What’s Your Social Networking Type?

What’s Your Social Networking Type?

What’s Your Social Networking Type?

Marissa King

Sociologist Marissa King wants you to think about networking—no, not the kind where you’re standing in a conference room trying to make new connections. King is a professor of organizational behavior at Yale who studies how networks shape our lives. In her new book, Social Chemistry: Decoding the Patterns of Human Connection, King explains that personal networks are like invisible threads that connect people and that there’s a difference between what we see as “networking” and what social networks are. Understanding the type of networker you are, says King, can determine the quality of your work and personal life. It isn’t about how many people you know or how popular or charming you are. It’s seeing how our networks are structured that can help strengthen our connections, bring us closer, and yes, make social interactions—like networking—less awkward.

If you want to assess your own network, King created an online tool for that. The survey helps you see what your network looks like to better understand the type of networker you are and the role you play in your network.

A Q&A with Marissa King, PhD

In Social Chemistry, you analyze the patterns of social networks to help people better understand how they are connected. What are the different networking types?

For the vast majority of outcomes we care about, from predisposition to depression and loneliness to our pay and performance at work, it isn’t how many people we know that matters. It is the type of network we have. There are three basic network types:

Expansionists have extraordinarily large networks, are well known, and have an uncanny ability to work a room. If you know two people named Alan and two people named Emily, you may be an expansionist. Their generosity and social competence make them inspiring in both social and professional settings.

Brokers generate value by bringing together typically disconnected parties from different social worlds. They may frequently speak to engineers and artists and hang out on the sidelines of their kids’ soccer games. Their networks have huge information benefits and are highly innovative since most innovation comes from combining ideas. Brokers tend to have unusual career paths. They are also highly adaptive and tend to have a better work-life balance.

Conveners build dense networks in which their friends are also friends with one another. Conveners are great listeners. They have often lived in the same neighborhood or worked at the same job for a long time. This type of network has outsize trust and reputation benefits. It provides a lot of emotional support.

What is important to realize is that there is no one best or right network. It depends on your needs and your station in life, and you can change your network to help fulfill changing needs.

Why do people find networking uncomfortable? What do they get wrong about it?

If you feel uncomfortable about the idea of networking, you aren’t alone. Despite the importance of our networks for our mental health, physical health, and professional success, the majority of us either think that networking is pointless or feel a moral aversion to it. It makes us feel dirty.

Take a look at the following words and fill in the blanks: w_sh and s__p. A clever study by researchers Tiziana Casciaro, Francesca Gino, and Maryam Kouchaki found that even thinking about the idea of networking makes you far more likely to see cleansing words like “wash” and “soap,” rather than more-neutral words like “wish” and “step.”

In a controlled lab experiment, the trio of researchers asked participants to recall and write about an instance when they had engaged in either spontaneous professional networking (you happen to run into someone at a wedding who provides you with a job lead) or instrumental professional networking (you went to a party with the specific intention of trying to get career help). They also asked people to think about personal rather than professional interactions.

When asked to think about the instrumental form of professional networking, in which they were trying to get something, people were roughly twice as likely as their spontaneous counterparts to see cleansing words such as “wash,” “shower,” and “soap.” This makes perfect sense. Relationships—with family, dear friends, mentors, and colleagues—are intimately personal. They are invaluable. They are sacred. Subconsciously, the idea of intentionally profiting from relationships brings them into the realm of money, the realm of taboo. As a consequence, feelings of disgust can lead to disengagement for those who experience it.

Where people go wrong is thinking of networking as self-serving. When we think of our interactions as an opportunity to give rather than get, much of the moral aversion to networking disappears. In fact, one group was found by these researchers to have far fewer qualms about networking: people in power. On the one hand, you could think this is obvious. People in power became powerful precisely because they are good at networking. But this was true even when the researchers experimentally made subjects think they were powerful. What is different about people in power is that they feel like they have something to give. If we walk into a social exchange thinking about what we can get out of the exchange rather than what we can give, we have the equation backward, and it makes us uncomfortable.

Right now in particular, there are so many things we have to give one another. Many people are struggling with isolation and loneliness—a simple “hello” is a gift. Sending along an article or a podcast is another small gift that can have a big impact. Even asking for help is a gift. It gives the other person a sense of mastery and an opportunity to be of service and get outside themselves.

How has the pandemic changed our social networks?

We’ve become even more predictable during the pandemic because our networks have lost much of their spontaneity. In a recent study, my colleagues Balazs Kovacs, Nicholas Caplan, and Sammy Grob and I found that the size of people’s acquaintance networks has shrunk by close to 17 percent—or more than 200 people—during the pandemic. Instead of focusing on casual acquaintances, our attention and time has focused on our closest connections.

Given how much we need social support right now, this is highly adaptive. Our closest connections are most likely to provide emotional support and stave off loneliness. We’ve seen similar changes to networks in other crises, like Hurricane Katrina. My colleagues and I found that people with five or more very close ties haven’t experienced increased loneliness during the pandemic. If you are struggling with loneliness or need social support, reach out and strengthen your inner circle.

How is networking different in the digital landscape, and how can we foster our connections during this time?

The quality of our interactions is determined in the moment through our senses. Humans have a profound need to feel seen and heard. Touch is our first sense to develop—it begins in utero—and we can convey emotions like sympathy and gratitude far more easily through touch than other means.

The digital world, unfortunately, isn’t very good at re-creating human connection. Our ability to read and convey social cues isn’t great when we aren’t physically present with one another. Silence in conversations gets misinterpreted. We can’t simultaneously be looking into a video camera and at a speaker. Our eyes focus on mouths instead of eyes on video.

Technology can actually pull us away from human connection due to a phenomenon known as inattentional blindness. Unless people are devoting their full attention to what and who surround them, they often fail to notice important stimuli that are in plain view. It’s hard to imagine that you might miss a clown cycling by on a unicycle, for instance. But in a study of inattentional blindness, only one in four cell phone users noticed a clown unicycling right by them. If a cell phone can make us so distracted that we don’t see a unicycling clown, imagine what else we might be missing.

To foster connection, we need to be more present with one another and less distracted. Turn off Zoom and pick up the phone. Communicating solely by voice, rather than voice and video, is better for conveying empathy and emotion, according to research by my colleague Michael Kraus. Hearing the voice of a loved one has an effect similar to touch during difficult times. It reduces cortisol levels, which are a biomarker of stress, and increases oxytocin levels. A phone call can be almost as good as a hug.

Do introversion and extroversion factor into the size and quality of our social networks? What matters in the end?

Extroversion explains surprisingly little about what our networks look like. Less than 5 percent of the variance in what our networks look like is explained by personality.

Where we go and how we spend our time matters far more. Whether you live on a cul-de-sac or a through street, where your desk is located, and even the rules of your child’s daycare pickup play a huge role in determining what type of network you have. Life stage also makes a difference: Our networks are largest when we are twenty-five, but they fall off a cliff during early parenthood. Many, if not most, of these choices are made without thinking about how they affect our networks.

If you aren’t conscious and intentional about your relationships, your network is likely shrinking and will become less and less diverse over time. This is one of the reasons that there is an epidemic of loneliness among older adults. Your relationships are one of your most valuable resources. It’s worth investing in them not just for your own well-being but also for those you care about.

Marissa King is professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, where she developed and teaches a popular course titled Managing Strategic Networks. Over the past fifteen years, King has studied how people’s social networks evolve, what they look like, and why that’s significant. King’s research has been featured in outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Atlantic, and on National Public Radio.

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