DEAR MISS MANNERS: At a professional networking meeting, I was talking with the person sitting next to me. I had never met her before, and I was delighted to find that we shared a lot in common in terms of the type of work we do, common employers in our careers and so on.
Another attendee, who was sitting at the table in front of us, started to intrude on the conversation. He was latching on to things that my new acquaintance and I were saying, then taking them in his own direction, interrupting us repeatedly, and generally making the situation uncomfortable. I think he might have been on the autism spectrum.
I tried to be polite, responding to his conversation in limited ways where I felt I should in order not to be rude, but otherwise tried to turn the conversation back to the person I wanted to get to know. Once or twice, she and I just continued to talk to each other, ignoring yet another interruption from our third wheel, who would keep talking as the two of us tried to continue speaking to each other.
How should we have handled this situation? If my assumption is correct, I don’t believe that he deserves scorn for his behavior, nor would I choose to be rude in return. But I’m not sure how to discourage this type of behavior in a kind way.
GENTLE READER: If it surprises you to learn that the answer is independent of the motives and medical condition of your interloper, then Miss Manners will remind you that a mannerly person treats even the rude with civility, and that the infirm generally prefer to be treated like people to being pitied.
The only way to change a professional networking event into a first date is to change your physical location. This can be done by suggesting you excuse yourselves and go over to the bar or by suggesting a follow-up meeting and exchanging contact information.
So long as you remain in place, there is no polite way to exclude another networker from joining the conversation. Miss Manners apologizes if she has read too much into what you hope will happen next, but her answer is the same even if she has.