Respectful conversation at academic conferences


You’re probably familiar with this scene from academic conferences:

Person A and and Person B have been chatting for a few minutes. Person C strolls by and makes eye contact with Person A. Person C gives a big smile to Person A, which is reciprocated, perhaps with a hug. Both A and C enthusiastically ask one another about their lab mates, families, and life in general.

At this moment, Person B is feeling awkward.

Person B has a range of choices. If Person A doesn’t promptly introduce B to C, then Person B can just slink away undetected. Person B could interrupt the conversation between A and C, to let A know that he has to be somewhere else. Person B could stand there quietly and wait to be eventually introduced to Person C, or B could interject into the conversation to introduce oneself.

I see this all the frickin’ time. I’ve been on all possible sides of this exchange.

Sometimes, this is just about old friends who are excited to see one another and temporary lose social graces. On other occasions, it appears to be the result of a calculation that some conversations — hence some people — are not really all that important. (I don’t often see respected senior scientists in the role of Person B.)

Because academics are expected to be vagabonds, at least early in our careers, we make lots of friends and good acquaintances from all around the country and the world. An academic conference is kind of annual reunion.

I propose a simple guideline:

A conversation should never be a mere placeholder. Other people are not there for the purpose of passing the time until someone more interesting or important comes along.

If I’m sharing words with a colleague, then I can’t promptly set aside that conversation when other duties or interesting things come along. I need to wrap up the conversation in a polite fashion, showing that I have as much respect for that person as everybody else in at the conference. This is particularly important if the person that I’m talking to doesn’t know as many people at the meeting as myself, or is a junior colleague who might even think that it could be useful to talk to me.

If I was person C, how would I handle the situation? I would make a point to not interrupt an ongoing conversation between A and B. If talking to Person A was a priority, depending on social context, I might join in and introduce myself, making a point to not derail any prior conversation. Or I might just wait somewhere for my pal A to become available.

If I was person A, how would I handle it if C came up and interrupted my conversation with B? I’d finish greeting C and then immediately introduce C to B. This happens quite a bit too, and people have come to expect this at conferences, and I think this situation’s just fine, as long as A and C don’t interact in a way that B feels excluded.

Conferences happen, in part, for us to spend time with colleagues and collaborators. It makes sense that some interactions have priority. I might have a lunch appointment with someone, or I might be hoping to bump into a certain colleague, and I end up talking to somebody new. This is understandable. I just realize that I need show this new person the same common courtesy that I would expect from others, especially when I was a junior scientist.

I just attended a conference far outside my specialty, and I knew almost nobody there. People there were so generous of their time in talking with me as a non-expert in geochemistry, and I don’t think I ever wound up as awkward person B. People there were so gracious. I hope that at the conferences that I am attending in the latter half of this month, where I am more of an old hand, that this pattern holds. Which means that I will need to be mindful of respecting the attention of people I don’t know as much as of those who I do.

5 thoughts on “Respectful conversation at academic conferences

  1. The lack of manners at conferences and the situation you describe drives me bonkers. Would it kill the person to say…”Hi, I’m C. Nice to meet you. I’m sorry to interrupt, but I haven’t seen A in years. A, I know you’re in the middle of convo but can we maybe meet later to catch up? Ok, 5 pm at the poster session – perfect. B, nice to meet you. Bye!”

    The worst is when people do this to students, who are often nervous about speaking to more senior scientists as it is. As a grad student I had to slink away more than once when it was clear I was no longer part of the conversation. I don’t think it’s overtly rude, I just think we have an unusually high proportion of people that are socially…what’s the word I’m looking for…stunted? inept? awkward? clueless?

    Our F&W Co-op Unit has a cool annual meeting where faculty have to earn their drink tickets by introducing themselves to students at the poster session and listening to their summary of the poster, after which the student will hand them a ticket. We could do the same at ATBC or ESA – for every student you meet you get a chip, and you can redeem these for drink tickets, t shirts or whatever. This has nothing to do with the topic above — I just started ranting and ended up here. Your post obviously touched a nerve.

  2. Have you seen the Tenured Radical’s post on conference etiquette for historians? It’s really a guide for underlings on how to network at conferences without losing face or committing a gaffe. I’d love to see a similar “How to Be a Good Colleague at Conferences” targeted towards people who already have stature in their fields. Your post is a great starting point.

    My intuition (which may get corrected on this thread!) is that conference etiquette is more fraught in the humanities and interpretive social sciences than in the STEM fields. STEM interactions seem to rest more on the sheer nature and quality of the research people are doing, while hierarchy and reputation count for more in non-STEM social interactions. But maybe this is just a standard-issue “grass-is-always-greener” perception from someone outside STEM?

  3. Oh, status, reputation, and hierarchy count in STEM, alright. I do suspect that it is even worse in the humanities, based on conversations with colleagues over the years.

    That would be a good post – how to be a good advisor/mentor/senior PI at a conference. As Emilio wrote, there are some rude things that drive me absolutely nuts. It’s hard enough to be a grad student at a meeting if you aren’t well connected yet, and having senior faculty marginalize you by ignoring you in a conversation is horrible.

    I had a post last year about what it’s like when the institution on my nametag isn’t impressive to others. – there were interesting comments on that post:

  4. Although now retired I have had in the past various props to my identify, PhD, title, role in an academic institution, publications in the right journals for my field etc. On one occasion, however, I attended a conference of medical doctors where the organizers had been corresponding with me at my home address and gave me the name tag of ‘Mr Ian Sinclair, 36 Hillcourt Road, London’. This seemed to me to have a pretty massive effect on the reception given to anything I happened to say, however, it was hard to be objective about this, since my own behavior became more hesitant, and my perceptions of my reception more paranoid. I even suspected that those who did take an interest in me were doing so out of kindness and pity. I suspect therefore that in addition to all the wise things that have been said there is a role for mutual support among students and other low status attenders, something that will enable them to see that such events can be difficult, and that these temporary difficulties will pass and their time will come.

  5. Another conference etiquette irritation I have encountered is when talking to someone (usually but not always well known) I notice their attention has switched to scanning the name badges of people passing – it’s so rude.

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