Remembering the meaning of human interactions

When I was asked to write a blog with the general concept of “networking”, the first thought was excitement. After all, this year’s Summer was chock-full of InFLAMES events and networking opportunities. Which were met with great success as well I dare say! Before holidays InFLAMES summer get-together in Örö was blessed with great weather and great many wonderful participants, the InFLAMES Doctoral Module came together for the first time ever in August, and the BioCity Symposium had an all-time record of registrations.

Quite soon the original eagerness was replaced with a looming sense of dread. Sure, it’s wonderful that opportunities for people to meet each other in person are coming back after a two-year long grey lull caused by Corona, a name many were much happier associating to beer. However, how can I transform this positive progress into an interesting blog text? What exactly should I focus on?

The forgotten casualty of the pandemic?

Should I give a nice definition for the word networking, call it a forgotten casualty of the pandemic and ponder how crucial meetings outside the pale blue light of computer screen are in building true human connections? Should I go through the proper steps of talking to real-life humans while renouncing the dark age of Zoom meetings and virtual seminars? However, judging by the frequency these topics are brought up hint that the particular casualty might not be quite as forgotten as the dramatic moniker would suggest. Even more importantly, I don’t exactly consider myself a social virtuoso talented enough to teach others how to engage in a verbal jostling match.

Simply shouting the importance of networking events from the rooftops doesn’t really strike my fancy either. Especially since a large part of my current job exists for the sole purpose of facilitating networking and organizing such happenings. The amount of vested interest present might raise a few eyebrows, to say the least. Instead I’m going to say something else I probably shouldn’t, so everyone in control of my future paychecks, please skip the next paragraph!

Something wrong with the word networking

I quite dislike the word “networking”. Just the word specifically, not the basic concept itself, mind you! Meeting new people to hit it off with is one of the genuinely and consistently best experiences in life. No, what I dislike is overtly highlighting the potential benefits of these connections through the idea of networking. How the main point is solely the importance of networking for one’s career, how first impression is just a key moment in selling yourself, how every meeting is to be though purely as a chance for future success. Placing too much weight on these aspects of networking risks losing the “human” in human interaction by boiling everything down to the idea of benefit.

In my humble opinion, such thinking is fundamentally flawed. It turns meeting people into a competition where any outcome without a clear net gain is a loss. However, the real benefit from getting to know new people is in the act itself and subsequent social bonds, with old connections getting forged by time and new ones being born. Stressing the potential future gains of social networks too much is putting the cart before the horse when the best networking is always natural, spontaneous. Everything begins with sharing a room with others, be they colleagues or those one has nothing in common with, and by getting acquainted with people from completely different walks of life.

However, even spontaneous networking needs some assistance, an original spark to kick everything off and facilitate the meeting in the first place. Events such as the ones InFLAMES organizes are one such spark, offering infinite possibilities for new connections. Some of these originally chance meetings will repeat throughout the months and years, eventually changing shape into lasting friendships, collaborations forged by shared interest and new career opportunities. Just not in Zoom, where everybody is just a face in a square.

Sampo Koivunen, research coordinator