Not long ago I wrote in this slot about how everything my Indian mother has ever advocated about finance has turned out to be right and that she’d make a brilliant fund manager. It remains true, but in recent months it has become apparent that I didn’t go far enough. The fact is that pretty much everything my mother has ever argued for has turned out to be correct. So much so that it increasingly feels as if she has surreptitiously performed a reverse takeover of modern metropolitan life.
Take turmeric, for example, which she has always insisted can cure any kind of ailment and which is now being advocated by health gurus everywhere and even being used as an ingredient in chain coffee lattes. Meanwhile, the fundamentals of Indian arranged marriages, which she used to advocate until I took control of my own life, now account for a good chunk of reality TV, whether it is ITV’s Meet The Parents or Channel 4’s Married At First Sight. Then, this week I met Rachel Fay, who describes herself as one of Britain’s first ever professional “introducers”, specialising in taking the pain out of business mingling and tackling what she describes as a “national networking emergency”.
On the face of it, there may not be anything particularly Punjabi about Fay’s chosen specialism: she aims to remove the pain of networking by going through guests lists in advance for clients and working out who they should meet, establishing who on the guest list has actually turned up or left early, making introductions, and ending them when necessary, ensuring you don’t get stuck. Any Punjabi will tell you, however, that this is precisely what Indian mothers do with their children at social gatherings, especially weddings: introducing you to a succession of people, whether you want to or not, in the desperate hope you’ll fancy someone enough to marry them.
If I’m honest, I was looking forward to test driving Fay’s services at a UK Indian Business Council hobnobbing event held at the Taj Hotel in St James’ Court on Monday about as much as an actual ten-day Indian wedding in Slough. Or perhaps, a Trump rally. Though it turns out I’m not alone in having this response. According to a recent study conducted by three famous business schools into “instrumental networking”, where, according to Forbes, “you try to make connections with the purpose of advancing your career, as opposed to personal, spontaneous networking where your goal is to pursue emotional connections and friendship”, the whole thing makes people literally feel dirty — so much so that they consider taking a shower or brushing their teeth afterwards. As I walked into the hotel reception room with Fay, I wanted to go much further though and set fire to myself.
Journalism, a trade which essentially involves getting to the point as quickly as possible, has so destroyed my attention span that in recent years I have walked out early, as a result of sheer boredom, of Downing Street receptions, award-winning plays and even my own birthday party, let alone random networking events. At the age of 40, the thing I long for most is the cancellation of social engagements, not the creation of new ones. I barely have the time for my actual friends and colleagues, let alone complete strangers, and when the first person I saw in the room was a British peer I have criticised at length in this column, I suddenly became acutely aware that I did not possess any business cards, that I was the only man in the room not in a suit, and begged Fay to let me go as quickly as possible.
I’m not proud but I may have feigned a sudden lunch appointment, but she insisted I stay, saying my desire to flee is typical. Married to a corporate lawyer, she said she became aware some years ago that most Brits dread networking: they fear everything from not recognising people, to saying hello, to being stuck next to a bore, to not being able to find a relevant person in a room, to struggling to find something worthwhile to say. “The point of business networking is to meet people who lead to deals which make money,” she added, but people hate networking so much that many spend such events hiding in toilets, or leaving at the earliest opportunity.
Thus told off in, frankly, motherly fashion, she introduced me to a man who did something in design. She then made me talk to someone who did something in public affairs. She insisted I listen to an Indian minister being interviewed on stage. Then, as the inevitable food arrived, there were more introductions to lobbyists, entrepreneurs, politicians. I can’t say all the conversations were successful. The Indian minister’s response to Fay’s introduction was: “I am taking questions from the media later at 2.30pm.” I ended up with a bunch of new invitations on LinkedIn, which is the last thing anyone on this planet needs. I met someone from a travel company who might prove useful for a book I’m working on, though. I met a PR who might give me story ideas, and I began to see the point of hiring an introducer like Fay.
At least, I can see how they might remove some of the agony of what is a necessary business evil, allowing you to do some work on your phone, while someone else goes through the guest lists, reduces the chance of you having to talk to randoms, and drags you away when you get stuck in a conversation about the state of the potholes on the A4123. I suppose a very good party host would do what Fay does, but they rarely do. Also, I suppose a very good PA could function as a basic introducer, but most of us don’t have PAs. Besides, my mum would approve of the idea and she is someone I have realised who is always right.
The Times, 3 March 2017