Unconventional Thoughts on Trade Shows

After all the time we spent dealing with business colleagues and friends on Zoom, interacting in “live space” has been genuinely exciting. 

Getting out and being among my professional peers in a controlled convention center environment, going to parties, and sleeping away from home for three whole days – man, I missed that!  

When it was safe to start going to shows about a year or so ago, I wasn’t sure how we’d all handle basic  social conventions, like shaking hands:  do we or don’t we?  Like emerging from a long hibernation and blinking at the mid-day sun, I knew that it would take some getting used to on a number of levels. I know this sounds silly, but after all these months of dressing from the waist up, I had a lingering fear that I’d leave my hotel room forgetting to put on my pants – and making sure I was wearing matching socks and shoes.

One thing that I was particularly worried about was making eye contact, especially after all these months of making simulated eye contact through a computer screen, which was an implicit agreement between/among parties to treat what was obviously not real eye contact as real eye contact. Would it be hard having to engage in the real thing after faking it for so long? Would it be hard holding anyone’s gaze for more than three seconds? If you’re there with the aim of winning friends and influencing people, you don’t want to be nervously looking left and right and over your shoulder like you’re casing the joint.

Then there’s the issue of making small talk. In an online business meeting, making small talk was an essential conversational tool. It was important to let your colleagues and co-workers know that you care enough to ask them about non-essential things. Being all business on a Zoom call – unless you’re 15 minutes late – is not good for business.  NO ONE really likes making small talk – filling 60-90 seconds with improvised nonsense is nerve-racking and intensely awkward. And if you did like making small talk, you wouldn’t admit it – it’s like boasting of being good at foreplay, which puts into your question your ability to handle the more consequential stuff.

Making small talk in “live space” is hard because you have to make eye contact when you want desperately to scan the room for a familiar face to throw you a lifeline. On a Zoom call, your wandering eyes give you endless fodder for small talk – pick a chotchka, photo or book lurking in the background, and you can easily spin it into another 90 seconds of innocuous chatter.     

But one thing I’ve learned is this: if you’re not comfortable with small talk, don’t feel you’re particularly adept at it, or flatter yourself by thinking you’re above it, I’ve got news: get comfortable with it, get better at it, and don’t flatter yourself. It takes some effort and skill to become comfortable with, even good at, small talk. Bear in mind that two of the greatest literary masterpieces were built on small talk: Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest is small talk raised to an art form, and Joyce’s “Ulysses” is small talk about big things:  history, religion, literature, language, politics. And let’s not forget that the greatest sitcom of all time was, famously, about nothing. No one is expecting James Joyce or Jerry Seinfeld, but with a little preparation and discipline you can become quite good at being effectively superficial.  

There was no way to fully prepare to gracefully re-enter live professional settings after so much rust had collected around my underutilized social skills. The first live event I attended made me feel both excited and anxious, but I made it through.  

Thankfully all of that – well, most of it – is behind me as we enter the Fall trade show season. It’s very exciting to get back into the action, to see everyone and to meet new people. But please know that, if you do approach me with the intention of embracing me in an enthusiastic hug and I recoil,  it’s not you, it’s me. And if you see me wandering the conventional hall without pants, please don’t make a scene, that will only make it worse.                   

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