At a conference last week I met two people I should have already known and ran into two people I haven’t seen in over a decade.
I spent the last three days at a conference.
Conferences are weird.
Early in your career, they’re mostly places where you hover for too long over the coffee station. You try to locate the only person you know so you don’t have to stand alone or try to make awkward conversation with the one other person no one else wants to talk to.
It doesn’t take you long to figure out why no one wants to talk to this guy: he has nothing to say about anything.
Neither do you.
But conferences get better. “Networking” becomes an opportunity to catch up with friends you haven’t seen in a long time, sometimes you have comments on the presentations, and people come over to talk to you.
Sometimes it’s still awkward. Sometimes it’s surprising. Here are some things that might happen. (Yes, they happened to me.)
The unrecognised approach
You’re sipping your cup of (terrible) coffee during the morning break and a smiling young man comes up to you.
Him: Hi, Alecia. I’m Jonathan. I really enjoyed your presentation.
You: Thank you.
Who is this person? He doesn’t look at all familiar, but I feel like I should know the name Jonathan, and I’m aware I’m terrible at faces.
Him: I thought I should introduce myself.
Okay, so I’m not supposed to know him.
You: Nice to meet you.
Him: Thanks for the email you sent yesterday. It explained a lot of things–I just have a few more questions.
Rats! So I am supposed to know him, and I emailed him yesterday. Have I met him at a conference before? Maybe at a meeting? He looks like he could be a civil servant.
Him: You don’t recognise me, do you? I’m Jonathan.
I must be being really obvious. But why am I supposed to know the name Jonathan?
Him: The helicopter project.
I’m working on that project. But who is he?
Him: I’m working with you and Sharon on the project. I did the analysis you suggested.
You: Of course, sorry, I haven’t had enough coffee today. Do you want to talk now?
Would you believe this happened to me twice in one conference? The second time wasn’t quite as bad. An older guy approached, addressed me by name, and starting chatting like we were picking up a conversation that had been interrupted a few minutes earlier.
Fortunately, his name badge was facing forwards, and I read his name and affiliation. Neither of them meant anything to me. We chatted for a while like old friends, and then broke off to move to the next conference session.
I still have no idea who he was or how he knew me. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion he didn’t know me at all.
What better way to start a conversation? I had a name badge on too (every day I thank the person who invented those things). He could have come up, read my name off my badge, and just pretended to be an old acquaintance. He didn’t need to say anything very specific, and nothing he said indicated that he knew more about me than the average person in my city and profession does.
I think next time I’m going to try that: pretend I’m already friends with someone and run from there. What could go wrong?
Not an actual ghost, but a person you were once close to and haven’t heard a word from in more than ten years.
He walks straight past you.
Did he see me? Is he just pretending he didn’t because of past awkwardness? Was there past awkwardness, or was it all in my head? Why did we stop talking, anyway?
Should I go and talk to him? I have to catch him before he leaves, and he has kids now (thanks, Facebook), so he probably leaves these things early.
What if he’s avoiding me and I go over and it’s terribly weird? (Hmm, I’m starting to realise why a lot of YA novels annoy me.)
But if I don’t catch him now I might not run into him for another ten years.
I finish my (fourth) glass of wine and head over.
He’s definitely happy to see me. (Whew!) We hug.
He’s a spy now, and I have to hear all about it. (Because, Burn Notice!) Okay, not actually a spy or he wouldn’t be allowed to tell me (I assume), but something like that.
We talk and I suddenly remember all these things about our friendship. Things we did. Little mannerisms I’d forgotten. I’m so nostalgic I almost forget to note them down as character research.
Why did we drift apart, again? Turns out he doesn’t know either.
We’re both a lot older, but we’re the same. We arrange to get together later for lunch.
The old school friend
New Zealand is a small country, and, no matter how much you try to avoid it, you tend to run into the same people over and over.
Occasionally the overs are a long time apart.
It sounds weird to say it, but I ran into a guy I haven’t seen this century. I didn’t recognise him until he said we went to school together, but then I knew instantly who he was.
He was a friend at school. Not a close friend, but a friend.
He seems almost exactly the same–sweet, friendly, a little shy, and he still blushes easily.
But something has changed. At school he never used to have a beard.
Have you ever run into someone you used to know well years later? What surprised you about them?
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