February 17, 2009
Schmoozing, Stalking & Social Compacts
There are two ways to violate a social compact: (1) fail to live up to your end of the deal, or (2) fail to end the relationship where it is supposed to end. I experienced both over the past week at a national conference I attended. Gathered together were some two thousand people, each of whom came to the conference for their own complex network of reasons. Among those reasons were invariably the chance to stalk someone famous, the chance to schmooze someone influential, the chance to convalesce after a significant time of uninterrupted hurriedness, the chance to grow personally and professionally, and--let's be frank--the chance to eat more than perhaps one ought.
These were, at least, some of the reasons I attended. The problem with schmoozing and stalking, however, is that your prey does not necessarily approach your social compact in the same way as you. They have, it's fair to say, their own prey to pursue, and so while they might offer one eye and ear to you, they keep the other on alert for either an out or a better offer. Consequently, I was occasionally given the cold shoulder, even in the same moment that I was schmoozing and stalking with all my might.
I'm not bitter; I get the game, and I get the rules of the game. Every once in a while, however, the game is thrown a curve, and the players are left wondering where the playbook went. This happened to me when I inadvertently bumped into one of the most influential people in the whole place. I covered my ignorance with a cheeky grin and admittedly slick eye contact, and I put out my hand for the conventional Western greeting.
This venerated elder took my hand and shook it, and shook it, and shook it. He shook it like a Polaroid picture, if I might borrow an analogy. I tried to let go, and then tried to regain my dignity by reengaging his handshake--again and again and again. It may not have been the longest handshake in recorded history, but it was strikingly long and seemingly impossible to break. I felt like the Millennium Falcon, caught in the tractor beam of the Death Star. Might as well kill the engines and go where you're led.
Almost immediately prior to this encounter I had been reading the first half of Miroslav Volf's Exclusion & Embrace, which offers ethical parameters to individuals and even whole cultures for our interactions with one another. In contrast to exclusion, the way of the world that disempowers others by dehumanizing and marginalizing them, Volf characterizes authentic encounter as an embrace in four acts:
To leave out any of these four creates a breach:
I had these ethics of embrace in mind as I endured the eternal handshake of this venerated elder, but to be honest, I found his colonization of my uniqueness endearingly gracious: by keeping the embrace going longer than social convention would expect, he was effectively transferring some of his own dignity onto me. We later even shared a delightful meal together, completely stripped of the agendas that tainted so many other meals throughout the week. I must confess that I saw him in a different light from other subjects of my schmoozing and stalking; here was a whole person, whose significance extended beyond his utility to me.
I'm reminded of Jesus' encouragement to his followers to always take the lower seat at a feast table. It's not so much an ethical command as a nugget of advice: you can't know in advance whether your host wants you to take the seat of honor or "the least important place," so it's infinitely better to be invited up than to be cast down, to be embraced rather than excluded. The advice works in reverse as well, I suppose: be attentive to all your guests--from the powerful to the powerless, from the naive dreamers to the disillusioned schemers--because you never know which one you'll wind up embracing as a friend.