November 23, 2007
Wouldn't you like to be a schmoozer, too?
Seattle Times staff reporter
At first glance, Dr. Renee Gilbert doesn't seem like the sort of person who should teach a seminar called "The Art of Schmoozing." She speaks in a quiet voice, and stray sentences trail off to a shy whisper.
In fact, the 48-year-old Seattle psychologist concedes that she was "the kind of person who sat by herself at parties." But in front of this class she manages to exude wit and charm as she jokes, smiles and coaxes students to respond to her questions. Not a born schmoozer herself, she said she relies instead on willpower and practice. Gilbert, therefore, turns out to be the perfect role model for the 18 men and women who took her class to polish their schmoozing skills.
Though many people believe the word "schmoozing" has a malodorous connotation, in Gilbert's view it simply means "surviving and thriving in a roomful of strangers." As Gilbert knows and her students suspect, schmoozing is a vital survival skill in a species that thrives on social interaction. It helps people build social relations, casual and otherwise, that can lead to success in business, romance and the cultivation of friendships.
But essential as these skills are, Gilbert asserts that they're vanishing from modern society. The chief culprits? Distractions such as computers and television, which reduce the opportunities for face-to-face human contact. As evidence of this, Gilbert cites research showing that shyness is on the rise. Ten years ago about 40 percent of Americans were classified as shy; today 50 percent are.
All but a handful of the students in Gilbert's class – which she teaches periodically through Discover U, the private, adult-education company – describe themselves as being on the introverted side. At least they were bold enough to show up for the class, but like most people, they weren't quite sure what the word "schmoozing" actually means.
Definitions are all over the map, inside and outside the class. To Constance Rice, wife of the former Seattle mayor and an accomplished schmoozer in her own right, it is the "art of relaxed conversation." For Alec Fisken, who published a now-defunct newspaper called the Seattle Sun and who could undoubtedly benefit from Gilbert's seminar, it's "an ability to mix generally with people."
But mention the word to most folks and the first image that comes to mind is of an aggressive car salesman working voodoo on a potential customer. Or a political candidate making self-serving small talk to win favor with voters.
The word's literal definition, however, is innocent. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "schmooze" is a North American colloquial word derived from the Yiddish schmues, meaning chat or gossip.
The wheels of commerce and politics are lubricated by good old-fashioned, connotation-neutral schmoozing. Many of the students in Gilbert's class said their motivation for learning how to schmooze was career advancement.
Mike Jahn, 37, works in sales, a profession renowned for its schmoozers. But Jahn, who lives in Bellevue, says that while he can talk at length about products, he's not as facile about himself.
Jon Fleming, a software engineer, admits that because he spends too much time in front of a computer, his social skills need work.
There's probably no better way to learn these skills than by watching champion schmoozers. Keep an eye on Herb Bridge, the 74-year-old co-chairman of Ben Bridge Jeweler, as he works a room.
At a recent formal dinner of World War II veterans at the Rainier Club, Bridge, a retired rear admiral, was in command from start to finish. Before and after dinner, he moved deftly from one small group of men to another, laughing, shaking hands, exchanging a few friendly words along with good-natured jabs.
There is a method to his approach: "When you walk into a party, start first of all with one person," he advises. "There's a novel individual, I'd like to find out about that person. If they don't turn out to be all that interesting, or if you can't get it out of them, then move on to somebody else."
Yet his greatest asset as a schmoozer is something that can't be taught: a genuine love of people. "I've never been with anyone that I didn't find completely novel and interesting," he says. "You get with a doctor, and I don't know much about medicine, but I enjoy listening to his stories."
In Bridge's philosophy, "Strangers aren't strange very long."
Most talented schmoozers like Bridge didn't learn their skills by taking classes or reading books. In fact, most are so facile and relaxed in conversation that it's easy to imagine them schmoozing with the doctors and nurses on the day of their birth.
Rice learned it from her mother and father growing up in Brooklyn. They taught her the value of such simple but powerful techniques as remembering people's names, hobbies and interests.
Bob Gogerty, 59, a partner in Gogerty and Stark, the public affairs company, and a former deputy mayor of Seattle, said he learned most of his people skills when he was a twentysomething counselor of emotionally disturbed children.
"The biggest single thing is to be able to listen and hear," he says. "Because in our society today it's the most valued thing you can do, to listen to what people are saying."
Everywhere you go should be regarded as a potential schmoozing ground, say the masters. But a few places stand out as especially promising:
-- The buffet table. And the dessert table in particular, says Susan RoAne, aka The Mingling Maven, a professional speaker and author. "Anyone who is standing there, wistfully gazing at the mini-cheesecakes or eating chocolate eclairs, is someone I can approach."
-- Airports. So many potential business people pass through them, often with cell phones in hand. While eavesdropping is rude, if you happen to overhear something that interests you, why not strike up a conversation, suggests Chris Browning of the public relations firm Strategy Associates Inc. "After they finish their call, of course."
-- Coffee shops. A similar dynamic to airports, says Browning. She got her current job out of a midday stop at Starbucks. A partner at the PR agency where she now works "walked right up to me . . . struck up a conversation and then asked if I was looking for employment. The rest is history."
Schmoozing do's and don'ts
Good schmoozers cringe at the notion of a rigid set of rules, which they say would stifle spontaneity. But there are general guidelines they say wannabe schmoozers should follow:
-- Be genuine. Schmoozers say their craft has been wrongly pegged as something only phonies do. Sincerity and a natural interest in others are hallmarks of good schmoozing, they say.
-- Make schmoozing part of your life. Build relationships constantly, in everyday situations; approaching people only when you need things doesn't work.
-- Be direct. If you need something from someone you don't know very well, tell him your agenda upfront. He'll find out anyway, and no one likes to feel manipulated.
-- Remember names. People like to hear their names repeated, and like to feel that their names are worth remembering, says Mark Oldman, co-founder of Vault.com, an Internet resource for career information, and co-author of "The Vault.com Guide to Schmoozing."
-- Keep up with the news. Being well-informed allows you to be part of the conversation, and lets people see you're knowledgeable.
-- Look for signs of common ground. If you're a hiker and see some muddy boots in the back seat of a potential schmoozee's car, ask him where he likes to go. If she's carrying a to-go cup from your neighborhood coffee shop, ask her if she lives there. "People gravitate toward people they have things in common with," Oldman says.
-- Do your homework. Read about a company before you make a presentation there; ask your dinner-party host about a guest you'd like to strike up a conversation with. The more information you have, the more you'll have to talk about.
-- Pay attention. People will give you clues about what they want to talk about; you just have to listen, says Susan RoAne, aka The Mingling Maven, a professional speaker and author. Watch for clues that it might be a bad time to schmooze – if someone looks upset, for instance, or if his nose is buried in a book.
-- Be positive. Smile and convey enthusiasm – schmoozing is an adventure, says Oldman. "It's something uniquely American – about taking chances, going outside your comfort zone and having a pioneer spirit. You never know where it's going to lead you."
-- Make yourself the focus of the conversation. People like to talk about themselves, so focus on the person you're schmoozing.
-- Let outdated etiquette prevent you from approaching people and striking up conversations. "Speak when spoken to, wait to be introduced before talking to someone, don't ask too many questions – it's a mistake to live by those rules," says Terri Mandell, who gives lectures and seminars on social communication and is the author of "Power Schmoozing: The New Etiquette for Social and Business Success."
-- Stick your business card in someone's hand the moment you're introduced. "People in sales are taught to do that, but it's rude," Mandell says.
-- Expect a dazzling conversation to blossom from "How are you?" It's fine to ask this, but "always have a backup question," advises Abbie Schiller, vice president of Nike Communications Public Relations in New York City and a self-described "professional schmoozer."
-- Answer the question "What do you do?" with just a job description. Take the question literally, Mandell says, telling people about your job, your hobbies, your home life and anything else you think would be good to share. Also, don't ask that question – try something more open-ended, like "How do you spend your time?"
-- Look at schmoozing as a science. There are no good, all-purpose schmoozing lines, no rigid and specific equation for success. "When you think you have to go `by the book,' you will certainly lose your creativity and become uninteresting," says Chris Browning, operations manager at the Seattle office of Strategy Associates Inc., a public relations firm for high-tech companies.
-- Think you can't be a schmoozer. Many great schmoozers are shy or insecure about their social skills, Oldman says. "Despite the veneer many people give that they've got it all together, most people, even those who seem hyper-confident, have doubts. If (aspiring schmoozers) realize that they're in the same boat as most people, that will help alleviate tension."
------------------------- What's your schmooze quotient?
Answer these questions and score yourself:
1. At a company-sponsored seminar, you see your client standing alone. You:
a. Stand with your colleagues and keep talking. You can't work all the time.
b. Just wave hello; after all, the client may prefer to be alone.
c. Walk over to greet your client and begin a conversation.
2. Your customer invites you to attend a community event he's sponsoring. You:
a. Plan to attend and leave early, since you won't be noticed in the crowd.
b. Ask if it's appropriate to bring a friend to keep you company.
c. Decline politely, saying you're previously engaged.
3. In a local restaurant, you see your supervisor dining with her husband. You:
a. Take the opportunity to finish a conversation you began at work.
b. Pass by the table to say hello and then move on.
c. Suggest that you all might dine together.
4. As a very busy person with lots of time constraints, you:
a. Always read a local and national newspaper.
b. Often read a daily paper.
c. Never take time to read the paper. That's why they invented television.
5. You often attend professional association meetings, where you enjoy:
a. Working the room, being sure to say something to virtually everyone.
b. Approaching a total stranger or two and getting to know them.
c. Spending the evening with your favorite people.
6. A co-worker's spouse dies. You:
a. Do not attend the wake or funeral. That's for family.
b. Telephone his home immediately to convey your condolences.
c. Attend the wake or funeral and express your condolences.
7. Your company has a private box for the city's pennant-winning baseball team. You have the opportunity to invite clients or prospective clients. You:
a. Take a clue from your guests who just seem to be enjoying the game.
b. Invite several people and take advantage of breaks in the action to do a little business.
c. Admit that you're not a sports fan and leave this to others.
8. You've got a few minutes between planes to talk with your customer. You:
a. Let the conversation turn to personal matters the client seems concerned about.
b. Interrupt to share your own personal experiences.
c. Steer the conversation to the questions you need answered.
9. You notice that the CEO is wearing a "Looney Tunes" tie. You:
a. Say hello and ignore the tie completely.
b. Compliment him on the tie and then list your own favorite cartoon characters.
c. Decide that you should probably start wearing "fun," too.
10. You really think cocktail parties and social events are:
a. A necessary evil.
b. A waste of time.
c. An opportunity.
Here are the answers. Give yourself 5 points for every correct answer.1. c; 2. b; 3. b; 4. a; 5. b; 6. c; 7. a; 8. a; 9. b; 10. c.45-50 points: World-class schmoozer! You know how to make the most of a situation.
36-44 points: Schmoozer. You do seize most opportunities, but can be better.
25-35 points: Semi-schmoozer. Opportunities are passing you by. Wake up and seize the moment.
24 or fewer points: Schmooze or lose. You need to brush up on your schmoozing skills. Read our tips and get to work!
Source: Susan RoAne, www.susanroane.com
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