Years ago, when I was working for a small trade organization, I was tasked with coordinating the group’s legislative fly-in. To schedule meetings for my visitors, I cashed in favors with staffers in Hill offices and Cabinet departments. And when I ran out of chits, my co-worker, Boots, enthusiastically offered up his rolodex. This, however, turned out to be as much of a hinderance as it was a help.
Boots could charitably be described as chronically outgoing. He would burst into every reception, fundraiser and function in his cowboy hat and boots, and spend the entire night chatting up every person in the room from the bartender to the host. And while his zeal for networking was admirable, his inability to properly categorize the people he met created a very real problem for him and for me.
You see, Boots referred to every person who he’d ever met as his “friend.” His roommate of three years? Friend. The legislative aide who he’d taken meetings with regularly for a few months? Friend. The lobbyist who he’d met at the bar last night? Friend. Everyone, regardless of the length, depth or nature of the relationship, was a “friend.”
So why is this a problem?
In Washington, D.C., relationships are everything. I depend on the people that I’ve met throughout the years to get things done. And on occasion, I need to ask a “friend” for a favor to help move things along. Of course, this only works if the person in question is actually my friend and not someone who I collected a card from at a fundraiser three years ago.
In a heavily striated world, where personal relationships are the currency of the realm, titles matter. So lumping everyone into the “friend” category is not good for you or the people around you.
While several of the people I called did know Boots, an equal number of them found it difficult to hide their confusion when I referred to them as one of Boots’ friends. Some openly asked me who he was, where he worked, or if I knew how he claimed to know them. By the third clueless caller, I decided to stop using his name because the constant confusion was frustrating for both parties involved.
Since this experience, I’ve taken better care to describe my business associates accurately. Here are the categories that I generally utilize:
Friend. If I regularly chat with a person, meet them for non-work drinks or dinner, or if we discuss enough of our personal lives that I know the names of their spouse, children or pets, that is a friend.
A friend is someone you can call at 3pm on Saturday and ask them to brunch on Sunday. If you would feel awkward meeting up with the person on the weekends or just outside of a work context, the person is not a friend.
Colleague. If I work with another staffer regularly, we staff the same committee/caucus, or I see them at a lot of after hours work events, they are my colleague. Granted, the term can be a bit cumbersome. But it’s the best way to describe work-associates who you have a friendly, consistent relationship with but don’t see outside of Hill-functions.
I know a guy. (Eloquent, I know, but the phrase works.) If my CoS says to me, “Who can we work with at (fill in name of congressman/group/company here)?” I will usually respond with, “I know (his LA/the guy who does their energy work/their VP).” “Knowing a guy,” is defined thusly:
If we’ve exchanged several e-mails, talked for a significant amount of time at a work function, attended the same briefings, were introduced at a party by a mutual friend or had a meeting together, then I “know” the person.
This means that I know the person well enough that he will remember me and how we know each other, but we don’t talk regularly (more than four times per year). Most of my work associeates fall into this category.
I’ve met a guy. This is exactly what it sounds like. I met Joe Smith at a reception, I have his card, and I remember him, but there’s only a 60/40 chance that he’ll remember me. Basically, if you need to give a person context to ensure that he’ll remember you, then you’ve “met a guy.” You don’t “know a guy.”
Now, why do these semantic difference matter?
Because my Boss and CoS often ask for things that require me to reach out beyond the four walls of our office, and they usually want to know who I’ll be reaching out to and how well I know that person. Not so much because they care about the contents of my contact list, but because they want to know how likely it is that this task will have a positive outcome. Let me give you an example.
Let’s say I’m trying to whip supporters for my Boss’ bill criminalizing the wearing of Uggs in public (Hey, a girl can dream.), and he asks me to make sure that Congresswoman Jane Smith signs on to the bill. If I say to him, “I have a friend in that office,” he expects this request to be fulfilled quickly and easily. But if I say, “I’ve met her LD at a briefing, I’ll shoot her an e-mail,” he knows that it’s going to take more time and energy to make this happen.
Relationships and networking are important in any profession, but they are critical on the Hill (in D.C.). If you can’t break your Outlook contact list down into categories based on familiarity, and be honest with yourself and your Boss/co-workers about how well you know these people, then you are going to face a lot of awkward and potentially damaging situations.
So use your words and your best judgement when describing your professional relationships, your reputation will thank you for it. No one wants to be, or do business with, the guy who thinks every person he’s ever met is his “friend.”