A presentation to the Hellenic Business Network (HBN) First Anniversary Symposium

When Tina Papadopoulos asked me last year if I would speak at one of HBN’s meetings, I readily agreed. I was pleased to learn that a group had been formed especially for business networking, and thought that this area of Greek affairs was very represntative of what is quintessentially Greek. You see, since the very first centuries of recorded Greek history, the business world, the arena of the trader and traveller, has been one where the Greek has excelled as few others have. Greek colonies sprang up throughout the Mediterranean basin at places where prosperous Greek city-states had developed important trading interests. Their astute leaders reflected the salient characteristics of the Greek populace, traits which have been often noticed by modern academics and which have drawn much commentary from them. These Greeks were curious, ambitious, proud, and partial to impassioned debate. And everywhere these Greeks went, they brought with them their language and culture, leaving behind clear traces of their presence. There is no place on earth to which Greeks have not travelled and carried the beacon of Hellas throughout the millenia. Good networking? You bet!

But how did they do it? Well, we know that they didn’t exchange business cards over mezethakia at an ouzeri. But we do have written records, ones preserved for many centuries, and ones which can give us a good glimpse at some aspects of this process of meeting others and introducing oneself. A few examples of personal introductions can be readily found in Homeric epic. Book 6 of the Iliad is particularly interesting, offering a detailed description of a first-time meeting between two noted warriors who are about to engage in one-on-one combat — Glaucos, representing the Trojans, and Diomedes, fighting on behalf of the Achaeans. This episode stands out because the combatants do not know each other, unlike many other contests in which the famous warriors taunt and challenge their known enemies to engage in battle. Here, in Book 6, Diomedes is the first to speak (Lattimore translation):

“Who among mortal men are you, good friend? Since never before have I seen you in the fighting where men win glory, yet now you have come striding far out in front of all others in your great heart, who have dared stand up to my spear far-shadowing...if you are one of those mortals who eat what the soil yields, come nearer, so that sooner youmay reach your appointed destruction.”

Glaucos replies:

“High-hearted son of Tydeus, why ask of my generation?...Yet if you wish to learn all
this and be certain of my genealogy: there are plenty of men who know it.”

And so he proceeds to recount his lineage, going back a number of generations. He is the son of Hippolochos, grandson of Bellerophontes, great-grandson of Glaucos, and great-great-grandson of Argive Sisyphos, who in turn was son of the god Aiolos. Glaucos recounts the famous legend about his grandfather, Bellerophontes: he rejected the secret, amorous advances of a local chieftain’s wife. Angered, she denounced Bellerophontes to her husband, who then contrived to have him sent to the distant home of a father-in-law in Lycia, across the Aegean Sea. There he had hoped to have him either assassinated or killed while performing impossible tasks. But Bellerophontes, favored by the gods, eventually prevailed and was given the hand of one of the Lycian king’s daughters. Diomedes, hearing all of this (Lattimore):

“drove his spear deep into the prospering earth, and in winning words of friendliness he spoke to the shepherd of the people: ‘See now, you are my guest friend from far in the time of our fathers. Brilliant Oineus [the grandfather of Diomedes] once was host to
Bellerophontes the blameless, in his halls, and twenty days he detained him, and these two gave to each other fine gifts in token of friendship...Therefore I am your friend and host in the heart of Argos; you are mine in Lycia, when I come to your country. Let us
avoid each other’s spears, even in the close fighting...let us exchange our armor, so that these others may know how we claim to be guests and friends from the days of our fathers.”

This, then, is how the Greeks from ancient times introduced themselves: by listing their parentage, especially paternal lineage, their family ancestry and history as well as their city of origin. These pieces of information were enough to make a solid connection with a stranger. By knowing a person’s name and birthplace, you could establish a personal friendship based upon family connections — and perhaps even close acquaintances. In the case of Glaucos and Diomedes, their friendship was one inherited from their fathers and grandfathers, a ritual friendship that was considered to be sacrosanct in the ancient world. Indeed, some scholarly commentators maintain that this type of ritual friendship was even more important than actual family relationships.

We can find another excellent example of a personal introduction in a special genre of Hellenistic literature, the ancient Greek novel. Contrary to popular thought, the novel is not a recent literary development. It is an authentic Greek creation, reaching the height of its development in the first centuries after Christ. These full-length, adventure-romance novels clearly served a popular audience, just as our modern paperback fiction stories do. In the Ethiopian Story of Heliodorus, the heroine Charikleia and her fiancee Theagenes experience a series of disastrous turns at the hands of foreigners as they travel. When they are abducted by bandits who enslave them and wound Theagenes, another slave tends to the young man’s injuries, saying (B.J. Reardon translation):

“‘You should not be surprised if I am concerned about you, for you seem to share the same fate as I do. I feel sympathy for you because you are Greek, and I am a Greek myself.’ ‘A Greek! Heaven be praised!’ exclaimed the young couple in unison. “Truly a Greek in birth and speech!....’What name should we call you by?’ asked Theagenes. ‘Knemon,’ he replied. ‘And where are you from?’ ‘Athens.’ ‘And what is your story?’”

And so the couple becomes acquainted with a fellow Greek named Knemon, an aristocratic Athenian by birth whose father was Aristoppos, a member of the Council of the Areiopagos, an archon. As the episodes of this epic-length tale unfold, the three band together, escape, and eventually discover that they have close mutual acquaintances, and that their Greek families are bound by ties of friendship.

What these two seemingly disparate episodes have in common is the type of information which was transmitted as strangers shared their identities in the way of typical introductions. One’s birthplace, parents, ancestors, and family history were crucial, not only in learning the essentials about a stranger, but also in conveying one’s own identity. Was this then how the ancient traders and travellers established a Greek presence throughout the Mediterranean? Yes, this was one of the methods — a type of networking, if you will, to discover common acquaintances and established family friendships and relationships. When a Greek from one city-state departed for another city or land, he forever retained an allegiance to his birthplace and birth family, and kept the same family friends. In this way, colonists, traders, and seafarers from Greek city-states preserved a loyalty to their mother city and family connections for generations afterward. Moreover, family friends and family guests, as the story of Glaucos nicely illustrates, retained a special status, establishing a link which resembled a real family tie and which often incurred societal obligations.

But what is most remarkable about these early ancestors of ours is that elements of their networking have persisted even until today. If we pause to consider what questions we regularly ask others of Greek descent, we find that we ask them where they reside here in the United States and also from which city and province their Greek ancestors came. With these two questions, we can often establish some sort of connection. Let me give you an example. Recently, when my husband Chris and I went to the movies in Florida with other Greek-Americans, a couple in front of us overheard some of our conversation in Greek. We noticed that they understood our remarks because they wree chuckling in reaction to our joke. When we asked them if they were Greek, we quickly learned that they were, and that they hailed from Hartford, Connecticut. Since my own godfather is from Hartford, I naturally asked if they knew him. Of course they did! He used to work for the woman’s father. Another recent incident further demonstrates the nature of these Greek connections. While on this same vacation, Chris and I overheard a waitress in a restaurant trying to describe some of the entrees on the menu to a young man who was wheelchair-bound. She wasn’t having much success, from what we could see. And the fellow was becoming a little frustrated. We spoke up when we determined that his accent was Greek. A short time later, after appropriate introductions, which included family origins, we discovered that the injured merchant marine was a distant cousin of mine on my mother’s side. His family also came from the same little Greek village as my maternal grandparents. Over the next few days we took him to the local Greek festival and introduced him to prominent local parishioners, who in turn introduced him to local Greek attorneys and local restaurateurs, all of whom offered him their assistance. Small world? It is for a Greek.

Networking takes on an added dimension with Greeks because of cultural and religious practices. Not only do we have extended families, but our familes become allied with others every time someone acts as a godparent (nouno or nouna) or as a best man or best woman (koumbaro or koumbara) during an Orthodox sacrament. When business books describe the foundations of schmoozing or networking, they often fail to take into account such ethnic and religious ties, or the cultural practices of the yiayiathes or papouthes of small Greek — or even American — towns, the tenders of the unofficial “Greek grapevine,” the ones who know and remember everyone in extended families. We Greeks, then, have a built in system of networking, one which depends largely on knowing precisely where one’s family originated and with which families we have joined through Church ritual. And it is a system of complex relationships which should be utilized by Greek and Greek-American businesspeople whenever possible. Relatives and family friends can often provide us with introductions or information about job prospects and clients; this avenue should never be overlooked and cannot be stressed strongly enough.

One year when I was teaching at the University of Maine, I had been searching for new lodgings. Finding the hunt nearly impossible in a college town, I decided to try a new tact: to announce my needs after church services to everyone at the Bangor Greek Orthodox church. The plan worked, as Father Paul of Andover can attest. Within a few minutes a little old lady, whom I did not recognize, gave me an excited look and then a big hug and kiss: she was my godchild’s grandmother. How this woman recognized me, I don’t know. I hadn’t seen her in more than twenty-five years. Very quickly she introduced me to her niece, who had a vacant mother-in-law apartment, and before leaving the church that afternoon, I was a new lessee.

In closing, if a young Greek professional or businessperson is looking for tips on networking, encourage her or him to bypass the business book section in the local bookstore and go straight to knowledgeable family members or a knowledgeable Greek or Greek-American in the local community. Better yet, urge membership in HBN! For who can be better at networking than the Greeks, with such a history of established religious and cultural relationships and strong family ties — all dating at least as far back in time as written records?