Image: Joe Wolf via flickr.com CC BY-ND 2.0
I need your help, because I was asked a question and didn’t know the answer. Read on…
Conferences are an important part of life as a scientist. They’re a valuable part of network-building and a chance to exchange the newest ideas, the newest techniques, and the newest results. But they’re also exhausting – and particularly so for scientists who are introverts, and find the crowded rooms and halls and the non-stop social interaction draining. Plenty of scientists are introverts – I’m one – and so this isn’t a trivial issue. I wrote some time ago about how I manage going to conferences as an introvert. But until just last week it never occurred to me to wonder about the issue from the other end: to wonder what conference organizers might do to make conferences more welcoming to introverts. It was a question over Twitter from Danielle Staudt, a conference organizer, that did it:
@StephenBHeard Just read your blog post re: introvert tips at conferences. Do you have any tips for conference organizers? TIA!
— Danielle Staudt (@ALLdanielle) March 7, 2018
I’m amazed and embarrassed never to have asked myself this question. After all, I’ve thought a lot about the introvert-conference fit from my own perspective as a conference-goer; and I’m in the throes of organizing a conference myself*. I’m even more amazed that I don’t have an answer; in fact, I can’t even quite decide if making conferences more introvert-friendly is a good idea or a bad one. So this post has two purposes. First, writing it may help me figure out what I think. Second, I hope that you’ll have suggestions, and that you’ll leave them in the Replies.
A quick, but important, note before continuing: it’s important that we make conferences welcoming to everyone. By posting about introverts, I am *not* suggesting that this human dimension is more important than (or even as important as) diversity in gender, sexual orientation, career-stage, or anything else. It isn’t. It’s just the thing I’ve been asked about.
So, to the question at hand. It seems to me that making a conference more comfortable to introverts could mean one of two things. It could mean making it possible to attend a conference with less need to interact with hordes of other people; or it could mean making those interactions easier. My first thoughts were along the former lines. After all, when I’m at a conference, it’s important to me to take breaks from the hordes so I can sit alone and recharge my social batteries. So my mind jumped immediately to “Quiet spaces!” “Longer breaks!” and “No sit-down banquet!”. But here’s the problem: while alone time is important to me at a conference, I don’t actually want it to be too easy to find**. The value in a conference comes from human interaction; and while I have to duck some of that to make the experience work for me, I need to work at ducking as little as possible.
That leaves the second possibility: not helping introverts avoid those social interactions, but helping us engage in them. This seems like a much better idea, but one on which I have few suggestions to offer. A few thoughts (all of which are tentative, so please use the Replies to comment):
- Build in tweet-ups, put social media handles on nametags, and otherwise facilitate the conversion of online familiarity into in-person familiarity. I’ve found that “Oh, I follow you on Twitter” takes a surprising amount of the awkwardness out of meeting a new person.
- Have a variety of social events or field trips organized around non-academic interests. A smaller group united by interest in hiking, or art galleries, or music can make interaction easier. Make these happen early in the conference, so that sets of small-event buddies can interact afterwards. (I’m tempted to suggest running field trips before, rather than after, the conference for this reason, although perhaps that’s unusual; I don’t think I’ve ever taken a pre-conference field trip.)
- Have volunteers at big networking events whose job it is to watch for, and engage with, people who are hanging back from the crowd. (This is a suggestion from Danielle.)
- Use systems of nametag ribbons or buttons to identify subgroups sharing research interests, regional or taxonomic affiliations, etc. This could help people find those with which they share common interests, again easing the awkwardness of a new meeting. (The Ecological Society of American, for example, has quite a few chapters whose members get identified with ribbons; I wonder if this helps in the way I’m suggesting.)
- Ask each old fogey at the conference to deliberately meet and talk with early-career attendees. Perhaps this could even be formalized, with first-time attendees matched up with volunteer veterans? The Ecological Society of America has a SEEDS mentorship program that does exactly this (and more) for undergraduate attendees. Would it scale up to other less veteran groups?
But that’s it – that’s all I’ve got, and I’m not even sure these ideas are great. So: over to you. Should conference organizers do something to improve the introvert experience? And if so, what?
© Stephen Heard March 15, 2018
Thanks to Danielle Staudt for suggesting this post, and to Monica King and Ian Street for suggestions via Twitter. Ian has also written a post about attending a conference as an introvert, which complements mine; his is here.
*^The 2019 joint meeting of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution and the Entomological Society of Canada. Which is going to be a great meeting; you should come! (Of course I’m not organizing it all by myself.)
**^Well, actually, yes I do. But I want lots of things I know I shouldn’t want, and this is one of them.