permit is tied to my employment, as I understand a lot of peoples’ are, so I’m not sure how it works if your employer doesn’t organise it for you.
      Sorry I can’t be of more help. You could also try the forums on which are quite helpful.


  1. How to know when you’ve been in Geneva too long – Part 2 | HOW TO MAKE IT IN GENEVA

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