When I attend professional events and am about to be introduced, I spend time thinking about the role I am in. Often the moderator will ask everyone to “give their name, and the organization they represent” or something like that (in 2 minutes or less). This seems to imply that we all have just one job. But increasingly this doesn’t reflect the world of work.

It is estimated that today 57.3 million American workers – 36% of the workforce – are in the freelance, also known as the gig or contingent, economy; and by 2027, a majority of workers (dominated by millennials) will be there. This often means that we might be juggling multiple jobs or “gigs” at once.  On a given day of the week (or even time of the day), your gig might vary, not unlike a musician who plays at a different club every night. As a freelance worker, who you work for matters less than what you are doing at the moment (particularly if at the moment you are on your computer at Starbucks). You are not so much defined by your “employer” of the moment, but rather the task you are engaged in.

The hat metaphor has long been used to describe a person’s job or professional identity. It harkens back to a time when occupations could be identified by a style of hat: bankers wore different hats (the bowler hat), than did factory workers. And certain hats evoked more prestige than others. Even today, deference is given to military men and women wearing their uniforms, topped with headdress. But today, a hat might tell you very little about what a person does career wise. I’ve seen CEOs of major IT corporations wearing baseball caps.

So when you have simultaneously various ways to self-identify yourself work-wise (different hats), how should you go about sharing about yourself? Because of the importance of networking, there are advantages of a generalized description of yourself (“I work in international education”), as well as advantages of a more specific identification (“I’m a program officer in the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the U.S. Institute of Peace.”).

In any case, you need to carefully consider how you introduce yourself. If the event does not provide for any other interaction, this might be the only time you have to stand out! So make it count. If the event deals with a specific topic and you clearly relate to that area, then identifying your connection is important.    If I am at an international education event, it makes more sense to say I am president of a humanitarian education NGO, than I am a retired lawyer (which I am).  It is important to be thoughtful about how you present yourself. This requires knowing your audience. Think: Why did they come to the event? What is the purpose of the event? If the event is for “practitioners” rather than “researchers” then sharing about the applied work you are engaged in might be important.

If there is a coffee break, the networking that might take place then or after the program ends will be a time for you to explore ways of connecting with those at the event. Don’t be shy.  Small talk and glad-handing are expected.  I’m frequently at events where intersectionality is important. By that, we are seeing today how fields that might at first glance seem unrelated are in fact working together to seek social and political change. Consider if you are engaged in environmental research as a grad student and have been looking at the conflict dimension of climate migration: people being forced to move because of environmental change and then find themselves in conflict.  You now have an important opportunity for a more focused conversation one-on-one during a break with folks working on conflict or environmental issues.  

Finally, listen very carefully to how others introduce themselves. I tend to take notes during introductions, and might even create a rough seating chart.  It’s always impressive when you can address someone by his or her name at an event after they have been briefly introduced. (Sometimes there are no name tags provided!)  A person following you might describe him or herself in relation to you or make some reference to your background. When I was at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) people who followed me would often include something like (offered for my benefit) “I received a grant from USIP” or “I participated in a USIP program.” They are trying to make a connection with you, and rest assured that at the coffee break they will seek you out!

More than anything else, don’t throw away the chance to position yourself in the best possible light that allows for connections to be made that are important to advancing your interests, career goals, and projects you might be seeking collaboration on.

David J. Smith is the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing, 2016). He is also president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education, Inc. He can be reached at https://davidjsmithconsulting.com or davidjsmith@davidjsmithconsulting.com.

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David J. Smith

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