Awkward Networking Situations and How to Handle Them

Have you ever found yourself in an uncomfortable conversation that you weren’t sure exactly how to get out of? In this edition of "Ringside With Michael," networking expert Michael Goldberg takes a humorous but practical look at different networking scenarios and how to get through those awkward moments unscathed.

February 13, 2013

So here it is! The most embarrassing situation I’ve ever experienced when networking (that I know of). Picture this: I’m traveling on business with Jackie, a top executive for a hotel chain. Jackie and I are to co-facilitate a one-day training session with the management team of a hotel property. Now, Jackie and I have absolutely nothing in common. Zilch. She’s a bit older than me and comes across like a college professor (not that there’s anything wrong with that). She’s conservative in her manner, eloquent and articulate in her delivery, and highly intelligent. (All the things I’m not.) Now, this is all fine except her personality is a bit aloof so it’s not easy to connect.

We are to speak at the event for the entire day with breaks in the morning, the afternoon, and for lunch. We kick off our meeting without a hitch and the morning just sort of flies by. The next thing you know we’re breaking for lunch and find ourselves at a buffet. It’s one of those deals where everyone is standing with Styrofoam plates, paper cups, and plastic utensils. Lunch consisted of grilled chicken, steamed string beans, and something orange I couldn’t identify. So as Jackie spoke to me, I bit down into a string bean and (you guessed it) … water in the form of a jet stream fired at warp speed in her direction.

The water didn’t hit her directly in the face. It did, however, take an interesting trajectory downward and at the very last second actually grazed the lens of her eye glasses leaving a line of water. It then “dripped” into her soda.

I tried to play it off as if nothing happened. Well, what would you do?! As you might suspect, Jackie was on to me. She actually went cross-eyed for a moment as she looked at the line of water on her lens. (Uncomfortable moment.)

My brilliant reply was, “So what now?” That was all I could muster. Jackie actually smiled and asked if I would get her another soda and she would wipe her lens and we could call it even. Fair enough! The rest of the day went fine and it ended up being a great day … and a good relationship moving forward. Funny story, right?

Here are some awkward moments (or at least scenarios you may question) that might send you running for the steamed vegetables.

How do I introduce myself?

Well, it depends. Is the person you’re approaching in the middle of a conversation or not? If so, excuse yourself politely and introduce yourself. If they appear to be heavily involved in conversation (whether it’s transactional, personal, or technical in nature), offer to return once they’re finished speaking with one another. If you’re not interrupting, then simply introduce yourself and ask some engaging questions about them.

How do I introduce others and gracefully walk away?

Excuse yourself for interrupting and introduce whomever it might be. During the course of your introduction, let them know why you’re introducing them and perhaps highlight how they might help one another. Then offer them time to get to know one another as you excuse yourself politely.

What should I do if I forget someone’s name?

Don’t worry! Have comfort in knowing that they probably won’t remember your name either. So just reintroduce yourself (for their benefit) and they’ll do the same. “You may not remember me but we met last month. My name is Michael!” If they know your name and you don’t know their name (see how you are?), simply apologize and ask them to remind you of their name. I will frequently remind them that I’m old and I forget things. Sometimes they laugh. Usually you won’t offend anyone, as it’s difficult to keep track of all the people we come in contact with. Believe me, they can relate. If someone does get persnickety about you forgetting their name, you probably don’t want to know them anyway.

How do I write on someone’s business card without offending?

The better question might be why should you write on someone’s business card? So you don’t forget to follow through on promises that you don’t intend to keep (kidding). Just ask permission to write on someone’s card (even though they’re giving it to you). It’s a respectful thing to do and people seem to appreciate that you’re even interested in writing something at all. It’s kind of flattering! Japanese business professionals (and perhaps those in some other cultures) may be offended if you write on their card. If need be, take a note on an index card, which you might want to have in your pocket.

How do I excuse myself politely without offending?

Again, it depends. If you have something to do (bathroom, refreshments, chat with someone else), simply excuse yourself and let them know. These things happen — nothing new. If you’re speaking with someone whom you don’t want to be speaking with anymore, simply offer to let them go so you don’t prevent them from speaking with others. Just be polite and respectful.

“Let me let you go. I’m sure there are others at the event you’re looking to connect with. If I can be of help in any way here, please don’t hesitate to let me know.”

If you could introduce them to someone of mutual benefit to them, great! If you can request an intro to someone at the venue, better still.

What do I do if I’ve done something embarrassing or stupid?

There’s stupid and then there’s stupid. If you mispronounce someone’s name, it’s no big deal. You’ll be corrected anyway. If you accidentally offend someone, breach someone’s confidence, or spit food in someone’s face — I think we’re talking about a gracious apology and an offer to make it right. Keep in mind, when you do something unethical, breach a trust issue, or act intentionally rude or inconsiderate to someone, an apology may not cut it.

What if you just don’t click?

Face it, you won’t click with everyone. Yes, even I don’t connect with everyone if you can imagine that! It’s just the way life is. Knowing this, you are less likely to feel awkward about not having a good connection. Besides, if you feel that there’s not a good connection, they feel the same way. The opposite is also true. The next person you meet might be your soul mate. You never know!

Can you think of awkward moments you’ve had or mistakes you’ve made at a cocktail party or networking event? What would you change if you could? The reality is that there are very few sticky situations that can happen when networking and even socializing that you can’t get unstuck from. And most people, thankfully, have a sense of humor and can almost always relate on some level. Even if you’re a REALTOR®! Outside of offending someone and getting hit, what’s the worst that can happen? Just avoid the string beans.

Michael Goldberg teaches agents how to generate more business through high impact, “knock-out” networking strategies. Author of the book Knock-Out Networking!, Goldberg delivers real world approaches to networking and referral marketing that can be applied immediately. He is also an adjunct instructor at Rutgers University and donates time to speak at networking groups focused on job searches. Learn more about Goldberg at