Hello. I’m Ian, a shy introvert. And those two things are distinct. Through a lot of trial and error, I’ve worked out a way to network and build social capital that works for me even though connecting to people is not exactly natural to me, as I know it isn’t for many academics.
Being an introvert in a world that seems to favor the expressive and extroverted can seem daunting and unwelcoming. A lot of the usual advice is to just act against type*. In other words, be extroverted for as long as you can sustain it, especially at conferences or other events where connecting with people is the goal.
Part of favoring of extroverts is that they announce themselves and seem like the movers, shakers, and doers in the world. In the United States at least, taking (overt) action is favored over introspection or making the decision to do nothing even though taking that decision may well be the right one depending on the situation.
It’s not that introverts don’t do things, don’t take action, or connect with people**. They do, it’s just that introverts recharge their batteries with more focused and solo time. Over-stimulating situations (think large parties, massive conferences, or the overwhelming lights on the Vegas Strip) can drain an introvert’s batteries quickly. However, quieter crowded places like coffee shops, libraries, museums, or a park can all be energizing because they can focus on a book or the scenery and be alone, yet together, with other patrons. And perhaps the introvert will speak with people there, but only one or two at a time and quietly, though this is where my shyness kicks in: I don’t generally speak to strangers unless I feel like I fit in some how.
However, there are effective ways even the shy and introverted can connect more at conferences and effectively network, and it only partially depends on acting against type. Introverts tend to be perceptive, good listeners, dive deeper in conversation (disdaining small talk), and have fewer, but extremely close friendships/relationships.
The first suggestion I have is to get onto social media. Twitter has been a game changer for me. At first, I mostly listened (or read) other’s tweets, following things that interested me (I think the first account I followed was a fellow Whovian). Gradually, I started tweeting myself, responding to others, following hashtags and sharing links to my blog and other things I found interesting.
Crucially, I also started live tweeting from conferences I attended.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I wasn’t the only tweeter at the conference***.
As Terry has pointed out before, who you know matters in academia, as it does elsewhere in the working world. Who you are precedes you and if no one knows who you are, it’s hard to get ahead. Twitter allows you to build your own profile and you can meet and connect with fellow tweeters, having already broken the ice on Twitter, the barrier to meeting them in real life is lowered. And if you get on well in real life as you did on Twitter, your fellow tweeter can introduce you to their friends and you’re off to the races connecting.
Twitter levels the playing field as well. Interacting with famous academic XYZ (maybe it was @hormiga, that’s how I ended up blogging here; getting to know him on Twitter– however, remember no one owes you a response). Knowing someone on Twitter, even potential postdoc advisor X, makes meeting them in real life becomes easier.
This brings me to my next piece of advice for being introverted at conferences. Preparing ahead of time, knowing your goals, and contacting potential people to meet can help you manage your energy over a conference. However you connect with someone, be sure to follow up afterwards, either via social media or email.
What I’ve outlined above still may sound overwhelming and like lots of connecting that would quickly drain energy of any introvert. Just because there are lots of people from Twitter to meet, doesn’t mean you have to connect with all of them. It also helps to be open to meeting a few people the old-fashioned way, just introducing yourself to someone you’re riding down an escalator with, say. Favoring quality interactions over quantity helps. Go for depth over breadth. A few quality connections that will last are better than dozens of more ephemeral ones or no connections at all– at least to this introvert.
Of course it’s OK to have quiet times at the conference or even escape the venue to do something to recharge. Plan that into your schedule. Even attending a conference session or finding a quiet place to write at the conference might be energizing.
Another tactic that can help is to volunteer to do a job at a conference. I live blogged and helped encourage digital coverage of Plant Biology for several years and volunteered to sit at the registration desk for a morning. Having a job to do lowers the barrier to connecting with people because by definition, you fit and are being useful. Along with preparation, it can imbue you with a sense of purpose. Even giving a talk or presenting a poster can be viewed this way****.
All of these things can help those that are shy or introverted effectively build social capital and become a part of the academic community. Over time, conferences become familiar, as do many of the people, and then connecting with new people is even less effort. Then you can serve the function of inviting other people that appear isolated into your social circles, helping build their social capital while continuing to build yours.
*Introversion and extroversions is a spectrum. No one is all one or another and we are capable of acting against our default, but we’ll always return to that default as it takes energy to do otherwise.
**I highly recommend reading Susan Cain’s Book Quiet for any introverts feeling like there’s something wrong with them (there isn’t). Or watch her TED Talk. There are lots of resources out there for introverts now because of her work.
***Always obey the conference social media policy, respect speakers/poster presenters that don’t want their talk/unpublished results live tweeted/photographed.
****Though for some reason, I never thought of those things that way, but you are helping contribute to the event.