It is mid-May, which means that it is peak conference season. Personally, my conference attending/presenting is done for the year, but since removing my last lanyard (showcasing a fun misspelling of my name), I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on the topic, so I thought I would use this opportunity to provide some helpful hints, and insider knowledge when it comes to navigating these tricky formal gatherings. Having spent a long time in graduate school/academia, and a little time in more corporate contexts, I’ve had the chance to think through a great many of the rituals, formalities and customs of this odd, expensive, and unavoidable adult social institution.
Here is a numbered list of my top insights and hints:
Insight 1: Networking is awkward
First of all, the word ‘networking’ is a little cringey. It’s become so ubiquitous, that it is basically meaningless.
The only thing more awkward than networking with strangers at a conference, is watching other strangers awkwardly network amongst themselves.
This is particularly pronounced during the ‘cocktail hours’:
With a glass of white wine in one hand, some sort of mediocre amuse bouche and napkin in the other, and no table in sight, conference delegates can’t help but look completely uncomfortable, when they try to shake hands, or take a glance at others’s name tags (which are always conveniently showcased across the bosoms). And while in my experience, adult humans typically avoid talking while chewing (present company excluded — i.e. me), this is a sizeable challenge during the cocktail hour, because you can be asked a question by a stranger at any moment. This is when you place the napkin in front of your mouth, smize (smile with your eyes), exaggeratedly nod/chew, and point at your face. Everyone will politely laugh, and wait for you to finish. Exploit that chewing time, to think about what you’re going to say.*
*Conference hack: when at a loss of words, it is always safe to say sentences that have at least one of the following words: “dialogue”, “conversation”, “problematic”,”stakeholder” and/or “collaboration”.
Insight 2: Business Cards
At a conference, everyone is armed with their business cards. I have come to understand that the presentation of a business card is much like the Hawaiian usage of the word “aloha” — it can mean “hello” or “goodbye”. Consider this a tip, especially if you want to exit a conversation, but cannot manage a graceful out: just hand them your card, and scoot.
When you receive a card, be sure to treat it with reverence, and provide no hints that you will throw it in the trash when you eventually switch purses. It is customary to reciprocate with the presentation of your own card. When the transaction is complete, one of you must say “We will be in touch”. Spoiler alert: You won’t be.
Insight 3: Dressing for a Conference
Every conference is different. For the business-y conferences, folks usually opt for jeans (casual…) and blazers (…but corporate). On the other hand for (Liberal Arts) academics, the sky’s the limit. While a few might adopt the more conservative look of their corporate counterparts, I have seen a wide variety of conference attire in scholarly settings: including yellowed white ribbed tank tops, subversively short skirts (I saw that one that time I looked in the mirror before leaving for the conference), comics theme printed t-shirts, hiking shoes… and so many cardigans.
Along the lines of presentation of self, In terms of basic hygiene, I prefer to do that whole run of the mill brush my teeth and take a shower thing (so boring and status quo, I know, but unfortunately the only choice for corporate spaces). That said, I have seen some of my historical materialist colleagues eschew traditional hygiene altogether, looking as if they’ve brushed their hair with a shoe, and maybe dabbed some purell in their armpits.
In other words, knowing your audience is everything when it comes to wardrobe choices.
Insight 4: There will be an Objectively Bad Panel/Presentation
It might even be your’s. If you didn’t adequately prepare, or maybe after attending a few panels, you realize that the crowd might not be on your side, I recommend reminding yourself just how little other people care about your talk– whether you rocked it, or you fully bombed, no one will spend anytime thinking about it once they leave the room. Besides, it’s on your C.V. now forever no matter how bad it was.
If it is someone else’s panel, sympathetically smile through it, nod along, and know that, you won’t give a shit after you leave (see paragraph above).
To sum up, conferences are weird, but a tradition that will endure (trust me, most conversations at conferences are about the next conference).
There are some perks too: you will get a tote, a USB stick, and if you’re lucky a new mug. Sometimes the food is good or stealable (dry and small enough to stuff in your purse) So there’s that.