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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.