I am always harping on how important it is to be nice. I have written about how you will be happy at work if you have three friends there, you will get promoted if people like you and you should try to be more likable no matter how likable you think you are right now.

A recent study by SkillSoft tells which factors employees see as most important to their wellbeing. Here’s the list:

1. Flexible working hours
2. Working with people I like
3. Having enough annual leave
4. Having time off on short notice
5. Enjoying the job
6. Getting along well with colleagues
7. Feeling liked by my colleagues
8. Getting along well with my boss
9. Being trusted by my boss
10. Having a clear understanding of my goals

Five of these top ten factors of workplace happiness have to do with interpersonal relationships. So it seems that most people understand the importance of being well liked at work.

But not everyone knows how to achieve this. And to be fair, it’s not easy. Being well liked at work means taking a lot of risks, and when it comes to deciding to make a risky move, we are inherently reticent. Daniel Gilbert’s research shows we are way better at seeing the downside than the upside.

Good social skills start with being vulnerable. If you want to create a relationship with someone, you need to open up a little piece of yourself so they can see inside and find something to connect with. Some relationships will be close, some will be casual, but all will be based on you figuring out how to open up just a bit. Keith Ferrazzi gave a great step-by-step approach to this process in his book, Never Eat Alone, and he gave the Cliff’s Notes version when I interviewed him. But the bottom line is that in order to make a real connection with someone, you have to take a real risk.

Most of the mail I get about social skills at work is from people who feel like they’ve messed up. When it comes to social skills – and any skill, really – you can judge your own competence by how well you manage yourself in a mess.

Eric Dezenhall is a publicist who specializes in managing situations where someone has messed up and the author of the book Damage Control. He says, “So much of crisis management comes down to basic likability. Do we like you?” Dezenhall says mental gymnastics to craftily shift the blame have unimpressive results. “It doesn’t matter how smart you are. What matters is if we like you.”

When things go wrong, the first thing you should consider is apologizing. Saying you’re sorry is powerful. “The public is enormously forgiving of genuine contrition,” according to research about bouncing back from a career mess by Jeffrey Sonnenfelt at Yale School of management. For example, medical malpractice suits go down significantly when a doctor is willing to apologize for a mistake.

However an apology only works when you are truly sorry. Dezenhall points out that an apology made just to make a problem go away often does more harm than good because it is, in fact, inconsistent with who you are and not believable.

This advice brings to mind the reaction to my panel discussion at BlogHer last weekend. Not during, but after. The room was totally packed, and there were questions flying the whole time, and I answered questions how I usually do: Short and direct.

Later I saw the online aftermath of the panel, and there were a few bloggers who were very upset.

Of course, no matter what I say there are always a few people who are upset. And some weeks there are a few thousand people upset. In general, I read the comments, learn from those that I can learn from, and move on. I asked some friends what I should do about the unhappy BlogHer bloggers. All my friends told me to ignore it. “It doesn’t matter,” is what they said over and over.

It is at this moment – when you find out that someone doesn’t like what you’ve done – that determines how well liked you are at work. You can’t bow to every complaint about what you do, but you do need to get good at figuring out which people to address and which to ignore. Both decisions are risks.

Here’s what I learned from the criticism about me at the blog Suburban Turmoil: It is more effective to be short and direct in writing than it is in person. The comments section on the blog post complaining about me was already boisterous. So I thought I might get trounced again for adding my own comment. But I took a chance and apologized because I could do it with honesty.

On the other hand, I received nearly 100 personal emails from people attacking me for the last column I wrote on Yahoo Finance, and I am ignoring them. Well, except for this one, which I can’t resist publishing, from Eduard Bauer:

“Please stop giving horrible advice. Your detachment from reality is hurting the American economy.”

I get a lot of invitations to connect on LinkedIn. This is no surprise because it’s a great tool for professionals to connect. What might surprise you is that I say no to a lot of invitations. Sometimes I feel bad saying no, so I send back a little description of the lessons I’ve learned from LinkedIn executives about how to use the service.

Because LinkedIn sponsors Brazen Careerist, I have had the opportunity to pepper LinkedIn mavens with random etiquette questions. So at this point, I have a few opinions of my own. Here’s my advice:

1. Don’t say yes to an invitation from a person you don’t really know.
LinkedIn works best as a way to leverage your professional circle of people you know well or know their work well. I love looking through my friends’ professional networks to get an idea of what introductions I could possibly get from a friend. My friend can say to her friend, “This is Penelope, you should get to know her because of x.” But this only works if my friend actually knows me and the other person well. Otherwise, I may as well make the introduction myself.

In that respect, your network on LinkedIn is really only as strong as your ties to the people in it. You will get more benefits from LinkedIn if you have a network of 30 people you know well than 300 people you don’t really know.

2. Don’t send invitations to people who don’t know you.
I feel like I kinda know Mike Arrington. I know I’d like to have dinner with him (does he ever stop blogging to have dinner?) I read his blog every day, and I know the type of connections he could offer me. But he doesn’t know me. Even if I have emailed him three times and posted ten comments on his blog, he doesn’t know who I am. He probably reads 400 emails and comments a day.

3. Don’t put your email address under your name on your profile.
When you appear in other peoples’ lists, if someone wants to connect with you, they have to go through your mutual connection, or they can email you directly. There is a reason LinkedIn works this way – the point is not to connect with everyone, it’s to connect with people you know. Someone who puts their email address right under their name is announcing that they will connect with anyone, and for the purposes of LinkedIn, this will weaken their network.

4. When you send an invitation, don’t apologize.
I get a lot of invitations that say, “Sorry for the form letter” but you’ll have to trust me that the most well connected, high-level, experienced people I know send the form letter. It’s fine. Also, people send invitations to me that say something like, “Okay, I’m doing the LinkedIn thing.” But it makes you look bad to invite someone to something you feel uncomfortable with, so if you can’t think of something good to write, just send one of the form letters.

5. Remind me how I know you.
Sometimes, I do actually know someone, but I communicate with so many different people every day, that I don’t remember. Yesterday I got an invitation that said, “It was great to do the podcast interview with you today” right before the standard LinkedIn invitation text. That was great. I knew exactly who the woman was and I connected. This also brings up another point, which is act immediately. The best invitations come right after you’ve made one, solid connection with a given person. For example, if you go back and forth in email six times, send an invitation that day.

6. Think about LinkedIn from the other person’s perspective.
Journalists, for example, will be harder to connect with. They are notoriously adept at telling people they have no time to talk. Also, journalists already have good access to a wide range of people. However a journalist will be happy to connect to, say, the managing editor of the New York Times. Know who you’re dealing with and where you fit in and then you’ll understand how well you need to know the person in order to connect. (Note: Here are good ways for Journalists to use LinkedIn.)

7. Keep things a little informal.
LinkedIn is a group of people coming together to help each other. More cocktail party than job interview. So, for example, make your resume a little chatty. The best LinkedIn profiles are a little more casual than a formal resume. I think I could actually fix mine up a bit in this regard. When I read a resume on LinkedIn, I am not scanning to see if I want to hire the person (which is the purpose of the formal resume format). Instead, I would like a sort of cocktail-party introduction about the person and what they are doing with their life. Don’t write paragraphs in your resume, but a short paragraph on LinkedIn is sort of nice.

Of course, this just scratches the surface of the nuances of LinkedIn. For example, if you work remotely, you can use LinkedIn to compensate for less face time. And if you are feeling like a power user, check out Linked Intelligence, the blog about how to use LinkedIn.

One of the hardest social situations to face is starting a conversation with someone you know very little about. You might already understand that the key to being a good conversationalist is to be a good listener; You need to ask questions that will get to the interesting part of someone, and then be truly interested in listening.

You don’t need to be extroverted to be a great conversationalist; you need to care about other people. You need to trust that you will find other people interesting because you are a curious, engaged person. The good news for introverts is that this means working a room doesn’t require comfort with crowds as much as it requires comfort with yourself.

The problem is that it’s hard to figure out how to get to that interesting part of someone. But here’s some encouragement: Forty percent of young people think they are shy, and the percentage gets higher over time. However most people do not have a shyness disorder to overcome, they just need a little more practice. For example, “Most socially confident people deliberately learn specific skills, like understanding the predictable format of a conversation with new people, and focusing on the topic rather than on how one is being perceived,” according to Erika Casriel, writing in Psychology Today.

So I found someone who is in this situation a lot, and actually gets paid for it: Moira Gunn, author of the book Welcome to Biotech Nation. Her radio show, Tech Nation, is known for introducing hard-core scientists to people who aren’t especially interested in science. She finds a lot of people to interview by going to the International Biotech Conference, and she does the interviews herself even though she knows very little about biotech.

The way that Gunn gets such fun and interesting interviews out of her subjects is by not having a preconception of what they’ll be talking about. She wants to find that spot where they are engaged and knowledgeable, because anyone on any topic will be interesting if they have that. She says the key is to be open to where the other person wants to go, and to listen.

It’s Gunn’s job to figure out a way to connect with these scientists and part of the fun of the interviews is hearing her do that, because it’s what we have to do all the time when we make small talk. Yes, the scientists are extremely smart, but Gunn says the hard part is to get them to the point where they are talking about something comprehensible.

“This is not about all the science someone needs to know. This is about what really connects with people,” says Gunn. “I have a rule. You get one strange word a segment.”

What’s an example? “Nucleotide.”

One of Gunn’s favorite interviews was with a food safety researcher who ended up talking about mussels. He told her that you are only supposed to eat them in months that have Rs in them, because in June, July and August the water is warm and bacteria levels go up, and muscles are basically filters.

Gunn’s favorite part of this interview wasn’t even the science. Mr Food Safety is a vegetarian. Gunn laughs out loud when she tells me. She is great at small talk because she can go to the International Biotech conference and find comedy.

Gunn has done interviews with difficult people for years, and by now she is able to get even the worst conversationalist into territory where he is interesting. But she’s had a lot of practice.

You have to practice making conversation if you want to be good. “Building confidence is like learning to swing a golf club. It boils down to knowing what the critical skills are and practicing them. Even Tiger Woods still practices for hours every day,” says Bernardo Carducci, director of Indiana University Southeast’s Shyness Research Institute (also in Psychology Today).

Of course, in order to practice this you have to open yourself up for some awkward situations. But there is no way to grow without being awkward at first, so try it. It feels good to be able to find the interesting thing about anyone you talk with. I find the more confident I am in my ability to do this, the more open I am to the whole world. After lots of practice I have a deep belief that everyone has something to offer if I can just get the guts to start the conversation.

Time magazine just hired me to write a piece about workplace trends among young people. One of the things I wrote about was how much people value the opportunity to volunteer for non-profit organizations through their company. And one of the best examples of this is Salesforce.com.

So I called the publicist there and set up an interview with the CEO, Marc Benioff. I also scheduled a Time magazine photographer to take photos of Salesforce.com’s volunteer program in action.

But Marc skipped out on the interview. And, even though he was missing in action, the publicist went ahead with the photo. After about five phone calls I realized that Marc had disappeared and I was stuck with a photo from a company that I couldn’t get a quote from: useless.

So for my first thing I’ve ever written for Time magazine, I was going to miss my deadline. Everyone can be their best selves in the best circumstance. But in bad circumstances, it’s very hard to be your best self. We learn how pulled together we are by watching what we do when things go badly.

I screamed at the publicist. At first I screamed at him for letting the photo happen when he knew he would miss my deadline with the interview. At one point he told me he believed Marc was having a personal problem and I said, “Well it had better be a death in the family.” Yep. I said that. Nice, huh?

Finally, in a huff, I told the publicist I was not using Salesforce.com in the piece I was writing. I was very pissed off and I wanted to punish everyone for messing up my article. But to be honest, I didn’t have another photo lined up. And I was pretty much screwing myself.

Then I got the voicemail from Marc Benioff. He knew that I was angry, that I took his company out of the article, and that he missed my deadline. Still, he left me a message. He told me he was really sorry, and then, instead of leaving a message which would be of no use to me, he left me a long message giving me every quote I could need for my story about Salesforce.com and volunteering.

This was super smart of him, but most people wouldn’t do it. Most people would accept that they were pulled out of the story, most people would be too scared to call a journalist who has been screaming on the phone, and most people would not have the poise and composure to basically interview themselves on voicemail and do a good job. I liked seeing the difference between what a regular person would do and what a star performer does.

So I wrote my article (with Salesforce.com), got it in almost on time, and then someone came to my door with flowers. From Marc. A big arrangement with poppies and bergamot and cabbage. Cabbage! Isn’t that interesting? When I saw it I got giddy. I’m a girl who loves getting flowers.

He sent a card that said he was sorry and what can he do to make it up to me. Apologizing was not difficult for Marc. It seems that for him it doesn’t matter who is right or not. He just wants to have a good relationship. He’s a good influence on me: As soon as I finish writing this, I’m going to call the publicist and apologize for being rude.

No one has ever sent me flowers to get into an article before, but you know what? It’s really smart. Some places I write for would fire me in a second for accepting flowers in exchange for an article. But my blog is different. So I’m gonna tell you that flowers can sway me. If you want me to write about you on my blog, send me flowers. And no carnations. This is not prom.

One of the best ways to make a big leap in your career is to blog. Blogging allows you to create a high-quality network for yourself based, not on the old model of passing out business cards, but on a new model of passing out ideas. Contrary to popular opinion, blogging is not for college kids holed up in their dorm room posting photos of themselves. Blogging is so text-intensive — in terms of both reading and writing — that the amount of time required of a blogger makes it unattractive to college students. (Here’s a funny video about how time-consuming blogging is.)

However, to the curious and driven who are passionate about their careers, blogging is a great way to keep learning after college is over. So when you go to Google to search for blogs, most of those that come up will be from professionals who are using a blog to establish themselves as a thought leader in their field.

Most of the time you spend blogging will be reading other peoples’ blogs and linking to them and writing commentary on your own blog about what others in the blogosphere are talking about. It’s a constant course in your specialty and keeps you on the cutting edge. Moreover, the linking between blogs keeps you in touch with the other thought leaders in your industry, even if you do not know them personally.

One of the best things about blogging is that the benefits are huge, but the barrier to entry is very low. The software is free, and easy to use (try Blogger or WordPress) and it takes about 10 minutes to get started.

Minh Luong wanted a career in food writing, but found breaking into the industry was very tough. Instead of waiting to find an offline connection and nurture it and wait for the right opportunity and then make her move, Luong opted for taking more direct initiative to create the life she wants: She started blogging.

Almost immediately, her blog, Minnie Eat World, became a local Boston favorite, and the credibility she gained by blogging led to offline offers for work she would not have had access to had she not built a quick network for herself via blogging. The blog has replaced not only paying one’s dues, but also the network that comes from that.

The most efficient way to build a brand name for yourself is via blogging. Not just because blogging is so linked to one’s own ideas, but also because the tools for blogging encourage people to measure the reach of their personal brand. You can measure the number of people who are talking about you (via Technorati) and the number of people who are visiting you (via SiteMeter), and you can see who is telling their friends to read you (via Mint). But the commitment to a blog like this is intense — writing blog posts at least four days a week is a basic requirement, for example.

Harleen Kahlon recognized that while blogging is a great way to feel part of a smart, informed community, the time it takes to blog is often at odds with the time it takes professionals to manage the career they already have. So Kahlon founded Damsels in Success, which is a community for professional women that includes a group blog — a place where about 50 professional women are contributing to a blog that serves as a connector for all of them.

Many people are finding that group blogs provide both an outlet for ideas and a foundation for community, but the demands are much less than blogging on their own.

Another group blog that provides similar benefits is Employee Evolution. Led by the intrepid duo Ryan & Ryan, this blog provides a place for generation Y to spout about workplace issues to a wide audience without having to blog frequently enough to build that audience for themselves.

Another limitation of blogging is that you need to decide what sort of expertise you want to be known for before you start blogging. A blog needs a topic, and the only topics worth investing in are topics that are very meaningful to you. If you are not sure about a topic, you might just start blogging and find that you gravitate toward the topic that’s right for you.

But if that seems too disorganized to you, start by commenting on other peoples’ blogs. The bloggers are knowledgeable, committed, and passionate — just the kind of people you should add to your list of friends. Pick the bloggers you enjoy reading the most, and comment. Don’t just say, “great post.” Suggest an angle the blogger might not have seen, or present some information the blogger might have missed. Have a conversation with the blogger, because this is, after all, what building a network is all about: conversations.

Which brings us to Ben Casnocha, teenage entrepreneur and author of My Start-up Life. Ben blogs at ben.casnocha.com, and he has a loyal following of people who are fascinated by the thought process of someone who could launch a successful Internet-based company in sixth grade (check it out: Comcate.com). But Ben is doing something that is both in the realm of forward thinking and conventional thinking: He’s meeting people face to face. Ben took a tour of the United States meeting people each day who have become part of his electronic network.

Ben’s tour of the United States reminds us that each connection we make — either electronically or face to face — is just a starting point for something deeper. And he reminds us that for all the hoopla and fantasy building of the “new amazingly networked Web 2.0!”, it all comes down to good, old-fashioned connecting with people we want to hang out with.

By Jason Warner – One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is that they get caught up in the tactics of their job at a particular company, and they then don’t do anything to advance their career beyond their current employer. This is a significant error in life strategy.

I see people all the time, maneuvering inside a corporation to reach their goals. In the old talent economy, it was sufficient to network inside the company, and work on extra projects outside your department in order to be well positioned to earn the much coveted “consistently exceeds” on your annual review. In the new talent economy you have to take that one step further, and make yourself valuable outside your company as well.

Here are five ways to advance your career beyond your current employer:

1. Set aside a significant amount of time each week.
It’s important to realize that in a corporate environment, there will almost always be more work than time and resources allow. In fact, many companies manage expenses by employing an N-1 strategy to control costs. If the company needs N resources, they’ll only resource to N-1 (or N-10 sometimes). For a variety of reasons, this tactic controls costs, creates flexibility in managing expenses, and forces some degree of prioritization.

If you are the one willing to make up for the lack of resources, knock yourself out. I’m not suggesting that you do the bare minimum at your job, but I am suggesting that you spend a little of your weekly efforts towards advancing your career beyond your current employer.

2. Network for the sole purpose of building relationships.
Building a network has to be an ongoing, authentic pursuit. I recommend at least an hour a week of tactical, outbound, relationship-building efforts. Focus on trying to find ways to help other people. But make smart choices about who you network with.

Also, if you wait until you need a job, networking is largely ineffective. Nobody wants to hear from you only when you need something. I’m always trying to network, not because I’m looking for the next great job, but because it’s part of my overall life strategy.

3. Be online.
I recommend that everyone have a blog, and I predict that for top talent, blogs will become more important than resumes. (In some ways this may already be true.) If you’re going to blog, I recommend writing at least one or two posts week, and more if you can swing it. (Admittedly this is hard to do unless you are exceptionally talented or have no life.)

If a blog isn’t for you, at least become active online, either by participating in discussion forums, writing on distribution lists, or commenting on influential people’s blogs. You never know what connections will develop that might lead to career opportunity (or maybe you’ll even meet your mate).

Overall, online pursuits should be at least one hour a week. I probably do four hours a week, which consists mostly of writing for my blog and commenting on other blogs.

4. Understand the space you’re in.
Get to know whatever segment in whatever industry you are choosing to exist in. You need to know who the players are in the space you want to play. This understanding will help augment and align your networking efforts.

Some people actively make lists of the people they want to meet in their industry, and then start a targeted connection campaign. I prefer a more organic approach, and I simply try to authentically make human connections when there seems to be a reasonable opportunity to do so. You should spend an hour a week reading and exploring the industry you work in.

5. Give back.
Find ways to give back to the industry in which you work, for at least an hour a week. This can comprise many different efforts, from speaking at conferences, writing for journals, or simply attending industry events. Get involved in an industry-related non-profit organization. If there isn’t one in your area, start one, and it will give you an excuse to meet lots of people. Giving back to your industry is a way to further your career, and also to make yourself feel good.

Today’s careers are made and broken by one’s ability to network.

Please don’t post comments about how unfair this is — I know that people who are bad at networking think it’s not fair that the world rewards networking so much. But that’s the way the world is. You’re not going to change it by whining.

Instead, be giddy: Networking is actually a lot easier than you think. Here are five reasons why:

1. You don’t have to be a manipulator.
Networking is about being nice. It’s about figuring out what someone needs, and determining how to help him get it. Be aware of what people are trying to accomplish in their lives so that you can help them reach their goals — either by helping them yourself or putting them in touch with someone who can help them.

People who are ineffective at networking think you have to manipulate people to get what you want. These are the same people who fail at office politics because they don’t understand that office politics is about being nice. Networking is what you do when you’re doing office politics well.

Networking is about adding value to peoples’ lives. If you do that as much as you can, people will be happy to help you. Be generous with your time and energy as well as your contacts.

You should understand what you have to give, and then look for people who need it. Not only is that the place where you can add a lot of value, but those are also the people who likely have skills and connections that you don’t have, so they’ll be able to help you. The more diverse a group of people you can help, the more diverse the type of help you can get.

2. You don’t have to be funny and clever.
The people who are most afraid of networking think they have to open up a conversation with something really smart or witty. You don’t have to be either of those. The best way to start a conversation is by being nice.

If you pontificate on your brilliant ideas you’ll seem smart, but you won’t necessarily connect with people. And if you tell a lot of jokes you’ll seem funny, but that, also, is not necessarily inviting more conversation. Being nice, though, makes people want to talk. By being nice, you’re saying, “I’m safe to talk to. I’ll listen.”

People want to be listened to, and they want to feel interesting. So you can be good at networking by caring about other people. And you can’t fake being interested — it’s almost impossible. That means you have to genuinely care about other people.

The best networkers understand that everyone is interesting if you ask the right questions. So ask someone an open-ended question, figure out what they’re interested in, and ask them about that.

Your job is to discover what you can learn from people, and you can learn something from everyone. If you really try, you’ll be genuinely interested in what they have to say.

3. You don’t have to network when you’re job-hunting.
Don’t talk to me about job hunters who are networking. Let’s be real: When you need a job, you’re not networking, you’re calling in favors. You’re asking people for jobs.

Networking is something you do when you’re feeling great about your work. After all, who wants to network with someone who either hates her job or doesn’t have one?

This is how networking works to get a job — you make friends. Real friends. Not like the 46,000 “friends” Barack Obama has on MySpace, but the kind of friends to whom you’ve revealed something significant about yourself, and who have revealed something significant about themselves to you.

If you have 30 such people in your life who have diverse networks of their own, you’ll be able to get a job when you need one. So focus on making real connections with people instead of trolling the Internet for jobs. It’s not only a more effective use of your time, it’s a more fulfilling one.

(Wondering if you’re good at it this kind of job hunt? Test yourself.)

4. You don’t have to be agreeable.
Connecting with people doesn’t mean agreeing with them, it means growing with them. Personal growth is one of the best things you can get from a relationship. So it’s fine to disagree with someone you’re getting to know. You send the signal that you’re the type of person who challenges friends to think more clearly. Just be sure to disagree in a non-confrontational way.

A couple of weeks ago I met Annalee Newitz, editor of the book “She’s Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff.” In the short amount of time we spent together, we managed to disagree on a lot. For example, on the question of whether little girls’ affinity for pink is an issue of nature or nurture (I say nature).

But I liked Annalee. She was easy to talk to and full of energy. That we could disagree on a wide range of topics means that we both think about the same wide range of topics.

So don’t assume that networking requires you to agree with everything someone says. It just requires you to care about what the person says. Caring is how you make a connection.

5. You don’t have to get off the sofa.
Here’s a big secret about the blogosphere: The people who are blogging seriously aren’t college kids writing about beer parties. In fact, college kids are generally mystified as to why someone would spend four hours a day writing a blog entry.

That’s because the serious bloggers are professionals, and they’re investing four hours a day on their blog because it’s an incredibly effective and efficient networking tool.

If you want to start a blog, here are some quick and easy steps to get started. But most of you won’t click that link, because blogging is, after all, a big commitment.

Nevertheless, most of you can leverage the blogosphere to do your networking in a way that never requires you to leave your computer. Instead, you can comment on other peoples’ blogs.

This is a very effective way to meet people who wouldn’t normally give you the time of day. For example, companies like Yahoo! and Sun have thousands of blogging employees, and CEOs of small startups often blog as well.

Liz Strauss explains on The Blog Herald that many bloggers focus primarily on building relationships. So find people you admire who blog, and start reading their blog every day. Leave intelligent comments. Most bloggers know the people who leave thoughtful comments on a regular basis. And bloggers like to help people in their blog community.

So you can sit on your sofa and surf all night, typing your opinion on your favorite topics. And after that, you can call yourself a great networker.

A lot of people ask me how living in Madison is going. For those of you who don’t know, I moved from New York City to Madison, WI about six months ago. I can’t believe it’s already been six months, because I still feel like I’m in culture shock.

It is shocking, for example, that five blocks from where I live, people go ice fishing. Or that the town seems to revolve around schedules for the University of Wisconsin athletic teams. But the most shocking thing is the lack of advertising.

In New York City, the bombardment of advertising is so extreme that it all adds up to a reliable source of information about what’s going on in the world. Everything has an ad on it. The streets are literally lined with advertising. And there are newsstands every block, so the world’s headlines, too, are impossible to miss.

In Madison, we pass one or two billboards a day, if we drive across town. When this blog was mentioned in Business Week last month, I spent an hour driving around Madison trying to find a copy of the magazine. That’s when I started thinking about how isolated I am from the advertising world.

But it really hit home tonight when my brother sent a link to me about the mess in Iraq.

I wrote back: “The most interesting thing in here is the reference to Britney’s head. What’s up with her head?”

He wrote back: “She shaved it. Do you live in a cave? Did you know Anna Nicole Smith died? There was commercial-free round-the-clock coverage on the major TV networks.”

In fact, I didn’t know about the incessant coverage. We don’t have a TV. I have never had a TV, although I have a lot of respect for the content on TV. That’s why I don’t have one — because I know I’d watch it all the time. I’d watch it all the time because it is actually useful for finding out what a large segment of the world is doing.

As a kid, I went to other kids’ houses to see what I was missing. As an adult, I have always lived in big cities where you end up knowing what’s on TV even if you don’t have one. Probably in a large part because of the ubiquitous advertising. And when I found myself falling behind in those big cities, I could easily pick up a magazine.

Now that I’m in Madison, I need to take drastic measures. I am not buying a TV, but I am doing the next best thing: A subscription to People magazine. I know a lot about this magazine because it is laying on every available table top in New York City even though no one wants to admit to actually paying for it.

Knowing what’s going on in popular culture is important. It’s the world we live in. To be oblivious to popular culture is to snub one’s nose at the majority of society. And how can you claim to have good social skills if you are not interested in the majority of the people in this world? Good social skills means being interested in what makes other people tick.

Think about this in terms of work. It is clear that in order to get along with your co-workers you need to know how to understand what they want and how to give it to them. And in a large study of workplace preferences, Terry Bacon, reports in his book, What People Want, that good management means good social skills. “Most people leave a job because of their boss,” says Bacon. What makes a good boss? Someone who is concerned about what other people care about.

So either you need to know why Britney’s head is interesting this week, or you need to start caring more about popular culture. Being socially competent isn’t about just the brainiacs, or just the culture snobs. Social competence is being able to relate to anyone, and that means caring about a wide range of people.

I had a teacher in college who spent a semester convincing the class that reading the Iliad is important because all other college freshman are reading the Iliad and it is part of the common experience of college life — something to talk about. People magazine reflects the common experience of adult life. You can say that People isn’t that good, but you know what? Neither is the Iliad unless you like wars.

A reader asked this question: Would you mind writing a post about dealing with multiple job offers and declining some of them — politely and gracefully?

This is actually a question about networking. When someone offers you a job, they have identified you as someone they want to be connected with. That you have multiple offers for this type of connection makes you even more desirable. So when you turn down the offer, your number-one concern should be making sure this person stays in your network.

This means that you should remember networking tips that would apply to any situation. And, before I get to them, I want to tell you that Tahl Raz’s article in Inc. magazine about Keith Ferrazzi is one of my all-time favorite things to read about networking, and it applies to you no matter what your situation is.

But here are four things to keep in mind for turning down an offer:

1. Be nice.
When you turn down a job, thank the person for the opportunity. Tell the person that something about them or their company impressed you. Think of something, even if it’s small. Just make sure you are specific, because that’s the type of compliments that matter most to people.

Then explain why the job you are taking is a great opportunity for you. Don’t explain why the other company is a thousand times better than the company you’re rejecting, even if it is. Talk in terms of the opportunity, and how it will allow you make a big difference to the business and grow personally. The aim is to show that what matters to you is learning and contributing to the organization because that’s what you want the person to remember about you.

2. Follow up.
Do something a week or so later to let the person know you plan to keep in touch. This will make the person feel more like you rejected the job offer and not him, personally.

There are a lot of ways to follow up. You can comment on their blog, if they have one. Send them information you find that you know they’ll like. Or you can invite the person to lunch if you want to spend time together. Or, if time together makes you cringe, take a smaller step and send a LinkedIn invitation. (Introduction to LinkedIn. Advanced LinkedIn.)

3. Suggest someone else.
If you are someone who is specialized, and it’s going to be hard for the employer to find someone like you, you can really endear yourself by referring a friend.

Even if the friend doesn’t ultimately take the job, Ian Ybarra points out that introducing someone to someone else is a gift (list item #6).

4. Assess your own conduct.
Of course, none of this will work if you have been being very difficult and demanding during the interview process and stringing someone along for months and are dropping the ball at the last possible minute. In this case, you might think about how your slow and perhaps-incompetent decision-making process is giving you a bad reputation.

It’s hard to turn down a job offer in this situation without looking like a jerk. So if you have already gotten yourself in a muddle, turning down the job offer will be tough. Face the muddle and help yourself to not do that again.

And if you are not in a muddle, congratulations on the multiple job offers!

Forget the idea that networking is a job-hunting tool. Networking is the job hunt. But networking is not just passing out your business card and e-mailing your friends’ friend. Networking is making yourself buzz-worthy so people want to be connected with you.

This is not the old networking that celebrated extroverts and crushed introverts. Building buzz celebrates the diligent information broker and crushes the relentless self-promoter. Build buzz for yourself by processing information in new ways and connecting people and ideas in ways that are interesting and provide new experiences.

Here are four things to remember when you want to build buzz:

1. Be known for good work.
This is the most powerful tool in your career. Even if you start with no reputation and no connections, it’s not unrealistic to get known for doing outstanding work.

“If you’re great, people will notice you,” says Dana Zemack, founder of Zemack PR & Communications.

David Weekly is a programmer who has built such a strong reputation for having good ideas that popular blogs such as Slashdot, BoingBoing, and Lifehacker reliably post links to his new products.

“I want to build a reputation as someone who comes up with interesting things and tries to be useful,” Weekly said. “I use my reputation as a launch platform for my ideas.”

His current company is PBWiki, which offers a service that gives people a simple way to collaborate online, in a wiki, for example.When he announced the company he got 1,000 customers on the first day, just from being mentioned on those blogs.

2. Contribute to the community.
For Weekly, building buzz is not a single project, but an ongoing commitment to giving quality work to a larger community. And this should be how you think about yourself, as well.

The days of just pushing plain old information out to an audience are ending. Stories, not raw facts, are what people can relate to. “A great way to connect with people is by way of stories,” says Zemack. “When you build experiences or create a story around a something, then it becomes more engaging and personal.”

You can do this many ways but maybe the easiest is to add your comments to blogs. This is a way to broker information in a useful way, sort of like inviting yourself to a party, but it’s OK to do so, as long as you make relevant contributions.

Also, give away good information. There is so much information available that hoarding it will get you nowhere. People will just look elsewhere to get ideas. Instead, share as much as you can with the community, to build your reputation into what you’d like to be known for. “Information is not the main ingredient. It’s knowing how to enact it,” says BL Ochman, author of The What’s Next Blog.

3. Shape your own destiny.
How people see you online matters. For example, most young people would not date someone before Googling them, and we do this kind of electronic research routinely before buying products and services as well. Recruiters also use the Internet to identify job candidates rather than sift through piles of resumes. So you need to manage your online identity to make sure people see you as the person you want to be.

Peter Himler is author of The Flack and founder of Flatiron Communications in New York. His decades of experience in the public relations and communications field includes serving as spokesman for major companies, chairing organizations and giving lectures. He is all over Google, but had little control over what Google served up. By blogging, Himler shapes his online image — his “digital footprint” — because his blog now comes up first when you Google his name.

You can also take control of what people see by removing the bad stuff. There are no guarantees, of course, but if you want to clean up your online identity, ReputationDefender has proprietary resources for both finding the dirt and cleaning it up.

4. Think in terms of experience and get off the sofa.
The more types of meaningful connections you can make with an audience, the more effective the buzz will be. “The best way to generate buzz about what you do is to combine an offline and online experience,” says Zemack.

Advertising industry veteran Steve Hall, editor of Adrants, rattles off many fun examples of effective buzz-generating tactics that do not include a computer. For example, Canon paid couples to carry around its new product and ask passersby to take their pictures. That person who took the picture inadvertently learned how to use the camera. And, if things went as planned, the unsuspecting photographer would also hear a few benefits of using the camera: “We just love the zoom lens, could you use that, please?”

This is an experience you could never have online. (Though today the ethics of this particular promotion seem flawed.)

Also, just like people go to blogs to learn something and have a fun engagement with a community, people like to do the same thing offline. Throwing a party is one of the oldest tools in the box for building buzz, and it still works.

Zemack has made a name for herself, and her communications firm, by throwing ice cream parties and chocolate-tasting parties. The exotic flavors described by well-versed wait staff and perfectly complimentary hipster circles mingling over tasty cones allows people to learn something new, and to make new introductions — just the kinds of experiences Zemack wants a reputation for creating.