aaron maxwell

Meeting People at Tech Meetups

A close friend of mine is magnificent with people. He can walk into any place where humans gather, in any town or country, and start making friends within minutes - even if he previously didn't know a soul there. He consistently makes positive impressions on people that can last for years... and he makes it look fun and easy.

Such talent is not common among software engineers. When I go to technology-oriented meetups, networking events, and meet-and-greets, I often see a lot of people standing by themselves, not talking or engaging with anyone. But if you start a conversation with them, it's clear they want to be engaged - they just don't know how.

If you are one of these people, you can start turning it around next time you go to a meetup. Personally, I've been able to increase my social grace over the years, to a point where I am comfortably having fun and making new friends in most social environments. At tech meetups, I am talking with someone almost constantly, and my biggest problem is ending conversations gracefully when it's time to mingle some more. Best of all, I have made great friends at tech meetups, whom I have now kept in touch with for years.

Here are some simple actions you can take that will get you on that road. Allow this to take some time; you might be able to read this once and be the life of the party at your next meetup, but it's more likely to be a gradual process. Bookmark or save this page, and review a few of the headings or sections before you go to any kind of social gathering - but especially technology meetups. If you do this for at least one gathering a month for the next year, you will be amazed at how easily and enjoyably you relate with others, and be enriched by the professional and personal connections you make.

The most important parts are first. Let me know how it works for you.

Four Magic Words

Memorize these words: "Can I introduce myself?"

That's it. Four magic words that will let you start a conversation with anyone, at any tech meetup you'll ever go to. I have used this to meet strangers for years and years. No one has ever said no.

A few optional nuances that can help: Smile while you say the words. Look the other person in the eye as you say it. Take a deep breath before, and try to relax just a little as you speak. Speak slowly. You can preceed it with "hi", "hey", or something else, if you like. The first few times, try it with someone who is standing by themselves; they are probably wishing someone would introduce themselves, so will be more receptive. After you've done this a few times, you will find it works really well with small groups of people too.

Don't worry about remembering all the nuances, or even any of them, really. Keep one or two of them in mind if you can, and regardless, just say the four magic words and it will be all right.

If you do only one thing differently at meetups, do this, and that whole part of your life will change. It's a lot of fun.

The Easy Second Step

After the four magic words, typically you and your new acquaintance will exchange names. Then what? After you've had a lot of practice, you'll get good enough at conversations that you will never really have to experience awkward silences again. But until then, here is something you can always easily do:

If you are not sure what to say after the introdution, ask them this question: "What brings you here today?" Here is why this works well:

  • It's open-ended. That means they can't really give a one-word answer; they have to talk a bit about themselves. This makes it easier for both of you to keep the conversation going.
  • You will learn something about them and their interests, which you can explore in the subsequent conversation.
  • It shows you are interested in them, and that you value them enough to ask. Right of the bat, that makes them inclined to like you a little more, and makes everything else that follows in the conversation easier.
  • It gives you an opportunity to relate something about yourself, in a way they will enjoy hearing about (see Step Three below).

Speaking of which...

The Valuable Third Step

Here's a rule of thumb: for every thing they share with you about themselves, share something about yourself with them. For example: If they mention a language you have experience with, you can share that. This isn't an invitation to go into a monologue; you can keep your response to one to three sentences, and that will be perfect. Then you can let them speak, or ask them a question about themselves or their interests.

If they mention something you have no experience with, in some ways that is even better: you can then ask them about it! When you reveal this, you are actually sharing something about yourself too. (Think about this a bit.)

For example, the person mentions they are writing a game engine in Java. If I love coding in that language, I can say: "That's interesting, Java's my favorite language. What do you like about it so far yourself?" Or I can ask about game engines. "A game engine, that is really cool! I don't have any experience with that kind of thing - what's it like?"

What this does is powerfully accelerate how well you get to know each other. When done well, you and the other person can feel like you know a lot of wonderful things about each other really, really fast. And if you and they are destined to become good friends, you may both realize it in minutes, instead of months or years.

How balanced does it have to be? Not very. It's okay if one of you is talking more about yourself than the other, especially when you have something to teach them they are excited about (or vice versa). But it shouldn't be one-sided. If you notice you've been bombarding the poor soul with questions, and not telling them much about yourself in return, then it's turned into an interview... which is probably no fun for them. And if you allow it to go the other way - so they are learning a lot about you, but you aren't learning much about them - then you will quickly hit a dead end in terms of how you two can relate with each other.

An Example Conversation Flow

Let's bring everything covered together so far, so you can see how the conversation might unfold. Imagine I'm at a meetup devoted to X (insert your own favorite language or subject area), and see a person standing off on their own. Their name is Sam, as I'll learn shortly.

Aaron: <walks over> Hi! Can I introduce myself?

Sam: Sure.

Aaron: I'm Aaron. What is your name?

Sam: I'm Sam, nice to meet you.

Aaron: <after a very brief pause, to give them a chance to speak if they like> So what brings you here tonight, Sam? <note that I used their name... more on that later>

Sam: Oh, I'm a backend engineer at Foo.ly, and I wanted to learn more about using Language X to <automate something>.

Aaron: Cool. I've been working with Language X for a couple of years, and now that I'm over the learning curve, I really like it. You know, Sam, I was reading about Foo.ly the other day. How do you enjoy working there?

Sam: Oh, it's great. I have learned a lot, though it gets hectic sometimes.

At this point, I know some things about them, and they know some things about me. And we've both had a positive experience of each other so far. These all make it easier to keep the conversation going as long as both of you like.

Ask Open Questions

What you want at this stage is to keep the conversation flowing - in a way that is fun, and certainly not work, for both of you. The easiest way I know: ask open-ended questions. As mentioned, these are questions that cannot be answered with one or two words, e.g. "yes" or "no", or a number, etc.

A closed question would be something like, "Do you have any plans for the weekend?" They can answer "no", and it's a little difficult to keep the conversation going from there. Instead you can ask: "What are you planning to do this weekend?"

The key point is that it's easy for them to answer in a way that is (a) interesting, and (b) lets them share something important about themselves. Indeed, with a good open question, it's actually hard not to do these things.

Another example: in the conversation with Sam above, I asked: "How do you enjoy working there?" Notice this is pretty much impossible to answer in one or two words, which makes it an excellent conversation question. If I had instead asked "Do you like working there?", they could answer very briefly - "yes", "no", "sort of" - in a way that doesn't give me much to work with.

You don't have to be fanatical about this. Just aim to make many of your questions open.

Eat & Drink With Your Left Hand

Wait, what? What the heck does this have to do with meeting people at meetups? Let me explain.

Sometimes at these meetups, free food is served. (Aren't we lucky, by the way?) Often in my experience this is pizza, but I have been thankful to see a trend towards healthier fare. In any event, what happens if you eat a piece of pizza - or other food - in your right hand, then meet someone, and go to shake their hand?

That's right, it will get greasy stuff all over their hand. Talk about a bad first impression. In reality, you will probably realize this, and either offer your left hand, or just decline to shake their hand, maybe explaining that your hand isn't clean. This doesn't have to be a big deal, but until you really blossom into your most socially able self, it's something that can only make you feel awkward and get in the way of launching into a mutually fun conversation.

The solution: if you eat at these events, always do so with your left hand. For similar reasons, if you get a drink, carry it in your left hand. There are cultures in the world where it's considered rude to do this; fortunately, you probably don't live in one of those places. Take advantage of it.

(This is specific to North American culture, and I believe most cultures of Europe and the rest of the Americas as well. It may or may not apply directly to your part of the world. If not, I hope you can still use the core idea.)

Say Their Name Three Times

Aim to say their name at least three times in the first five minutes. This serves a couple of purposes. One, it helps you memorize their name. Second, people generally like hearing their name - it makes them feel like they matter to the other person.

Generally, I try to repeat their name to them once right away. It can be as simple as: "Nice to meet you, Sam." After that, space it out a bit.

What you don't want to do is to use their name in every sentence. That will become weird real fast!

Help Them Remember Your Name

As you get better at remembering to practice saying people's names, it will not be long before you get better at remembering names than most people you meet. And often enough, the other person will have forgotten your name, but realize that you know theirs... and feel awkward about it. Believe it or not, this can be uncomfortable enough for the other person that they can start to avoid you, even if they otherwise like you!

Thankfully, you can nip that in the bud early on. You can usually tell if they don't remember because they will not be using your name, in situations where they normally would - e.g., they refer to you as "that guy/girl over there" instead of by your name. If you suspect this, assume they have forgotten and need a reminder. You need to be slick about it, though. It's important to remind them in a way that makes them feel good about themselves, and not embarrassed.

One technique is to tell them a short story about yourself, and refer to yourself by name in the story. For example, in our conversation, I learn the other person is interested in horses. It turns out my sister was really into horses when we were younger, even going to far as to volunteer at a horse stable for years. I can say something like the following to them: "Oh, you like horses? You know, my sister LOVED them as a teenager. She would say to me, 'Aaron, I wish I could get a job where I rode horses all day'."

Another technique is to confess that you are uncertain about their name. By making yourself vulnerable in this way, they will feel at ease enough that you can tell them your name again.

Here's some exact wording that is typical of what I have done:

Aaron: Hey, you know what, I'm not sure I remember your name. Is it... <look thoughtful for a moment> Sam?

Sam: <smiles> Yes, that's right!

Aaron: <smiling back> Great. I'm not sure if you remember my name - it's Aaron.

Personally, I prefer to do this only if I am sincerely not certain of their name - I really don't like to say things to people which I know not to be true. In this case, though, making a small lie (that I don't remember their name) is probably worth the good that comes from it (putting them at ease so we can continue our relationship). The key here is to do something that feels comfortable and authentic to you - if you feel fine about it, then they will too.

The Surprising Value of Compassion

My own path in life was to start adulthood as a poorly socialized introvert, and eventually transform myself into an outgoing fellow who easily has fun around other people. If you're reading this, it's probably because you are at least starting down this road yourself. While not always fun, such a life path does give you one advantage: you can immediately understand where someone without your hard-won social skills is coming from, and naturally and immediately have a lot of compassion for them.

This is more practically useful that you might think. It allows you to give them a better experience in a conversation than someone else would. This is a kind of social superpower. Remember, when it comes right down to it, we all just want to be liked, and to feel good about who we are.

How, specifically, does it work? We have actually covered many examples of this above:

  • They forgot your name. You know from experience how awkward that can make them feel. Make it okay - even joking with them about how bad you were (or are) with names.
  • They are trying to make a joke, and it's just not funny. Instead of judging them for it, just forget it and move on in the conversation, demonstrating that it's no big deal.
  • They are starting to "interview" you (i.e. asking a long sequence of short-answer questions without sharing much about themselves). You are wise enough to know this will lead them away from the positive social experiences they truly want, so can gently guide the conversation into something that is more back-and-forth.

The specifics vary widely, yet the key principle is simple. If you are talking with someone whose social skills are not as refined as yours, handle it in a way that makes them feel at ease. Inside of yourself, make it not a big deal, and move on; they will follow your lead. What happens then is that, instead of feeling socially awkward around you (like they experience with most people), they feel good about themselves. And they then associate that feeling with you.

Let Me Know How It Goes

Try these things out, and let me know what works for you, and what doesn't. My email is amax@redsymbol.net. Depending on how popular this essay turns out to be, I may not be able to reply, but I will certainly read what you send.