An introvert goes conferencing

Image: Joe Wolf via CC BY-ND 2.0

While I was grumpy recently about conferences having themes, I’m not at all anti-conference. In fact, I agree entirely with Terry McGlynn here that going to conferences and meeting people in your field is really important. In fact, I just registered for two of the four conferences I plan to attend this year (a personal record high). But here’s the thing: while I’m looking forward to them, I’m also not, because like a fair number of academics I’m an introvert*. I find conferences, and all the people at them, exhausting. So I’ve been running through in my mind some of the strategies I use to cope. If you’re a little like me, maybe you’ll find some value in my writing them out**. Or at least in knowing that you aren’t the only one.

First, over the years I’ve worked to figure out just what it is I dislike – or fear – when conferencing. I often say “I don’t like people”, but although that’s fun to say it isn’t really true. My self-examination has brought me to this understanding: I like all kinds of people – one or two at a time. No matter how much I enjoy seeing my colleagues and friends, I find large quantities of them exhausting. Even harder for me is meeting people I don’t know yet: it’s stressful and scary, and I’m very bad at it.

So, a few strategies I use (and keep in mind that these help me, but your mileage may vary):

  • I try to interact with small groups of people more than large ones. I’d far rather chat with two friends than troop off to dinner with 20 of them.
  • I know I can’t do 5 straight days of talks, coffee break chats, conference lunches, and group dinners. So I’ve decided it’s perfectly OK, once or twice, to go buy a baguette and some hummus and eat a meal alone in my hotel room. I’ll also choose an afternoon session about half-way through and skip out entirely, to go (alone) to a museum or some other local point of interest. I used to be embarrassed about this, but I’ve come to realize that it isn’t sad and lonely; it’s psychological self-care and re-energizing.
  • I make fairly frequent, but time-limited, retreats to my hotel room or to a quiet corner of the conference centre. I ration these carefully; 20-30 minutes twice a day lets me recharge without missing what I’ve come for. A hotel room very close to the conference helps a lot with this.
  • I book conference accommodation solo, not with roommates. Yes, it costs more, although I’m willing to skimp on meals or to stay in a dorm to reduce the budgetary sting. Remaining costs are an investment in having a place to recharge, so that I can pull off the rest of the conference.
  • I make a quite explicit bargain with myself: I allow myself the recharging strategies above only if I agree to attend most of the sessions and to network my little heart out, most of the time, in the hallways and at breaks and poster sessions and group meals.
  • I make a point of talking to people about their talks. When I enjoy one, I seek out the speaker and compliment them, then ask a question or make a suggestion. Some praise never hurt our scientific community, and compliments are a sure icebreaker – almost nobody, no matter how famous, won’t be pleased by your overture. I always learn something new, and often meet someone new, by following up on a talk that intrigued me.

There – that’s how I survive conferencing as an introvert.

Now, all this might sound like a plea for you to leave me alone at conferences. It isn’t, and please don’t. If you can see me, it’s because I’m on conferencing time rather than recharging time; and talking to people is what I’m attending for. And if we don’t yet know each other, please introduce yourself! It’s not at all that I don’t want to meet new people; it’s that I want help doing so because I struggle with driving the process myself***. Conferencing is important; and if I do it right I’ll be exhausted when I get home. You can help me achieve that.

Are you an introvert like me, and do you have strategies I haven’t listed here? If so, please share them in the Replies.

© Stephen Heard ( March 1, 2016

*^If you know me and don’t think so, well, my façade is holding up nicely.

**^I realize this is hardly untrodden ground – a quick search reveals a dozen or more articles on introverts at conferences – like this one, and this one. But I find most of these run long on strategies that are obvious and others that are completely improbable. For more general advice on how to network at conferences, see Jeremey Fox here; and for some thoughts on how social media might supplement or even replace conference networking, see Amy Parachnowitsch here.

***^Of course, if you struggle to meet new people too, we might have a problem. But I’ve laid my cards on the table; so if you approach me, you’ll know you’re meeting a kindred spirit of sorts. Maybe that will help both of us.


34 thoughts on “An introvert goes conferencing

  1. peternewbury

    I’m really uncomfortable at conferences, too. I’m have to work hard to interact with people.

    Well, *had* to work hard. Then I started using Twitter.

    With Twitter, I already know half a dozen people at the conference. In fact, we probably already met in the lobby or at the pub.

    With Twitter, I *can* interact and have meaningful conversations with my peers — but on my own time and in my own little bubble of anonymity.

    With Twitter, I can sit by myself in the lobby or hallway to continue those conversations without the guilt that I’m wasting the privilege of attending.

    With Twitter, I can witness I’m part of the conference and see I’m contributing to the community. Gives my imposter syndrome a good kick in the ass, too!



    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Peter, good point. I’ve now been on Twitter long enough that I’m looking forward to seeing these effects this conference season. I’ll be talking with people I’ve “pre-met” on Twitter, and I may follow your suggestions about using it as a tool while I’m there, too.


  2. Jeremy Fox

    Shameless self-promotion alert: here’s Meghan Duffy’s old post on wandering alone at conferences. It’s something that makes lots of people feel self-conscious; that certainly used to be the case for me. Then, like Meg, I realized that there was no reason to be self-conscious. That it was perfectly normal to wander around alone, and that nobody was noticing me much less judging me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jane

    As an introvert, I really enjoyed reading your point of view and the handy hints for approaching conference attendance. People wrongly assume I am “shy” or hate meeting people, but I just get a little tired from a great deal of social interaction in groups and need little breaks to recharge. I find Twitter and other forms of social media beneficial as it’s less draining and has helped me meet like-minded people, including many other introverts, who tend to avoid group events.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Trish (ASNAmNat)

    This is probably too obvious a strategy for finding a quiet space, but people new to large conferences that walk into the exhibits only during poster sessions might think they are always crowded and socially overwhelming. They are actually good places to retreat to during the day and conveniently located in conference centers. When sessions are on, exhibits are quiet spaces. You can wander along, look at books (or a copy of Am Nat!), and usually find places to sit–if not actual tables set aside, the booths usually have extra chairs. You don’t have to interact with the people in the booths either (though a nice nod hello is welcome). During the quiet times, most booth people are doing other work.

    Liked by 1 person

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