Dealing with the distrusted: To schmooze or not to schmooze?

At some point, most of us need to work with someone we don’t particularly trust. It’s not that we distrust them; it’s just that we have no basis for trust, along with the vague heebie-jeebies.

Dealing with a potentially distrustworthy person is difficult—but more negotiable if we at least try to schmooze, defined unscientifically but accurately as shooting the [stuff].

Now, schmoozing gets a bad name, in part because most of us associate it with the greasy-haired man who sold us our last car. Indeed, the word itself—schmoozing—sounds a little greasy. And, in the context of the car salesman, schmoozing should have a bad name: that kind of schmoozing is inauthentic, manipulative, and excessive.

But schmoozing doesn’t have to be that way—and it does serve the critical purpose of humanizing two people who wouldn’t necessarily treat each other as humans. And thus, when done in the right way, schmoozing serves the critical goal of building trust. But what is the right way? Here are five tips for schmoozing ethically and effectively with your next potentially distrustworthy counterpart:

  1. Make it authentic. In order to work and “feel right,” your schmoozing has to be consistent with your personality. So I’m not urging you to adopt the manner of the greasy-haired man; I’m advising you to find a personally-comfortable way of making a little more small-talk. So if you’re a shy person, maybe that just means asking people how they’re doing today.
  2. Make it well-intentioned. In addition, I’m not advising you to adopt the goal of the greasy-haired main: to sell you. I’m advising you to personalize people for the purpose of building at least the vestiges of a relationship where there was none.
  3. Focus on true commonalities. Also don’t adopt the greasy-haired habit of whipping out the same schmooze with everyone. “Cold day, eh?” “How about dem Sox?” “Nice tie!” Even if it is a cold day, dem Sox are winning, and his tie is stunning, these are not effective schmoozes. Effective schmoozes focus on a true point of commonality. So if your kids play soccer and you see a picture of her kids playing soccer, a good schmooze has something to do with kids and soccer.
  4. Tailor it to the medium. Our workplace interactions differ from our greasy-haired interactions in numerous ways—one is that they’re not necessarily face-to-face. This matters for schmoozing because the more “barren” the communication medium—the fewer visual, vocal, and nonverbal signals it provides—the harder it is to build trust. So pay even more attention, and devote even more time, to schmoozing when emailing or talking on the phone. It helps.
  5. Tailor it to the culture. Notwithstanding the greasy-haired man, Westerners often like to “get down to business.” Coldness, Sox, ties, soccer—we generally see these topics as distractions from the matter at-hand. They’re not, as I hope this post suggests. But they’re especially crucial in many Latin American and East Asian cultures, where the construction of a strong relationship is all but essential before anyone talks “business.”

Bottom line: We should try to separate the act of schmoozing—which can help build trust—with the image of a schmoozer. Otherwise, we may well lose by choosing not to schmooze.