August 4, 2012

On Conferences

People don’t think about conferences, don’t learn what they’re for, and don’t teach their students and colleagues and friends to use conferences well.

There’s a bit of post-conference flap making the rounds. I spent yesterday building an elaborate object-oriented system that elegantly saws off the branch on which it is sitting. There are parts all over the floor of my office, payroll to be met, accounting to be done, and a campaign to be won. Some brief observations might help anyway.

  1. “Conference” means “bringing together.” Busy people come from far away to pursue a topic in which they’re passionately interested. Conferences are short, intense, and important. The stakes are high: things said and done here will be remembered for a long time.
  2. There are three stages of conference-going. At stage one, you attend sessions and take notes and try desperately to keep up and to understand what’s going on. At stage two, you still attend sessions and you present them, but you do a lot of your work in the lobby and the dining room and the bar, greeting colleagues you haven’t seen since the last conference, making plans, exchanging research observations, finding resources. At stage three, you can sit in the lobby in a comfortable chair; everyone knows you, and people will come up to you to pay their respects, exchange news, offer gifts, and receive advice.
  3. Never assume that anyone else knows who you are or what you’ve accomplished. This is especially important if you are famous and have done important work.
  4. At no stage of conference-going are you entitled to choose to whom you speak. A conference, like a ship or a private party, is a universal introduction; every registered attendee is your acquaintance. Everyone who wants it is entitled to share your time and attention.
  5. There are no exceptions to rule 4 for (a) people who are wrong, (b) people who are uncongenial, (c) students, or (d) people who are not useful to you.
  6. If you need to meet with someone and don’t want interruptions, you must (a) leave the building, (b) go to an empty room with a door you can close, and (c) remove your badge. Restaurants and bars are not private. (An exception may be made for entertainers and politicians who are so recognizable that they could never eat at a conference if this rule were enforced. You can table-hop to say hello to Donald Knuth or Umberto Eco, but let Woody Allen and Lauren Bacall eat their pasta in peace.)
  7. If you are a player in this game, you have 15,000 close personal friends. You may think, “this unpleasant young fellow seems vaguely familiar,” but to him, you’re someone he’s followed for a decade. He’s read all your books, and he remembers the great talk you had in the lobby in Columbus in ’06 like it was yesterday.
  8. Conferences bring together all kinds of people with all kinds of customs, habits, and beliefs. That’s why we call them conferences. Some of these people won’t be like you. Some will believe things you don’t like.
  9. Greetings differ. Wendy gets three kisses, Franca two, Cathy expects a hug, Clare a bow. Getting this right takes experience, and even then you’ll get it wrong. Many greeting customs depend on the degree of intimacy between two people, and their relative seniority. At conferences, you can never make assumptions about how close you are, or your relative rank. You will commit many blunders. Slightly exaggerated formality helps. Everyone knows that Americans are hopelessly informal; good humor and candid sincereity will lend your blunders a certain American charm.
  10. Money and marketing are always present; there is nothing outside the economy. Conferences strive to keep money at a discrete distance. Learn and respect these rules. Be generous in small matters, and remain general when discussing large.
  11. Sex is always present; we are creatures. There’s work to be done, and that’s not why we’re here, but we see the world as it is.
  12. Some people think that going to bed with someone is a great way to get acquainted. Some think that a handshake is an intimacy reserved for close family. Some people discover their soul mates at conferences. Some people live their dreams. Don’t make assumptions: do make allowances.
  13. You are not at home. The community is not your family. You are not safe. You may feel this way, because you are among people who share your passionate interest. That feeling is an illusion.
  14. At stage two, “How are you?” is a tricky question. Grandma Mary always said to reply with enthusiasm, because if The Lord hears you complain, He might think you ungrateful for His many blessings and withdraw them. And besides you just won this year’s Flujist Prize and you should be thankful. Grandma Ruth always said to reply with deprecation, because if a passing spirit heard you bragging about how wonderful your life is, they might stop and see what they can do about that. And besides, they just gave you a Flujist Prize, and you shouldn’t gloat.
  15. Everyone is entitled to your attention. If there is not sufficient time and attention for everyone who wants some, exchange contact information. Always have plenty of cards, even if you’re famous. Have great cards; it helps. (If you’re really famous, it’s OK to give cards that have contact information for your personal assistant.) Even if everyone knows you, that card is giving a gift. Write something on the card you give; that’s another gift. (If you’ve written a book, giving away copies is another nice getaway.)
  16. Make allowances, and then make more allowances. Some people are jerks. Some people are unlikable. Some people are wrong. Some people’s bad manners are good manners when they are at home. Some people you meet at the conference have had their hopes crushed earlier that very day; the interview for their dream job went badly, their editor just turned down their new book, they’d really expected to get the Flujist Prize this year, some kid from Georgia just read a paper about their dissertation topic and now they’re going to have to start over and three years’ work is out the window. They’re far from home, and that martini was huge.
  17. If things start to go badly, don’t try to fix them in the field. Apologize, accept the apology, exchange contact information, and follow up after the conference.
  18. Civility is the essence. Retain it, whatever the provocation.