Networking has become a firmly ingrained concept in most business people’s minds, but few know how to approach a complete stranger with whom they want to make contact. Most people don’t realize that there are other options than discussing the weather. Often it is easy to strike up a meaningful conversation about anyone’s passion or hobby without even knowing them: most people wear their interests on their sleeves.

Logos, symbols and brands are an excellent way to learn a great deal about somebody instantly. Brazilian soccer jerseys, Mason society rings and yacht club shirts give away clues as to what each wearer would like to talk about. Wouldn’t that make a better topic of conversation than the weather?

Wear Your Interests—Notice Theirs

When I bought the simple, black, collared shirt on a trip to New Zealand, I had no idea it would create business opportunities for me. The name of a rugby team labeled across the front, New Zealand All Blacks, has elicited enthusiasm since the first day I wore it. No matter where I am, someone always strikes up a conversation about the team, the sport or the country.

Connecting with someone is all about finding common ground. When your flight is delayed, or you’re stuck in a waiting room, or even when you’re waiting in line to pay a traffic ticket, don’t dismiss the circumstance as a mundane obligation; it also offers a chance to network. How do you decide what to talk about while sustaining someone’s attention? Most people wear their hobbies on their sleeves—or at least, across their chests.

The simple words sewn into my shirt have allowed me to meet and connect with a variety of people, some of whom have become valuable networking allies. It’s no secret that the best way to network is to make personal connections with people. What better way to make those connections than with the clothes on your back—or theirs?

Take a look around and you can find a dozen hidden clues about a person’s interests. If you can recognize a logo, you have something to talk about. Does the person wear a Brazilian jersey (soccer)? A Dakine backpack (skiing/snowboarding)? A Hard Rock Café T-shirt from Paris (international travel)?

You can often deduce people’s interests just by looking at them, and if you ask, they will gladly share that interest with you. Within the first sentence, it can propel you beyond small talk into a pleasant, meaningful conversation.

The hoopla over my shirt has gone so far that fans have grabbed me in a bar and commenced to perform the Ka Mate, the New Zealand rugby team’s ritual that involves screams and a throat-slitting motion at the end. Not a sight for the faint of heart.

Make a Friend

Don’t think of networking as making contacts, think of it as making friends. Asking someone who is just another contact to go out on a limb for you can be hit or miss. But asking a favor from your friend—a friend you gained over a discussion about the jibing techniques on a Flying Junior sailboat—will probably produce a more encouraging response. And if they can’t help you directly, they will take the time and effort to find someone who can.

I was born in Brazil, and anytime I see someone wearing a Brazilian flag anywhere on their person, I pounce on them. Usually I will open with some Portuguese dialogue, hoping to receive a friendly smile when they hear their native tongue. This often leads to friendly dinners and invites to beach houses.

However, it’s not always that easy. There are times when you can’t recognize an interest from looking at someone. If you see nothing but business suits, pay attention to distinctive variations, such as specialty ties, tie clips, lapel pins, or even briefcases.

Everyone shares something in common with you. Just the fact that you can see this person means you are both in the same place, be it grabbing a morning cup of coffee, sitting in the waiting room at the Jiffy Lube, or browsing the aisles at a grocery store. Whatever you’re doing, the fact is, both of you are doing it, so your common interest is already there.

The takeaway message from someone who wears no distinguishable sign of interest is simple: don’t be that person yourself. While you may be searching for clues on someone else, they may be searching for clues on you, too, and you should never leave them hanging.

What (Not) to Wear

Situation dictates what you can wear for an effective relationship starter. If you are a Red Sox fan, you won’t make a whole lot of contacts at a Red Sox game (if everyone is doing it, then what would set you apart?), but you might do so on a vacation to Miami.

There is a correlation between how many people share a particular interest and how strong the connection will be that derives from that interest alone. The smaller the group of people, the stronger the bond. If you wear a Mason society ring, a member who recognizes it may go to great lengths to help you without even knowing you. However, with this approach, you risk not encountering anyone of the same interest for a while.

Finally, don’t ever bluff. If you carry a bag from the WSOP (World Series of Poker) you better be prepared to sit down to a card game or discuss tactics with another fan. Nothing closes your window of opportunity faster than the contact realizing you are a phony. You would have been better off talking about the weather. Why do you think I had to learn the Ka Mate so quickly?

ERIC SCHNAPP is a young entrepreneur. He coauthored with
his siblings
Legally Clueless: A Law Guide for Young People about
the legal rights and situations high school and college students
most often come across.
www.networkingtimes.com/link/schnapp