Mingling maven dispenses advice in and out of the room

Some 25 years ago, Susan RoAne got up before a cadre of Contra Costa singles and showed them how to mix, how to mingle and how to work a room.

Susan RoAne

The former San Francisco schoolteacher made it sound so easy: Look for a person who is standing alone, wend your way into a group of three or more, or check badges for a familiar-sounding name or city.

At the time, I was a newly single 40-something reporter in search of a fun evening, if not a new mate. RoAne had just come out with her first book, “How to Work a Room,” and while I didn’t hook Mr. Right that night, I stumbled on a good story.

A week or so later, after a lunch interview with RoAne in a downtown Oakland hotel, I followed her as she sashayed into a convention in which neither of us was a participant. She put on a badge, introduced herself to a bystander and proceeded to match up a couple of young executives as I watched open-mouthed.

RoAne, whose first book has been newly updated in a 25-year edition, has chutzpah. She does not wait to be “properly introduced,” à la Scarlett O’Hara. Instead, she does the introducing herself, making her way through a roomful of strangers. Being a scholar in the science of Jewish geography has its advantages — usually.

While many strangers have six degrees of separation, Jews have only or one two, she quipped during a recent Skype interview from her home in Greenbrae. Let’s say you’re at a wedding and one of the guests has the same surname as your college roommate from Philadelphia. So you ask.

“To not mention ‘Do you know?’ misses an opportunity,” she said.

Even if the wedding guest is no relation to your college roommate, you’ve struck up a conversation and already have become “a little more bonded. If you hear a name and it sounds familiar, always ask.”

Since that first bestseller, the self-described “mingling maven” has written six other books, including “The Secrets of Savvy Networking” and “What Do I Say Next?” The latest edition of “How to Work a Room” deals with rooms and connections of the virtual variety, including digital strategies. The original was the first business book to include a Yiddish glossary, a strategy she followed in subsequent books.

RoAne is rarely at a loss for words, Yiddish and otherwise. “My mother trained me,” she said. At family weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs in Chicago, where she grew up, RoAne’s mother would inevitably say, “Go talk to your cousins from Toronto.”

RoAne’s career as a corporate speaker and room-worker began after a bit of bad luck. In 1979, the San Francisco Unified School District laid off some 1,200 teachers, including RoAne and her former husband. Through her connections with then-Assemblyman Willie Brown, she worked out of his office, leading a number of career-change workshops. Recognizing that she could help clients meld mingling expertise with networking strategies, she knew she had more than a workshop; she had a business.

RoAne advises partygoers to come armed with topics for small talk, preferably something pleasant or humorous. “Small talk,” she writes, “should intrigue, delight, amuse, and fill up time pleasantly. Given that, anything will do, from dogs to delicatessens.”

Then there are the awkward moments at a cocktail party or convention when you’re stuck in a corner for 10 minutes and have run out of words. RoAne offers three strategies. “I need to refresh my drink” is not one of them.

First, she advises smiling, extending your hand and saying something like, “I enjoyed meeting you.” You might even offer your business card. Then move a distance away (about one-quarter of the room), approaching another group or a person standing alone.

If a conversation is deadly, you can exit with a pleasant line such as, “I hope you enjoy the rest of the evening.”

But her most novel approach is to introduce the conversation partner to someone else at the gathering, helping them to network.

What is your course of action when your conversation partner utters an anti-Semitic or sexist remark?

“Here’s the thing,” said RoAne. “Whether it’s anti-Semitic or anti-gay” or anti-something else, “what I learned in Hebrew school is that we cannot give silent approval to wrongdoing. We have to stand up and be counted.”

“How to Work a Room: The Ultimate Guide to Making Lasting Connections — in Person and Online” by Susan RoAne ($15.99, William Morrow, 370 pages)

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].