Every year I attend a national professional conference. As with any major conference, this one has a busy agenda full of committee meetings and educational opportunities during the days, and is peppered with networking mixers and receptions in the evenings.
There is one particular reception I enjoy and attend every year. In addition to the perks of open bars, live music, and dancing, the reception is usually held in notable venues such as Rockefeller Plaza in New York City and the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. It’s a great place to meet new folks as well as connect with colleagues who return every year.
At one reception in Chicago, while wandering between the musical notes of the band and scoping out the bars with the shortest lines, I was networking with a couple folks while balancing a cocktail in one hand and an appetizer on a tiny plate in the other. Conference Guy strolled into the conversation and joined us. He was in his late 50s, with a slight build, was dressed nicely, and was generally polite in conversation. After a couple minutes, he noted my cocktail was low and offered to get me a refill. Although it was an open bar, I appreciated his thoughtful effort, gave him my order, and off he went.
Now this happens often at networking events. In order to open conversation, continue conversation, or end conversation, the drink is used as often as the weather is used. Being at a networking event, my “dating frame of mind” was turned off and I was in “networking mode.” I didn’t think anything of his offer to refill my beverage. It’s a professional environment, right? No one is going to be hitting on me among business peers, right?
He returned with the drink. I thanked him politely and turned back to my conversation, where he also inserted himself by simply standing there. I eventually decided to exit the conversation and move on to the next cocktail table where some of my friends were at. I went on over, greeted my friends, and then realized Conference Guy had followed me along with my shadow. Okay, I guess we are now networking together. I introduced Conference Guy to the group, basically repeating what he said about himself to the previous table. Conference Guy didn’t offer too much to the conversation.
When I moved on to another conversation, and discovered Conference Guy was now following me like a loyal dog, I decided the only way to get rid of Conference Guy was to utilize the restroom. I went ahead and found the restroom that was farthest away and took my time freshening up. Upon exiting the ladies room, I found Conference Guy standing outside the restroom waiting for me with a fresh cocktail. Hmmm… I couldn’t tell if he was being creepy or was just lonely.
The reception came to a close and Conference Guy asked if I was doing anything for dinner. I wasn’t. It was Chicago – one of the food capitals of the world. Still unclear on his intentions and thinking we were networking, I thought, why not? We walked down the street and selected an Italian restaurant. As we entered the restaurant, he put his arm around my lower back to escort me inside.
Uh oh. This is no longer networking. He thinks this is a date.
We chatted throughout dinner, or rather, I asked questions and he would respond with brief, concise answers. Since he didn’t ask questions of me, I voluntarily answered the same questions about myself that I had asked about him. I inquired about career, family, and all the other typical first date interview-like conversations.
As our entrees were consumed, the conversation desperately waned. I struggled to come up with additional questions and we sat in periods of silence until I offered the next question. I was grateful we were seated at a window seat overlooking Chicago’s busy city life offering an opportunity to escape the pain of the silence. I honestly considered how rude it would be to get up and leave midway through dinner.
After the server cleared the entrees, he offered the dessert menu. I declined, perhaps a little too quickly. There was no need to spend more time together than necessary. The check came and I immediately suggested we split it. Nope. He insisted on paying. Yep, he really thinks this is a date.
We walked together towards the conference’s hotel block. We walked side by side in excruciating silence sprinkled with honking taxis, the braking of buses, pigeons purring, and people talking loudly on cell phones. At one point, Conference Guy decided things were going well and grabbed my hand so we were holding hands. Hmmm… at no point did I think this was a date, much less a date going well. Awkward.
While at a crosswalk waiting for the little green walking person to illuminate, I pretended to sneeze and used my hand to cover my mouth. That’s one way to take care of the hand-holding situation. We were approaching my hotel and I was relieved this awkward experience would soon be over.
Across the street from my hotel, I turned to him, thanked him for dinner and told him it was great getting to know him and that I’d see him around the conference.
He responded, “Well, I thought you would come up?” Seriously?!?!
Putting on my most inquisitive face, I played ignorant, “Come up where?”
“To my room,” he indicated as he pointed to his hotel across from mine, “for a nightcap.”
“No, I don’t think so.” I turned and quickly walked across the street to my own hotel, glancing back to make sure I finally lost that shadow.
~ Epilogue ~
For the last couple years, I have continued to see Conference Guy at the same reception at the annual conference and have been able to steer clear and avoid him. This year, I was in a position where I could view the entirety of the reception. Conference Guy was circling like a hawk looking for its prey, identifying women standing alone lacking a ring on their fingers. I saw him approach a handful of different women, proffering drinks, and engaging in conversations.
At one point, Conference Guy made his way near where I was standing. Embarrassingly, I turned to a male colleague and informed him that I was uncomfortable with Conference Guy. Thankfully, Conference Guy was about four feet away when he decided to change course. I’m not sure if he recognized me, or if he decided the circle of people I was standing with was too difficult to ease into, but I felt a wave of relief as he took his detour.
Note to self: Remember to pack a fake ring to wear to this reception next year.