Many People Get Jobs Through Networking. But What If You Have Social Anxiety?

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After college graduation, I attended my first Asian American Journalists Association convention, excited to network and meet other journalists. But at the opening reception, I stood alone in the corner, holding a plate of finger food while other attendees greeted their friends.

I felt overwhelmed and anxious about introducing myself to new people — especially because everyone seemed to already know each other. Luckily, another young journalist approached me. “I don’t know anyone else either,” she said. “Want to chat for a bit so we don’t look like we’re alone?”

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We wound up becoming good friends, and I eventually found ways to push through my social anxiety and introversion — so much so that some of my colleagues have called me a serial networker. Connecting with colleagues and higher-ups is important because you never know who may be hiring when, and some managers start with candidates within their contacts or who can be vouched for.  

However, networking becomes more complicated when anxieties are high. According to a recent study from Harmony Health IT, 61% of Gen Z has been diagnosed with anxiety by a medical professional, and the National Institute of Mental Health found 31% of Americans experience anxiety at some point in their lives.

While journalists are accustomed to talking to sources as part of their job, networking with peers, editors and recruiters at mixers, job fairs and conferences is a different brand of pressure.

“At a networking event, you’re thinking, ‘I better look like I know what I’m doing, that I’m successful at what I do, and I’m worthy of a referral,’” said Rachael Chatham, a licensed clinical mental health counselor. “The stakes do get higher in situations like that.”

So how do you break through any social anxiety to make connections? Journalists offer their tips for getting out there and networking, even in overwhelming spaces.

Plan ahead and strategize

Sweaty palms, feeling shaky and racing thoughts are common symptoms of anxiety. But Chatham advises against falling into the trap of letting your mind get the best of you and gaming out every possible interaction. “That’s anxiety kind of manifesting as ‘I’m going to control it, so I don’t have to be so scared,’” she said.

However, journalists should still do some prep before networking. Sydnee Chapman Gonzalez, with the Utah Investigative Journalism Project, who describes herself as an introvert with some social anxiety, suggests reporters practice their elevator pitch — a brief, but informative introduction of a person’s background and goals — before networking. 

“Knowing ahead of time what you do want to say makes it less anxiety-inducing,” she said. “And remembering the people you’re networking with are either in the same spot as you or they were in the same spot as you a year ago, or a decade ago — and they’ll give you grace.”

Career and leadership coach Prerika Agarwal advises her clients to keep their elevator pitch to three sentences, summing up ​​what they’ve done in the past, what they’re doing now and what they’re looking to do in the future. She also recommends people consider the type of networking environment they’re entering ahead of time — and attend ones that best fit their comfort level.

“If those big happy-hour situations are not working for you, think about if you can attend something that’s a little bit smaller and more specific,” she said. “Can you set up a meeting or coffee, whether it’s virtual or in-person — one-on-one — and maybe that’s a better medium?”

Read the room and body language

When Chapman attended her first Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) conference last year, she was intimidated because she didn’t know anyone there. But she overcame her social anxiety when she realized she was in a space where everyone wanted to make new connections.

“Once I started talking to people, they were really willing to connect with me,” she said. “I also realized that I’m gonna connect with them and it’ll be good, or I won’t see them again and it’s not that big of a deal.”

Summer conferences held by IRE, AAJA, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) and the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and others are filled with reporters, editors and recruiters who are usually open to networking. Convention programming also includes a lot of mixers, panels and all-day workshops, where you can meet like minds and chat up peers next to you.

“Any of these conventions are made for networking, and putting yourself out there is very top of the line,” said Amir Vera, NABJ’s vice president of digital. “The workshops always put you into a group setting or a group activity, so you’re encouraged to network with people in those in those environments.”

But industry mixers and happy hours outside of programmed journalism conferences can be a little more intimidating for those with social anxiety. Agarwal advises looking for easy openings to start a conversation in a food or drink line. “Help somebody get a napkin or just ask them, ‘Have you tried the potato salad?’ or ‘Oh, are you also a red wine drinker?’” she said.

Career coach and former TV news journalist Monica Manney suggests looking at the room’s setup, too. If there are many high-top tables and not many chairs, the physical space encourages people to walk around and talk to different people. As for approaching fellow attendees, she said to notice how they are standing.

“See if people are open and who’s looking around, versus people who have their back turned or are closed off in a conversation,” she said. “Find the people who are walking around and working in a room — get in contact with those people and have conversations.” 

Find a networking buddy

Back in 2018, Manney was a student journalist with social anxiety who, on a whim, went to her first NABJ convention. Because she didn’t know anyone else going, she brought a friend who wasn’t a journalist. A year later, she got accepted to NABJ’s student projects program, where she bonded with her cohort of college journalists.

“Being able to have conversations with people who are going the same direction as you is so crucial,” she said. “One of the things that people you know often forget is that peer-to-peer networking is as important as networking up.” 

Now a career coach and resume writer, Manney advises her clients to embrace the buddy system, especially if they’re anxious about networking. She suggests creating a home base, or a safe spot, to return to once a conversation has run its course or to recharge your social battery.

“If your buddy is more outgoing than you, they can introduce you to people that they’re speaking to,” she said. “And you’ll always have one person that you can have a conversation with.”

NAHJ’s national academic-at-large officer Adriana Chavira, a longtime high school journalism teacher, advises her students to be transparent that they’re students when they network and that they’re eager to learn.

“I always tell my students that when you go up and approach an adult as a student, people are often nicer to you and more forgiving,” she said. “Everyone understands and remembers when they were in that same place. I don’t think anyone’s going to judge them too hard.”

Practice self-compassion and be patient

Young journalists sometimes put a lot of pressure on themselves while networking to try to get a job or internship right away. Chatham notes they should practice self-compassion and not get down on themselves if their social interactions don’t go perfectly.

“Use some kind of mantra to remind yourself, perhaps as you even go into the evening, ‘I don’t have to do it all at once,’” she said. Or, ‘I’m going to show up and do the best that I can with this anxiety.’”

Chavira uses a similar method when taking her students to journalism conventions. “My students do feel overwhelmed,” she said. “So I prep them for that, reassuring them that you belong here, just like everyone else does and that helps them overcome their shyness or feeling out of place.”

Most job and internship offers often materialize after the first meeting, not immediately or during. Vera, Chavira and Chapman all got jobs from networking events, but the interviews and offers happened after the initial meeting, thanks to follow-up emails and keeping in touch.

Vera suggests waiting no longer than a week to follow up with the people you’ve met at a convention or networking event and to organize your contacts into tiers. The first should be filled with people you hope to get a job from. Contact them via email, reminding them where you met and something interesting from your conversation. 

The second tier should be all your social connections, he said. Follow them on social media platforms to keep in touch.

“You should be wanting to make friends at these conventions and events,” he said. “Because there are people that I met at the 2016 NABJ that I’m still friends with and we help each other out both professionally and personally. It’s just about going there not wanting something from people, but wanting to meet people.”

Mallory Carra

Mallory Carra is a journalist, editor and USC adjunct journalism professor based in Los Angeles, where she teaches digital and audio journalism. Her bylines have appeared in Cosmopolitan, E! News, Teen Vogue and elsewhere.