The lost art of the introduction: How Britain stopped mingling

Rachel Fay has made a business out of introducing guests at events. She's filling a new social void, she explains to Guy Kelly

The Daily Telegraph,  Tuesday 30 May 2017

Rachel Fay is a woman on a mission: to bring the world together, one successful handshake at a time. So first, it’s probably only polite to formally meet her.

“I am the UK’s first – and only – professional introducer,” she says, in crisp and clipped tones. “I am able to work at any event, with the basic principle being that I connect the guests to each other.”

Fay, 58, believes there is a crisis on the British social scene: we simply don’t know how to mingle anymore. Where once parties would hum with activity and small talk, with guests efficiently circulating to meet as many like-minded people as possible, events now – be it a wedding, school reunion or networking conference – are all too often stolid, pointless affairs where meaningful connections are rare, she says. At parties in 2017, strangers stay strangers, and Fay reckons there’s a simple reason for that.

“In the old days, you would have somebody at these events introducing those present to others,” she says. “Normally that would be the host, but people don’t really host now, so there is a void. Events have caterers, entertainment, all this planning, but lack somebody to fill that vital role. Introductions need to be at the heart of everything, otherwise people can’t move.”

This is where Fay comes in. A paid social lubricant, her role is to work a room with speed, efficiency and charm. For a fee (“a number of variables” are taken into account when pricing, she says), she will research an event’s guest list, establish who might get on well with whom, then make sure those people meet by bringing one to the other in person. Once they have embarked on stable chitchat, she will swiftly move on to forge another connection, then another. Then, when a few strangers have met, the idea is that they build enough confidence to go it alone and talk to somebody else they didn’t previously know. After a while, this chain reaction should alchemise to achieve the convivial state all good British drinks parties aim for: gentle mingling. And then she goes home.

“What I want to show people – young people especially – is that events don’t always have to be such a challenge, because a lot of people struggle at functions now and they really shouldn’t.”

It is a remarkably simple business idea, but Fay has seen a rise in interest since she set up her own service in 2010, including a marked increase over the past year. In the past she has worked at London’s most prestigious society show-off event, Queen Charlotte’s Ball; collaborated with the Royals’ party planner, Lady Elizabeth Anson; and introduced for the Prince of Wales.

The importance of introductions is something she first noticed as a child growing up in Buckinghamshire, where her mother, Patricia, set up the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies, now known as the Arts Society, in 1965. Watching her mother create the groups, she noticed that who you know is vital for success.

“I saw that in order to be happy, not just in a professional context but in your personal life too, you had to meet the right people. And if you don’t do that, as now, everybody is poorer for it.”

“After a while, the chain reaction of introductions should alchemise to achieve the convivial state all good British drinks parties aim for: gentle mingling.

Fay went on to become a qualitative market researcher and married a managing partner of a City law firm. Attending various professional service events with him, she noticed that the custom of being introduced to other guests was beginning to disappear. Then, when she divorced her husband, almost a decade ago, the realisation hit her.

“I used to be under my former husband’s wing a lot, but suddenly having to fend for myself, I found it very difficult to meet the people I wanted to. So this kernel of an idea was a combination of a problem I knew society faced as a whole, and of my personal experience,” she says.

Deciding to combat the matter alone, Fay – who was never a bold socialiser and rarely hosts – researched by attending countless functions, then persuaded directors of various organisations to let her observe people at their events. Figuring out how the task of, in her words, “basically herding cats”, should be done, she set to work. By 2010 she had set herself up as a professional introducer, and found herself in swift demand, either from hosts wishing to take the pressure off themselves or planners keen to avoid any awkward silences.

Fay has two theories about why hosting skills disappeared. Firstly, she says, women entered the workplace. And while that is a good thing, nobody has quite filled their role at parties.

“Women are no longer doing the family entertaining they used to do, nor are they entertaining for their husbands. That is creating the void,” she says. “The other reason is that young people learn about event management now at colleges and universities, and nowhere in their training is there anything about introducing guests. People at the top of companies – still usually men ­– assume meetings just happen. But they don’t! You need a host.”

Occasionally Fay will wing it, and claims to be able to identify from the atmosphere in a room how it ought to be worked and who might hit it off. Generally, though, she will prepare by writing the guest list (70 people is about ideal) on a large sheet of paper spread over her kitchen table in Chiswick, west London. Drawing long lines criss-crossing the page, potential connections start appearing. Come game time, all this is memorised.

“It’s a delicate thing. Weddings and professional things like conferences require different tones, and I need to blend in at both, keeping aware that some people won’t want to be dragged around. Business conferences are quicker, more efficient, but when it’s an evening do I need to be more social, almost slower.” she says.

If it all sounds like an analogue version of LinkedIn or Facebook – or, at a push, Tinder – it isn’t.

“Social media is good for this actually, but nothing replaces the real thing,” says Fay. “What the plethora of social media sites shows is that peole want to met strangers. The probelm is they are coming away from functions without have done so."  In an ideal world Fay would not need to exist: people would introduce themselves, or hosts would host. Until then, she’s happy to continue playing platonic cupid for as long as it takes.

“It’s a wonderful thing, seeing that ‘a-ha’ moment when two people really hit it off. I know it myself, and when I see happy faces, that’s what makes me happy.”

 

Work the room.  How to create the perfect mingle

Put somebody in charge

Either take it upon yourself, delegate to a friend (or mother), or even hire somebody – just don’t assume party planning ends when guests walk through the door. Somebody needs to keep oiling the wheels.

Do your research

Giving a little thought to who might get on with whom on your guest list doesn’t take much, and there’s no excuse in the age of social media, either. Most people’s entire CV, life story and innermost tastes are publically accessible. So do some matchmaking in advance.

Keep it moving

Think of your party like a shark: if it doesn’t keep moving, it’ll die. For the optimum atmosphere, people will be chopping and changing conversation partners throughout the evening. Too much of this and it ends up like speed dating, but the right amount makes or breaks a function.

Look out for strays

It’s been 37 years since Jona Lewie’s seminal loner anthem ‘You’ll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties’, but shy, awkward individuals are still hanging around the dips to avoid introducing themselves. Keep an eye out for them and act: speak to them, then use your knowledge of the room and take them to somebody they’ll hit it off with.

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