The Art of Schmoozing

Posted on March 8, 2011

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I had been commissioned with an important task.

I was to wine and dine some of Australia’s leading viticulture identities at a lunch hosted by a business and commerce group with a very long name.

This is a big deal for me. I am chosen to proxy for my Managing Director. I am young for the task but cautiously optimistic that I can deliver the goods.

It is probably worth pointing out here that due to the fact that these were viticulture types, it was more of the dining than the wining as I know embarrassingly little about what constitutes an exciting vino, despite the fact that I work for two of Australia’s largest wineries.

Either way this task was appointed to me and I was not going to disappoint.

So I walk in to one of the city’s swankiest hotels pretending I am not nursing an excruciating back injury and assume a casual but purposed air. ‘Hi there onlookers, yes I choose to walk like a constipated catwalk model but I don’t think it undermines my credibility one bit…’

I navigate towards the drone of pre-luncheon chatter on one of the lower levels and hobble down the staircase. I see a monochromatic blizzard of business suits and wine glasses, power ties and shiny watches.

I sigh. Once again out of several hundred people, I am one of a smattering of women who are expected to ‘network’ with strange, older men who earn a lot of money and still can’t really seem to figure out why women need to be at work other than to photocopy things.

"Way to tell her to walk behind us, Doug..."

Many of them seem uncomfortable and slightly uneasy when female counterparts converse easily about business and trade. During these conversations, they generally look at you like you’ve stolen their Tonka Truck or cheated off their test.

They stand in groups of three or four. They are tall and very broad. I’m sure they’re wearing shoulder pads, but there’s no time to dwell on that, I must find my clients.

I squeeze my aching body through the throng and politely laugh at the inane ‘careful there sweetheart, I didn’t know there was going to be entertainment at this lunch’ comments as I am bumped inelegantly by a heavyset lawyer called Dimitri into the arms of a married investment banker who seems disappointed to find that I am a) wearing trousers, and b) a b-cup.

I spend 20 minutes fighting my way over to the registration table only to find that the two painful laps I’ve done of the tuna farm of businessmen were in vain as my clients had not yet arrived.

Frustrated and already tired, I decide to search for one of the three women in the room.  Maybe I’ll get lucky and one of them will talk about period pain or a traumatic birthing experience while I tune out and down a glass of wine.

Eventually I stumble across an English lady who looks like she was making a face when the wind changed.

She seems slightly angry that I’m introducing myself when she was perfectly happy scowling into her glass of champagne alone in the corner.

Mercifully the dinner bell rings and I limp over to table 32, still sans clients.

In a twist of irony, I find that Dimitri is sitting at my table. He is rotund. He is loud. He makes inappropriate jokes.

To my right is a botoxed 50-something wine importer called Stella. She is wearing the tightest dress I have ever seen and her breasts are trying (in vain) to avoid asphyxiation by climbing as high as they can out of her dress. Dimitri talks to her a lot.

Finally my clients arrive. Excellent. Let the schmoozing begin. I envisage witty banter over our oyster entree, followed by more serious business discussion over the beef and polenta main to follow.

I comment on the tartness of the boutique sauvignon blanc we’ve been asked to sample and ask which white wines are drinking well this year. Bonus points for remembering vigneron lingo.

Not wanting to peak too soon, I pause to eat the oyster on my plate. It is teriyaki flavoured and served in its shell on a bed of what appears to be pickled vermicelli and cabbage. I remember to use my oyster fork and make a joke about Dimitri who has sucked his straight out of the shell.  Stella looks impressed.

My client laughs and we segue into a discussion about the seafood industry and how many agribusiness operators in the South East are diversifying into crops, livestock and aquaculture to stave off the financial effects of drought. Bonus points for initiating topical discussion.

I decide to reward myself for stellar schmoozing capabilities and take another elegant pause to enjoy my oyster side dish of pickled vegetables. I love these clear, oriental pickled things.

I take a large forkful and place in my mouth.

Am horrified to discover it is not pickled cabbage and it is not pickled vermicelli noodles.

They are wet chunks of rock salt.

Suddenly all back pain is forgotten and all my energy is concentrated on my head not exploding at the intensity of the sensation in my mouth.

I want to wretch all over Stella’s strangulated cleavage but I must maintain composure. While cursing in my mind the chef who decided that all oysters should be served on a bed of moist rock salt (which I have since learned is common practice) I frantically formulate a plan that will enable me to spit out said rock salt without Dimitri and crucially, my clients, noticing.

I pick up my napkin and try to ignore the fact that the inside of my mouth is peeling away and casually try to spit the salt into a neat little pile. My body seems to be working against my brain in its desperation to relieve the agony of a rock salt soufflé and makes me regurgitate a messy stream of salt and saliva down my front, into my top and through my napkin.

Fortunately by this stage I was so consumed by my internal Dead Sea experience I didn’t stop to check if anyone else noticed. I fleetingly indulge the thought that perhaps people do sometimes take a mouthful of salt to wash down their entrée.  Maybe no one will bat an eyelid over me drooling and spitting chunks of salt into my lap.

I keep my large navy blue napkin up to my mouth and begin the task of wiping away the debris from my shirt and chest.

Bonus points for not vomiting on the client.

After a few stunned moments reflecting on this charade, I decide the only thing left for me to do is to drink a large glass of Barossa Valley Shiraz very quickly. By the time our main course arrives, I have dulled the biting sensation in my mouth and devour my polenta side dish safe in the knowledge that it did not appear to be anything other than it was.

I enjoy another glass of red wine, forgetting that I am also currently taking some very strong painkillers and an odd sensation of dizziness creeps up on me and I start to feel quite nervous. I don’t want to get up in case I stumble and fall, possibly suffocating in Stella’s cleavage. I decide against initiating a discussion about my client’s trade developments in Asia.

I sway gently from side to side during the keynote presentation and drink as much water as possible. I wonder if I am slipping into some kind of saline anaphylactic shock.

As the luncheon draws to a close I am feeling sore, slightly nauseous and very unsteady on my feet. My confidence is knocked. I make a feeble excuse and leave the nanosecond that the politeness threshold has passed. I decide against catching a taxi and stagger through the city centre back towards the office. I get around 500 metres and decide to call one of the girls in the office to come and get me.

She doesn’t see me as she drives past as I’m squatting on the side of the road by a dustbin and I’m forced to chase after her, only catching up with the car at a red light 50 metres down the road…

And that right there is how it’s done, folks.