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Rehumanizing 'Networking'

By Kathryn A. McCawley
By Michelle I. Gao, Crimson Opinion Writer
Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

At work this summer, everything was a networking opportunity — from the official socializing events that had “networking” in the title to the random run-ins with senior staff while standing in the lunch line. Networking was so important that we could clock it in. The emphasis was mildly uncomfortable, but not because I didn’t enjoy meeting people whose careers I admired and whose opinions I wanted to hear. The term “networking” just didn’t feel right.

There is no lack of networking opportunities at college too. Already, in the second week of school, my inbox is full of “networking sessions” and “networking nights.” The term is also so ubiquitous that sometimes when I reflected on my first year here, I found myself saying I wished I had networked more. But I disliked this turn of phrase. What I wanted to have done was to “make more friends” or “start more relationships.” It seemed insulting to the people at Harvard that I would refer to my desire to get to know more of them as just “networking.”

Because “networking” doesn’t feel human enough. Networking is for machines! The technology may have changed, but the fundamental image stays the same. In the 1550s, a “network” would have referred to a literal net-like arrangement of threads or wires. In the 1830s, “network” was used to refer to transport systems like rivers, canals, and railways. In the 1910s, it was also used to refer to broadcast systems of multiple transmitters. And in the 1970s, it began to refer to computers.

It was only in the late 1970s that the act of “networking” began to also apply to humans, in the modern sense of creating a system of contacts. I think that this is no coincidence. Technology has come to define more and more aspects of our society.
But this takeover is not entirely a good thing. In terms of networking, I especially don’t want to feel like a machine following a procedure to get a good career. I think most people enjoy the conversations that make up effective networking and do not need to be constantly reminded to network.

For the past few summers, for example, I have been lucky enough to have internships where I was surrounded by people who have done amazing things and who have insightful opinions. The people with whom I had coffees and conversations were not items to check off a list. They were just great coworkers and mentors that I’m lucky to have gotten to know and want to keep in touch with.
The image of “networking” also doesn’t emphasize the right parts of the activity because it keeps the focus outwards — on always adding more and more nodes to a central hub. This mindset minimizes the humanity and individuality of the people one is trying to meet. Those people are simply subsumed into one’s ever-expanding network.

Are there ways to think about “networking” that aren’t so transactional and dehumanizing? Or, better yet, are there ways not to have to think of it? The most grating thing about “networking” is all the emphasis placed on doing it, which makes me overthink it. It makes me question whether I’m being too transactional, and then question whether I’m being too self-conscious about being transactional if everyone else is doing it too. It makes me constantly assess the quantity and quality of my network, which makes me question whether I’m being too transactional again.

My mind turns to the E. M. Forster quote “Only connect.” This is what networking should ultimately be about. A connection narrows the focus down to the two people. It’s about getting close to the person one wants to get to know, not just adding them to one’s existing roster. It feels less technological and more symbiotic. We need some emphasis back on this — the natural ease of connecting with other people, as opposed to the rote procedure of professional networking.

We’re humans, not machines, and so we do not connect out of obligation, but out of interest. And because we are humans, not machines, we are much more than what we do for work.

Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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