I just skip the banquets
January 5, 2013 9:15 PM   Subscribe

How do I learn to be less shy in professional situations with groups of strangers?

I'm in academia, and often attend conferences where I don't know many people. The institutions I've attended are prestigious but very small, so there isn't typically a big cohort in attendance. I also do a lot of interdisciplinary work, and it ends up that my research doesn't align directly with most of the scholarship in a given discipline, so people generally aren't familiar with my name. (I mean, I'm not well-known or anything even within my subfield, but it's worse when I step into a venue outside it.)

I'd really like to make connections at conferences, or at least, not wander around like a lost dog, but I find it intimidating to approach people and introduce myself. I've tried striking up academic conversations at posters, but that usually doesn't lead anywhere.

Part of my difficulty is my personality -- I'm introverted and shy, only started training myself to feel at ease around people a few years back, and have a somewhat stiff body language (which I'm trying to overcome) that is amplified in awkward situations. Part of it may also be that I'm female in disciplines that are very male-dominated. I find it reasonably easy to proactively meet other young women at conferences, but there are only a small number of them.

Any ideas for (1) being less socially awkward in general among strangers and (2) how to work the room at conferences when you don't know anyone?
posted by redlines to Human Relations (14 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
The same way humans get better at anything... experience. Just face the fear and keep doing it, and eventually it'll become normal. Just try new tactics each time. Also, have interesting things to talk about.
posted by jboxer23 at 9:32 PM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Like Jboxer23 says, practice practice practice. See this old comment of mine for more detail on this, and how I did it for myself.
posted by sweetkid at 10:11 PM on January 5, 2013

I find it reasonably easy to proactively meet other young women at conferences

If you get anywhere near having a personal rapport with them (or happen to have that with even one old grad school buddy or something), I'd say flat out that you don't know many people there, but it's been fun so far, but oh it's so hard to meet new people. To friends and to other women, that should signal simply an interest in hanging out and getting introduced to your interlocutor's social network. If your interlocutor mentions anyone well-known or admits to knowing a raft of people from their grad school or whatever, you might actively fish for an introduction or an invitation to their school's informal gathering by expressing admiration for the person/school and saying how lucky your interlocutor is to know those folks or how you hope you get the chance to meet those folks considering what good things you've heard.

I'm assuming your ideal outcome is getting invited to come to a particular session and be introduced or come to some particular school's informal gathering somewhere.

But I think I would try to have at least one invitation like that in the bag before you get there, either by meeting a couple of likely attendees in your region at some local event during the year rather than at the conference or by participating in some relevant mailing list or forum that might have a meet-up at the conference.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:15 PM on January 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am a postdoc. I felt like you describe for the first couple of years of my PhD. But because I found it relatively easy to meet other young female PhD students at these conferences, I basically just stole all their social and professional contacts and now I have lots :)

Okay, not really "stole". But you just have to make sure you get invited by these people to sit with them at lunch, and go out with them for drinks or dinner once or twice in the evenings, and sit next to them in breaks or at the conference dinner.

And they will have one or two other friends and/or their advisors, who you will get to know that way. Then you hang out with those people sometimes too, and they will introduce you to their friends and advisors.
And if you go to the same conferences year after year, these people will become very familiar faces.

And then one day there'll be a group of people you only vaguely know going for dinner and they'll pass you, and one of them will be the advisor of or friend of one of the people you DO know, and they'll invite you along and you'll say yes even though you imagine it will be awkward. And you do THAT a few times, and voila, you are "going to dinner friends" with a handful of more senior people. And then conferences are easy(er).
posted by lollusc at 10:50 PM on January 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Volunteer to organize a conference or chair a session.
posted by ecsh at 11:20 PM on January 5, 2013

Being prepared will give you confidence: Bring a few thoughtful questions to ask, as well a couple of quick personal stories related to your field. The rest will flow naturally.
posted by artdrectr at 12:14 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I found this (pdf) really helpful. It's 'how to work a room' and was originally in an MBA magazine but it works for me at schmoozy cocktail parties and the like.
posted by ladyriffraff at 12:44 AM on January 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

Thus was me too. A few other things that I've done:
Volunteer to moderate a session. For non-special sessions, this is nothing more than thanking each speaker and announcing the next one. Beforehand, you meet each person and find out how to say their name. Afterwards, you get to chat a little more. If your session includes or ends with a break, continue to talk to folks over break. If your sessions ends at lunch or dinner or the banquet continue talking and see if you can tag along to the next thing.

Sign-up for conference workshops or field trips. These provide a lot more informal interactions. (They're also a lot of fun and a nice break from sitting in endless presentation sessions.)

Chat with the people looking at the same posters as you at poster sessions. The poster presenters may not have time to socialize, really, but other people wandering around browsing posters do. On the other hand, if you really like a poster, you have a captive audience who are supposed to be engaging with people, so it can be a great time to meet somebody. If they're too busy, you can totally say "I find your poster fascinating. Would you like to have lunch tomorrow to chat more about XX?"
posted by hydropsyche at 6:16 AM on January 6, 2013

Most academics are fairly introverted. This is why there is so much drinking at conferences.

I've found Twitter to be a good tool to meet people at the conference.
posted by k8t at 7:38 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Professor is in on working the conference.
posted by k8t at 7:39 AM on January 6, 2013

The basic answer for me was to fuck up, and see that the things I thought were fuck-ups weren't really that bad. I am a learned extrovert and the only trick is to just start talking about things, and trend in a positive direction. What you talk about doesn't really matter, but it does help to focus on things other people understand.

If it helps, you can get your first line of fuck-ups out of a way at some place that doesn't matter, or have potential professional repercussions. Try Toast Masters, volunteering, working an unrelated job that put you out in public a lot (but that probably isn't sales).

But the basic answer is that you have to go and commit a bunch of social fuck-ups to figure out the difference between what is an actual fuck-up, what is a person specific fuck-up, and what is something that isn't a fuck-up to anyone but you. Eventually you develop a greater social awareness, in addition to less concern about what other people are thinking, and an understanding that you will always fuck something up, you'll just do it less often.
posted by 517 at 9:38 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is a simple magical answer to the question of how a shy person can network at a conference:

You force yourself to go up to a stranger and ask them an intelligent question.

The script: "Hi. I was thinking/wondering about something related to the issue of... (what we are working on)..." (etc).

Note: You have to do as much research on the issues as possible beforehand. Look up the background stuff on the speakers at the panels that you are most interested in. You have favorites for panels, the ones you want to see. When the panel wraps up, turn to whoever is sitting beside you and script-ask: "What did you think?" If a speaker is interesting, try to catch up with them sooner or later and ask for more details (a panel talk is almost always only a little slice of what they would really like to say).
posted by ovvl at 3:44 PM on January 6, 2013

Where are your former grad school classmates? Even if they weren't good friends, you can stop by to say hi. Do it as people are leaving for lunch and you'll probably get invited along. Also, try to get as many presentations or posters accepted as you can. They give people an excuse to come up and talk to you. See someone else whose presentation you like? Float the idea of doing a panel session with them at the next conference.
posted by MsMolly at 9:38 AM on January 7, 2013

As a fellow introvert, let me recommend a book: Networking for People Who Hate Networking. It hasn't changed my life, but it gave me several strategies that work for me.
posted by terrierhead at 3:53 PM on January 7, 2013

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