In the last few months, I’ve been teaching many talented international students about American networking. What it is and how it works. Why it’s critical to job search in the United States, especially in our weaker economy. Most students quickly understand why they need to do it. They intellectually understand what they must do. But doing it? Going out and doing it? Making that cold call to an alumna/e to set up a meeting? Many recoil at the thought of doing it. It just feels wrong to be so direct and aggressive. I don’t know them, they say. Shouldn’t I establish a real relationship first before I do the ask? I say yes, networking is about building genuine relationships, it is about being authentic.
But “relationships” are defined in a cultural context. In the more “transactional relationships” of the US culture we accept “shallower” and shorter relationship during which information is exchanged, where we help each other, without expecting to establish a longer-term friendship. This idea shocks many international persons who come from cultures that nurture relationships over time, cultivating it, developing trust, before any transaction is engaged.
I know it’s uncomfortable to ask, when you don’t really know someone. But an alumni connection is the first place to start in the US, as university affiliation is one of the strongest sources for networking. We tend to respond to a request for support from a fellow alum or student, even if we don’t know them. But because we don’t really know you, we rely heavily on understanding your “story”, that expresses your interests and goals, experiences and competency. These stories, sometimes known as the “elevator pitch”, need to be cogent and persuasive. Beyond this “core story” we expect you to offer supporting examples that prove you are telling a real story. Hence the back and forth questions during networking conversations.
Yes, there are networking protocols that are confusing. Yes, there are structural communications methods Americans use in networking conversations that you may be unaware of. Yes, developing a “core story” can feel challenging if you’ve never had to craft a story about yourself. These are all understandable reasons to feel challenged to initiate networking.
But the greatest challenge, is to give yourself permission to reach out, to take the risk and ask.
For so many international students with whom I have worked, once they understand that Americans have a truly different view of “relationships” and they recognize that asking non-social friends for career support is expected in the US, they start to swing into action.
But beware, that a prepared networker is the one who finds a job at the end of the road. There’s an American saying that goes, “we help those who help themselves”. Do all the pre work you can before making the call to an alumna/e. Have a well-developed and practiced core story that is cogent, persuasive and engaging. Support it with complementary examples. Respect the time the alumna/e is giving you by being fully prepared. Help yourself succeed.
But in the end, the alumna/e can help you, only if you send the email or make the call.
So, do the ASK. It’s ok. We Americans expect it.