August 27, 2003

· Sociology

Big conferences are terrible. First, some theory. Attending an academic conference is a bit like being a teenager again. This is why it can be so awful. You hang around trying to attach yourself to a group—preferably the cool kids, but in the end any group will do—and then these groups hang around in semi-public spaces waiting for something to happen. Absent planning, groups exist in a permanent state of failing to decide what to do. Where should we go to dinner? Are we still waiting for someone? I heard there was a good party nearby somewhere. Where’s Ann, wasn’t she here a minute ago? Why amn’t I invited to where those people are going? Can’t I just go somewhere and get high? Why doesn’t anyone have a car? Does anyone know someone with a connection? I don’t want to have to go to my room.

As with teenagers, conference attendees secretly and falsely believe that other groups are having a much better time. Thus, they constantly scan the area (e.g., the hotel lobby) in case the present group needs to be ditched for an apparently more interesting one. Your conference strategies should therefore be geared towards counteracting these tendencies. With that in mind here are some policy recommendations. I think some of the following specific suggestions come from a forwarded email I read years ago. They’ve stood up to empirical testing.

  • If you’re giving a talk, make sure it’s not terrible. Practice it, and get enough sleep the night before. Your presentation is the one bit of the conference where you’re expected to be professional and some people may be paying attention to you. So put a bit of effort in and make sure you’re ready. You can probably drop half the slides from your talk, by the way. Even if you practice (and you should), it’ll take longer to deliver than you think—or, crucially, than it will feel when you’re giving it. Giving talks is its own world of advice and there’s plenty of good stuff out there, so that’s all I’ll say about that.

  • Arrange to meet people in advance. Unless you are already famous1, do not rely on bumping into people by accident. If you are already famous, you will be spending a lot of time trying to avoid people, so arrange to meet people in advance anyway. If it’s your first time, arrange to meet someone from your department so as not to be lonely. If you don’t have anyone to go out to dinner with, just pick up some food, go to your room and get some sleep.

  • In practice not every moment is planned. In general, if you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with. If you have the option of going to dinner with some people now, or hanging around a bit longer in the vague hope of eating with some more interesting or more famous people later, go to dinner now.

  • When you have the opportunity to introduce Bigwig A to Nobody B, do it in that order. Say “Bigwig, do you know Nobody?” rather than the other way around, because otherwise Nobody is forced to stammer “Well, uh, yes of course … um…”

  • When talking to someone you do not know, always assume they are a faculty member, even if they do not look old enough to drive. Grad students will be flattered. Prickly professors will not get in a huff and use you in an amusing anecdote later that evening. You will be insulated from an embarrassing gaffe.

  • Be careful what you say in elevators. I find this rule applies in life generally.

  • Don’t shoplift from the book exhibit. That way, you won’t join the secret list I have built up over the years of People I have seen Steal Things from the Book Exhibit.

  • If you’re on the market, you’re already a well-prepared person (right?) and so you have plenty to talk to people about. If you’re not on the market and you worry someone will casually ask you what you work on, have something to say that’s three sentences long and takes fifteen seconds to get through. Write it down and practice it if you like. In Sociology that will cover ninety percent of substantive-but-polite conference-based chit-chat in hotel lobbies, corridors, and so on. Not all disciplines are like this, but to a first approximation, outside of paper sessions Sociologists do not spend their time at conferences talking about ideas. Instead they spend it talking about people they know.

  • I’m not a cynic, though. If you do happen to luck in to a substantive conversation with someone—hey, that’s great! Talking about ideas with people who care about them. This is why you came to grad school and is what you were practising all that time in those grad seminars you were required to take. You already know what to do. And look, even if you’re cynical (I don’t blame you, being on the market sucks), remember that in a rare moment of theoretical convergence, Anatol Rapoport, Pierre Bourdieu, and Erving Goffman all agree that in a situation like this the simplest strategy is also the best one: just do your thing and act like that’s what’s obviously supposed to be happening.

  • That’s it. There’s no additional magic. Again, remember your sociology. There’s the interaction order and there’s the institutional order. Within the interaction order, more or less everyone’s awkward and busy and following scripts. (That’s why you can have one of your own; see above.) So don’t expect too much, don’t be a jerk to people, and don’t worry about assholes. Meanwhile, the real sources of career or job market stress exist within the institutional order. They will not be significantly adjusted one way or the other by brief, standardized interactions at the book exhibit or coffee line, assuming you don’t throw up on the President of the Association in the Hilton Lobby.

  1. By which of course I mean “famous”. Academic fame is the sort of fame where people have to be told that you’re well known, which rather defeats the point. [return]
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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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