Written by: Bob Bertsch
Introductions are critical to our professional relationships and, as Danielle Pillet-Shore points out, “to sustaining everyday social life” (2011, p.73). But, outside the moment of the introduction, we rarely take the time to think about the work that’s really going on when two or more people meet. Pillet-Shore examined videos of introductions between people coming together to socialize and/or do work and revealed insights that can help us navigate the often awkward moment when we meet someone new or introduce two people to each other.
How awkward you feel when meeting someone new likely depends on your relative comfort in social situations, but all of us feel at least some level of uncertainty. Encountering a stranger creates uncertainty because we lack information about the predictability of that person’s behavior and about how we should behave in their presence. When strangers meet, “their primary concern is to increase predictability about the behavior of both themselves and others in the interaction.” (Berger and Calabrese, 1975). Berger and Calabrese continue, ‘‘as the amount of verbal communication between strangers increases, the levels of uncertainty for each interactant in the relationship will decrease. As uncertainty is further reduced, the amount of verbal communication will increase’’ (pp. 101-102).
Introductions, either self-initiated between two people or mediated by a third person, open the flow of information. They create tiny cracks in the wall we create in our minds between the people we already know and everyone else. Introductions increase predictability and reduce uncertainty, not only of another person’s behavior but also of our own behavior. Whether or not to initiate an introduction and, if we decide to initiate, how to design an introduction are two sources of uncertainty related to our own behavior.
The Work Involved in an Introduction
Pillet-Shore outlined an introduction sequence that participants use to first coordinate attention between the unacquainted people, then decide how to structure the introduction, and finally to “ratify” the relevance of the introduction.
The coordination of attention often includes the unacquainted parties looking at each other and/or orienting their bodies to face each other. It can also include gestures, like a wave. You may have heard the advice to “look someone in the eye when you meet them.” Whatever the motivation behind that advice, it’s a good practice for making sure we are being attentive and we have the attention of the person we are introducing ourselves to. This may seem obvious, but it is critical that people who are being introduced are paying attention because it is a violation of a social norm to be introduced to a person a second time. In Pillet-Shore’s research people apologized when the person they were introducing themselves to indicated they had already met and people meditating an introduction apologized when the two people they were introducing to each other indicated they already knew each other. Despite how taxing it might be to have to remember everyone you ever met, this social norm does exist, so making sure people being introduced are paying attention is important.
Structuring Your Introduction
Once attention is coordinated, we need to formulate how to structure our introductions. What names will we use? What titles will we use, if any? What descriptors will we use? When introducing ourselves, we only have to answer these questions for one person. However, when we are mediating an introduction we need to do twice the amount of work. The way we structure our introduction reflects what information we think is relevant in that specific situation and sets the initial context for the relationship between the two people we are introducing. For example, what relationship context are we setting if we introduce one person as “Major Smith” and the other person as “Janelle”? Are we implying a hierarchy where Major Smith is higher in order than Janelle? If so, is that implication based on an existing system that both people are a part of or is it informed by our biases?
Finally, the people being introduced ‘ratify” the relevance of the introduction. Pillet-Shore outlines several ways this can happen including with a greeting, a handshake, or phrases like “How are you?” or “It’s so good to meet you?” These gestures are like the signature on the agreement saying “we have met,” which, as mentioned above, is no small thing considering the social norm that two people should only ever be introduced to each other once.
The Critical Role of Mediation
A key finding of Pillet-Shore’s research is that when a potential mediator (a third person who knows both unacquainted persons) is present, a mediated introduction is “preferred” over a self-initiated introduction. In this context, “preferred” is a technical term meaning actions that are performed directly and without delay, as opposed to “dispreferred” actions that are delayed. It tends to take longer for two unacquainted people to initiate an introduction when a potential mediator is present. When a potential mediator is present and observes two people they know initiate an introduction without mediation, the potential mediator often interjects with an apology, as if they have neglected a social duty.
Mediators are extremely important in creating relationships and developing networks. In a self-initiated introduction, the two people have little to no information about one another. This can make the work of an introduction much more difficult, possibly resulting in no introduction at all. A mediator has knowledge of both people and can potentially formulate a context for their relationship, a reason why these two people should meet. This is an essential function in networks. June Holley has termed frequent mediators within a network as “network weavers.” According to Holley, network weaving is “paying attention to the relationships around you and noticing who’s missing, who’s not being listened to, and helping create healthier, deeper relationships. You do this by bringing new people in, by connecting people within your existing networks and helping them get to know each other so they can work together” (“What is Network Weaving?”, n.d.). By effectively playing the role of mediator, we are weaving networks of relationships that have the potential to result in collaborative work, collective action, and stronger organizations and communities. How you mediate an introduction can propose a way for the people you are introducing to relate to each other during the present encounter and may influence whether they will pursue a relationship with each other going forward (Pillet-Shore, 2011).
Putting It Into Practice
Navigating self-initiated introductions
When you are faced with having to self-initiate an introduction, you can lighten the work by formulating simple introduction structures for different situations in advance. You may already have a few phrases you regularly use, for example:
- At work -”:Hi, I’m Bob Bertsch, web technology specialist.”
- At your child’s school – “Hi, I’m Aidan’s dad.”
- At a party – “Hi, I’m Bob.”
However, if you think about your introductions as setting the path for your relationships, you may want to look beyond your social roles when categorizing yourself in an introduction. Getting to know yourself better can help. A question that has been helpful for me is “What lights you up?” Asking yourself that question can help you formulate an introduction for contexts where using your societal roles might not lead to the kind of relationships you are seeking or for when the context is less predictable, for example in an introduction by email or in an online bio. Asking the question, “What lights me up?”, led me to the tagline on my LinkedIn account, “Seeking and sharing insights on how people can come together as equals to work toward positive social change.”
Practice being a mediator
Another way to put this information into practice is to be intentional about your role as an introduction mediator and network weaver. Thinking about Pillet-Shore’s introduction sequence (coordinate attention, structure the introduction, and ratify the relevance of the introduction) can help you mediate introductions more effectively. You can use your body, gaze, and voice to help coordinate the attention of both people. If you are making an introduction online, you can coordinate attention by including potential benefits of connection that will resonate with each of the people you are introducing. You can structure your introduction in a way that sets a path for the relationship that is being initiated and doesn’t imply inequality between the people you are introducing, especially when it might be based on explicit or implicit bias. You can reinforce the ratification of the introduction’s relevance with phrases like “I’m so glad the two of you are connected now” or “I’m excited to hear about the conversations you’ll have.”
Notice people’s strengths and goals
Finally, you can start practicing network weaving by thinking about the strengths and goals of people you know. Keep these strengths and goals in mind, and when you hear about a challenge someone is facing, consider connecting them with someone who has strengths that may be able to help them or is facing the same challenge.
Berger, C. R., & Calabrese, R. J. (1975). Some explorations in initial interaction and beyond: Toward a developmental theory of interpersonal communication. Human Communication Research, 1(2), 99112.
Pillet-Shore, D. (2011). Doing Introductions: The Work Involved in Meeting Someone New. Communication Monographs, 78(1), 73–95. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637751.2010.542767
What is Network Weaving? – Q & A with June Holley—NetworkWeaver. (n.d.). Retrieved October 6, 2023, from https://networkweaver.com/what-is-network-weaving/