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I'm just back from EVO-WIBO a small conference for evolutionary biologists in the Pacific Northwest (WIBO=Washington, Idaho, BC and Oregon). The quality of the talks and the science was very high, but a few experiences got me thinking that I should write a post about how to handle social interactions at conferences. So here goes.
On the conference bus: Maybe you're sitting next to someone you don't know, and maybe they're too nerdy or shy or intimidated or self-centered to start a conversation. Don't just sit there, ignoring each other. Say 'Hi', my name is Sandra. I work on axolotl toenail proteins in Joe Blow's lab. What do you do?' Or 'Hi, I'm Sam. What did you think of that last talk?'
At the first-night mixer: You and a friend (or a new acquaintance) are chatting with each other, when a complete stranger walks over and stands near you, looking like maybe they'd like to join the conversation. Don't just ignore them! Say 'Hi, we were just chatting about the snacks. Do you think this could be real caviar?' Or 'Oh, sorry, we're having a bit of a private conversation. We'll go talk in the corner where it's quieter.'
At meals: If your conference includes meals, try to sit at a table with people you don't already know. If you're already seated and talking with someone when another person sits down, smile and say 'Hi, we're talking about the weird last slide in Susan Smith's talk.' Then turn a bit so they feel included in the conversation. If more people show up, start a round of introductions. If you're planning a free-time side trip to the swimming hole or the farmer's market, ask your lunch companions if they'd like to come along.
If everyone has to find their own lunch and you're on your own, try to strike up a post-talk conversation with someone. You can then say 'I'm going to look for some lunch, like to join me?' If they're on their own too, they'll appreciate the invitation. If they already have lunch plans, maybe they'll invite you along. If you're the one who already has lunch plans, consider inviting someone who might otherwise be on their own.
At your poster: Maybe you're explaining your poster to someone, thankful that it's attracted at least a bit of interest, when a second person walks up. Don't ignore them until the first visitor walks away! Make eye contact, smile, say 'Hi, I'm just explaining how we collected our data. If you can wait a minute I'll be able to talk about our goals.' Then continue your original conversation, but make it easy for the new person to join in or ask questions.
In the question period after your talk: Try to choose questioners who aren't Mr. Big in the field, and who aren't your friends or labmates. Make it easy for junior researchers to be heard.
You get the picture. One of the big reasons we come to conferences is to talk with other researchers in our field. Do what you can to help this along. Many of the people at conferences are junior scientists, are there for the first time, don't know anyone. Make them feel welcome and included. If you're one of these people, you should expect to be welcomed as a new colleague. If someone instead treats you as an interloper, go talk to someone with better social skills.
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