Steve presenting at a conference

Conferencing as an old fogey

Photo: Me hijacking my own talk at CSEE 2016 to shamelessly plug my book.  I don’t look all that old, right?  Photo © Alex Smith, with permission.

I’ve just (as I write this) come from my favourite yearly conference: the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution.  It’s my favourite for a number of reasons – among them, really superb science, a broad range of topics, and a lot of friends.  (The latter makes a big difference when you’re conferencing as an introvert.)

I’ve realized something a little bit disturbing.  When I went to my first conference (the Ecological Society of America meeting in 1993, I think), I was young, and a rookie.  I watched the grey-haired old fogeys whose names I knew from the literature, and I knew I should introduce myself and get to know them, but it was hard.  But now, in 2016, I have become a grey-haired old fogey*.

There was a particular moment of realisation: when I met a grad student who said to me “Oh, I’ve been wanting to meet you, but you were always busy talking with someone!”  This brought me up short, partly because I didn’t really think it was true, but mostly because I had an instant flashback to my first conferences and the grey-haired old fogeys who I thought I should meet – but who were always busy talking to someone.

So: I guess I now conference as an old fogey.  And I have some thoughts about how I should be doing that, and how more junior attendees should approach us old fogeys.  I’ll mix those together, because I think each demographic slice can get something from thinking about the other.  My basic position here: one (very pleasant) duty of the conferencing old fogey is to meet and talk with the young fogeys, and make them feel like the scientific peers they are.

  • Old fogeys: wear your #$@&% name tag – all the time. This one really gets my goat**.  The more old and famous someone is, the more likely it is that they leave their nametag behind.  But doing so sends a clear message, and this is it: “I’m famous. You should know who I am. And if you don’t, I don’t care to talk to you.”  Don’t send that message; put on your  #$@&% name tag.
  • Young fogeys (yeah, I had to do that): approach the nametagless old fogey anyway. Not sure if you know who they are or not?  Introduce yourself, and if you have to, say “And you are?”  If a famous name comes back, don’t worry: you can recover slickly with “Ah – I didn’t recognize you, but I know your work”.  We old fogeys love to hear that.
  • Old fogeys: You will, indeed, be talking to someone most of the time; the more conferences you go to, the more people you know and want to catch up with. But do that talking with open body language and work to let young fogeys in.  Avoid standing with your back to the crowd; if you’re seated, sit more side-by-side than facing.  If a young fogey you don’t know is hovering, waiting to speak, invite them in.  If your existing conversation is more important than having a young fogey make a new connection, well, good for you – but you can finish it later.
  • Young fogeys: Interrupt! Do so politely and briefly, of course, but do so.  Many old fogeys will welcome your addition to the conversation.  Many more will acknowledge you and suggest chatting later. A few, of course, will just be rude; but that’s on them, not on you.
  • Old fogeys: In your talk, and whenever else you can, give shout-outs to young fogeys. Mention previous and upcoming talks and posters that relate to your own – but emphasize those by early-career folk.  Don’t bother connecting your work to the plenary or Presidential address.  Those people don’t need extra advertising, and mentioning them just makes you sound like a stuffed shirt.
  • Young fogeys: by all means, tell us old fogeys about your talks. (“Invitation” functions in meeting apps have begun to make this easy.) We may come or we may not; either way we may give you a shout-out.  But if we don’t make it there, don’t think we’re dismissing you.  At a big conference, there are a dozen reasons one might miss any particular talk.  Just offer us your 30-second elevator version some time.
  • Old fogeys: make an effort to include young fogeys in your social plans. Heading off for dinner or beer? Invite someone younger you don’t yet know.  Is someone younger standing off to the side, looking vaguely lost and introverted?  Bring them into your group.  You probably were that person once.  (I was. Often, I still am.)
  • Young fogeys: If the invitation comes, accept it. Drag another young fogey along for company; it’s not rude to expand a group a little.  And once you’re there, join the conversation, or even steer it a little.  You have much to offer.

Underlying all this is something important that both old fogeys and young fogeys occasionally forget: we’re the same, but for the passage of time.  Old fogeys are greyer, and know more people, and maybe we have more papers people know – but so what?  Whether you’re an old fogey or a young one, remember that, and we’ll all get more out of our conferences.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) July 29, 2016


*^I exaggerate (I hope).  I’m a middle-aged fogey. The age I am now seemed very old to me 20 years ago; with a bit of luck, it will seem very young to me 20 years from now.

**^And if you were in any doubt that I’m an old fogey, the fact that I typed “gets my goat” ought to put the issue to rest.

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12 thoughts on “Conferencing as an old fogey

  1. Elizabeth Moon

    Definitely not an old fogey yet, because I am one and you’re lots younger. (My hair IS gray.) I like your advice to both old and young fogeys, and have found the same applies with writers and fans of writers. Wear the nametag where it can be seen (not hanging off your belt.) If it comes printed in small type, write your last name BIG over the tiny type in clear printed caps. (Conference organizers: not everyone has perfect vision. Print out the nametags with names in BIG BOLD BLACK.) Be accessible to the other ages of fogeys…polite, but friendly. Basic conversational courtesy applies.

    Young fogeys–if invited to join a meal group by old fogey, expect to pay for your own meal, and don’t slow down ordering said meal. Someone may pick up the tab, but don’t count on it. And a table-full of new acquaintances don’t enjoy waiting while you dither over the menu. Don’t go with a group, and then complain the place chosen is too expensive or doesn’t have whatever accommodation of your special needs that you wanted. There are polite ways to decline if you know Prof or Bestseller X eats half a steer for lunch at the most expensive steak place in the city, and you’re a passionate vegan who’s also on a tight budget. “Thanks, but I’ve already got a lunch/dinner date.” All fogeys: Never criticize other fogeys’ food choices. (Yes, I’ve seen it happen. Young writer, new to group, telling acquisitions editor she shouldn’t be eating that. Older writer telling younger writer he should eat something he doesn’t like.) (This advice may not be needed at scientific conventions, but it is at SF conventions.)

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Great additions, Elizabeth, especially on the additional nametag advice. (I have a bee in my bonnet about that one – another old fogey expression…) All your points are relevant to scientific conventions, not just SF ones!

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    2. Alex Bond

      I don’t know the dietary preferences/appetites of any “old fogey” I would join for a meal at a conference, while most young fogeys are likely on a tight budget (or at best expected to pay up front & claim back), which prevented me from joining in on more than one social invitation. I’m not expecting others to foot the bill, but if the goal is to interact with ECRs, then the 4-star bistro where an appetizer is half a week of groceries or a week’s transit pass probably isn’t the way to do it.

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  2. mobze

    This is super interesting! I really like it when you speak for others that might not have the gut to express themselves.

    3 things:
    1. Are you conferencing as a fogey?
    I remember you walking down the street with students and talking about life, personal stories and telling jokes. On the photo you’re wearing your tag! From what I understood also, it’s the discussion that you have with the accomplished scientist that matters. We can have different levels of confidence when discussing about certain subjects.
    I found something really interesting when talking with some scientist. It’s the way they are making the conversation relaxed or perhaps pointing out that we are all equal. That even if you have this nice accomplished career, you are still washing the dishes and walking the dog.

    2. One of the problems in some conferences is linguistic barriers.
    This can pull the brakes for some young scientists from talking to researchers. I guess this could relate to the previous point. But I think that this could explain why some people refrain from talking. How would you consider this point?

    3. What interests accomplished scientists?
    I would like to have your thoughts on this. What is interesting to discuss with researchers? Are there some topics that are more welcome than others? Do accomplished scientists want to know what you are doing or they want to talk about their research, their lab and how you could join them? Do they want to know what was the last series you were listening to?

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Interesting point about language barriers. I guess I’d say try to ignore them. Most people will be flattered that you’re willing to work hard to talk with them over such a barrier. The others are just being jerks!

      On your third point: “accomplished researchers” (which is a much nicer way of saying “old fogey” than I chose) are just like everyone else. Most would really like to hear about your work – or to hear your questions about theirs. The latter is a good icebreaker into the former. Most would also like some ordinary human small-talk – especially over beers. Some, unfortunately, are insufferable boors; but you’ll figure out which ones those are pretty quickly!

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  3. sleather2012

    great post and I totally agree with the name tag issue – I make a great point of wearing my name tag and I am older than you 🙂 It does surprise me how many young attendees don’t wear theirs as well. My advice is that wear it all times – breakfast time and bar time especially – us old fogeys tend to be early risers and as long as there is no background music, find the bar a great place to be 🙂

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    1. Anonymous

      Some of us young fogeys are early risers and can’t hear around background music, as well!

      Re. wearing your name tag at all times, this would help me remember names. However, having been raised female in big cities I do not feel comfortable displaying my name on the street or in restaurants/bars. I don’t want to make it easier for random strangers to pretend familiarity or easily obtain information about me.

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  4. jeffollerton

    Good advice, well said. Having just returned from a conference at which Bob Ricklefs and Dan Simberloff were both speaking, I have to say that I feel much less of an old fogey than I did before I went! 🙂

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