Seattle professionals share their networking pet peeves, while an etiquette expert weighs in with the do's and don'ts of making professional contacts.

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Jassen Bowman’s least favorite word bandied about during networking sessions?

Synergy. As in, “Let’s get together and see if we have synergy.”

“The word is so over-used, and it makes me cringe every time I hear it,” says Bowman, who recently co-founded Learning Suite, a Seattle-based educational technology startup that provides professional education for accountants, tax professionals and attorneys.

“The startup world is filled with people trying too hard to impress other people,” Bowman says. “I wish that people would just speak plainly, the classic ‘say what you mean, mean what you say.’ There is no reason to complicate things.”

In networking there are certain small choices that can add up to big mistakes. These choices can include buzzwords, intrusive or personal questions and even how a coffee meeting between professionals is arranged.

“My biggest pet peeve involves someone asking how many employees work at my company,” says Peter Murphy, co-founder of Seattle-based Pocket Prep, which manages more than 150 different exam prep apps.

“Too much about a company is inferred from the size of its roster, but that inference doesn’t actually relay any valuable information,” Murphy says. “When I tell people that we have three employees, conclusions are automatically drawn and the entire conversation and mood shifts.” He’s asked questions about his “startup,” although his company has been around since 2011, with good profits and low overhead.

Networking etiquette

It’s bad manners to even ask about company size, says Arden Clise, a Seattle-based business etiquette consultant. Inquiring about the size of a business is “a little like sizing the other person up,” she says.

What’s the motive behind asking for such information, after all? “It could be that you’re trying to see if they’re good potential client,” Clise says. But for the recipient, it can feel like a comparison game.

Other small-talk no-no’s include asking about revenue, pricing or fees. “Money’s just better to stay away from,” Clise says. It’s also best to avoid personal discussions around kids, along with religion or politics, she adds.

For a more neutral icebreaker, Clise suggests asking: “How do you spend your time, when you’re not working?” This open-ended question allows the respondent to share hobbies, personal interests or relationships or perhaps a new side business-project.

Information, please

When asking for an informational interview, it’s important to approach with the right mix of personal appreciation and respect for your interviewee’s time. Remember, they’re not interviewing you for a job, but you’re trying to learn more about the workplace, industry or career specific to your interviewee.

Clise says bad moves include arriving late, not paying for the interviewee’s coffee, talking about yourself the whole time or turning a half-hour meeting into an hour-long pitch session for yourself. Instead, arrive on time, pay for the other person’s coffee, and don’t talk about yourself.

“You’re there to learn about the other person, their career and how they got where they are,” Clise says. “Ask questions such as ‘How did you get into what you do?’ ‘What do you like about your job?’ ‘What is challenging for you, and what does an average day look like?’ Get a sense of the person’s professional world.”

Many of the same tips are true for coffee dates between professional peers or entrepreneurs. “Go in with the mind-set, ‘How can I help this person?’ and have something to offer the other person, versus thinking, ‘What can I get from this person?’”

Finally, end the meeting at the time you said you would. “When you say 30 minutes, keep it to 30 minutes. Honor that person’s time,” Clise says.