Conference etiquette
September 13, 2016 9:51 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to a conference shortly. I need to introduce myself to a few people that I've only communicated with via email. This is not a problem in itself. What I do have trouble with, is approaching people that are already in a conversation with each other. I don't want to be rude and interrupt but I don't want to lose track either so I end up doing the concentric circle dance waiting for my chance. Is there a better way? Any other tips for conferences?
posted by aeighty to Human Relations (15 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Email them beforehand and see if you can schedule a time to grab a cup of coffee between sessions.
posted by shallowcenter at 10:12 AM on September 13, 2016 [9 favorites]

Nothing wrong with approaching people, that's what a conference is for, right? I mean don't be rude and barge in interrupting. Rather, hover nearby and listen to what is being said, use your body language and facial expressions to indicate polite interest in joing. In most cases, they will be happy to include you. If you don't get eye contact or a smile within a minute, just move on.

Maybe it depends on field, but a little "conference stalking" is par for the course in academia, it *can* in principle be taken too far, but it's understood that you're all professionals there to meet each other and talk about your field, so it's not really a big deal.

A:Have you seen [Famous person X]?
B:I saw her headed to the [place]
C: Let's go there to see if we can meet her!
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:23 AM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Rather, hover nearby and listen to what is being said, use your body language and facial expressions to indicate polite interest in joining.

And if you find out how you get this to work, let me know. This has been a problem my entire life; even though I always make a point of including new people in a circle of conversation, it is rarely reciprocated. Perhaps doing some subtle stomping around might do the trick, but it's a major reason why I hate parties and conferences.
posted by Melismata at 10:27 AM on September 13, 2016 [15 favorites]

Set some things up ahead of time if you can.

But other than that, if you see someone and want to get in on their conversation, just do a quick check to see their level of attention with their current conversation. My general rule at events of any kind is that if they look casual or like they aren't paying much mind to their convo, it's probably safe for me to walk up with a smile and a gentle "Oh hey X!". But if I see the person I know and they're in a heated discussion with someone, being very animated, I'll leave them alone and go do something else. In that case I'd just be bothering them rather than contributing.

It's also much easier to say hello to someone if they're in a large group conversing, as most people don't spend a huge amount of time talking or being heavily engaged when there's say, 5-10 people who are sharing speaking time. Don't let a big herd intimidate you. It's the 1 on 1 stuff that you have to be careful breaking up, in my opinion.
posted by InkDrinker at 10:27 AM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is a good video not only about body language in general, but about approaching people already in conversation. A good way to approach a circle of people is to make eye contact or call out a members name while approaching and they will 'open' the circle for you. I can't really explain that well, so watch the video.
posted by chevyvan at 10:30 AM on September 13, 2016 [8 favorites]

I think it's fine to just go up and say "Hi, I'm sorry to interrupt but I wanted to say hi!" This is especially true if the person is at a similar or lower level to you in terms of seniority/importance. If the person is significantly senior/more important than you, though, I would go for scheduling a coffee meeting or going to the person's panel and introducing yourself afterward.
posted by rainbowbrite at 10:39 AM on September 13, 2016 [11 favorites]

I had this problem early in my career. I generally hate to interrupt a good conversation. My solutions were to arrange meetings in advance, and since I'm a historian and our conferences have publisher's displays, buttonhole someone who's browsing books by themselves.

However, you have a specific situation in which you've already planned to introduce yourself to these people. Presumably the plan is mutual. In that case, there's no problem if you walk up, make eye contact, wait for a pause, and then say, "Prof. Xavier! I'm sorry to interrupt; I just wanted to introduce myself in person. Is there a good time for us to talk more later?"

At a certain point, I think maybe around 2002 or 2003, I reached a point where I know enough people at the three main conferences I attend that I no longer have that problem; it's rare that I don't know at least one of the people in a conversational circle and can sidle in next to them without interrupting.
posted by brianogilvie at 10:39 AM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have had a modicum of success in this scenario by emailing a photo of myself to the participants I wish to meet They usually find you before you find them!
posted by HarrysDad at 10:42 AM on September 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Sit next to them at a talk and immediately start talking to them when there's a break before they can escape. This is what people do to me all the time!
posted by fshgrl at 11:09 AM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

And if you find out how you get this to work, let me know.

I was sharing my experience. I know it can be effective, because it's worked for me at conferences all across the USA. No method is 100% effective, past results do not predict future performance, YMMV, etc., etc.

Perhaps I didn't explain the proximity: I'm not talking about staring eagerly from across the room. I'm talking about getting within close handshake distance within line of sight, and staying there. I understand not everyone is comfortable doing that, but as you and OP have noticed, it's hard to introduce oneself at conferences without with some level of direct action and forward behavior. I also like rainbowbrite's script, and see it used effectively, but OP seemed to have already ruled that out.
posted by SaltySalticid at 1:43 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

In my experience, it's unusual in the U.S. for conference attendees to stand so close there's not, physically, room to at least peek your head in and give the smile of greeting and the brow raise of recognition. Almost always this draws the attention of one or more people in the circle towards you, and they will move to let you in. Then I listen to the conversation for a minute or two, and at the first lull, introduce myself. It's awkward, especially the minute while you're physically present but not introduced, but it works for me. Obviously, it's easier to "tackle" people as groups are breaking apart or forming (just make sure they're not headed to the restroom!), but it's perfectly acceptable to insert yourself into groups of people at a conference. It's right in the Latin root of the word "con", meaning together. The whole point is to get to know people outside your normal circles.
posted by wnissen at 2:42 PM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I arrange academic conferences in the humanities, and so have plenty of opportunity to observe the academics in their efforts to get to know each other and network.

What I have seen work well is people arriving early enough so they are among the first in the room - so naturally anyone coming after you will come up and greet you. Unless they also have inhibtions - in which case you can make a proactive move to greet them and introduce yourself. If you do not hide behind your smart phone or notebook, that is.
We do welcome coffees, just before the first session starts, and this is often where this happens. So check if the program offers that, come early, grab a cup of coffee and as people arrive you will be able to greet them right away. Or meet others who have the same plan.
If no welcome coffee is offered, still be early - find out when doors open and if you can come to the venue early. Too early will be boring (eg not hours in advance as you will make yourself a nuisance to the admins) but 15 or 20 minutes or perhaps 30 minutes. If you need a reason to ask when they open the venue, say you want to check email and can you come a bit early to do so.
Often what happens too is, the first person will know the WiFi Access code first and others ask her or him how to access - another point to strike up conversation.

Also, sometimes I get approached by people who ask me to introduce them to others, so if there is someone there in an event management capacity and they look approachable (eg. not frantic and harrassed already) ask if they can introduce you to Prof X, with whom you had email contact but never met in person. It will depend on the event manager of course, but personally I am always happy to oblige because I know the difficulty (unless there is some emergency, and then I might say - sure, but let's do that at break time).

Also, yes do strike up conversations with those sitting next to you. Works often at meal times, so if you do plan to be at meals (if it is optional and you have a choice go). It is safe to assume there will be sevral others also worrying much about making contact. Buffet meals are perfect for this - strike up some mundane conversation (eg do you see any bread rolls?) Or offer to help if you see some elderly person struggling with their plate etc. (may I take that for you? do you have a table yet?). if it is free seating at a seated meal, look for someone sitting on their own - they probably have the same issue, how to meet someone. If you take a seat on an empty table first, don't look into your smart phone, try to have a friendly expression and posture (hard to describe, but if yu are hunched over your plate staring into your soup no one will dare to sit with you. But if you see someone staring intently into their soup, just ask if you may join. The worst that can happen is they say no.

I would advise against chasing down the famous person. Part of my job is to make sure the famous person is not hunted down like prey, and most likely chasing them to wherever it is they go will result in disappointment.

A way to make contact or become noticed is also, if there is Q&A time, to ask intelligent but succinct questions. Not a show off, making sure everybody knows whom you read lately on the topic, and tying up several questions in one, effectively more a commentary, but something pertinent and perceptive. I do know speakers note these things and have seen that sometimes they do seek out or ask me to introduce them to the person who asked the smart question. Often I sit in sessions to pass around the microphone and observe people (it is boring to do) and without fail, the ones who ask succinct and smart questions fare best and are later drawn into conversations. write your question down if necessary, if speaking free makes you ramble.
posted by 15L06 at 3:51 AM on September 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

I was just at an academic conference last week, one where I made a conscious decision to try and meet people and network. It was pretty successful, I think. The things I did are:
  1. Follow the official Twitter account for the conference (there's bound to be one) and take note of any social events listed there. Pre-conference drinks are pretty good, if they're for attendees rather than the committee, because everyone is looking to network and socialise. For better or worse, drinks events are a bit easier because social inhibitions are a bit more relaxed.
  2. Likewise, pay attention to social events in the conference program. These might be a bit more formal, but people will often come and talk to you because they don't know anyone either, as several commenters have already said.
  3. In either case, if you see a person you've already met talking to someone else interesting later, you've got a good reason to go and say 'Hi.'
  4. If it's a panel-type conference, go to their panel and speak to them after their paper. There will probably be several people doing that, so you might have to wait around, but you could find an interesting point to connect with the conversation, too.
  5. If you're presenting, email your contact the session you're in. They might come, and you've got another opportunity.
  6. The hardest one is also just to do it - find them, go and say "Hello, I'm aeighty, we've been in touch by email (about whatever). I just wanted to say hi in person."
It's not easy, particularly if you feel shy or awkward, but the thing to remember is that at conferences most people do feel shy and awkward, and they're there to make connections and contacts just as much as you. The best thing that happened to me at my conference last week was at the pre-conference drinks when another person overheard me introduce myself to someone else and turned around to me and said "Oh hi! I really hoped I would meet you, I was really interested in your article on... " which snowballed into a brilliant variety of meetings with other researchers in my area.

Good luck!
posted by prismatic7 at 6:09 AM on September 14, 2016

What I do have trouble with, is approaching people that are already in a conversation with each other.

I had to take a seminar on this. Let's assume that you've already set up meetings/ coffee in advance with the people you know already, so you don't have any awkwardness finding them. Set those up early in the conference, so you have a few familiar faces.

Now you're at the cocktail hour, just trying to figure out who to approach. You have to assess body language to pick what groups will be most receptive to a outsider. Some group are 'closed,' meaning that they are only facing each other and engaged in the conversation. Some groups are 'open,' meaning that they are side by side, facing the room (picture two people leaning against a wall). The "rules" that we were taught are that singletons and 'open' groups of two and three people are the best bet, 'closed' groups should be avoided, and you should steer clear of groups of four or more, especially when they're 'closed.'
posted by oryelle at 8:43 AM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thank you all, so much good advice in this thread.
posted by aeighty at 11:37 AM on September 14, 2016

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