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.