Kieran Healy has dusted off and re-posted some very good advice about attending academic conferences. It’s the advice you really need — who to go to dinner with, how not to embarrass yourself when introducing people to each other — rather than boring stuff like how to give a good talk. The spirit of the approach is captured by this quote:
As with teenagers, conference attendees secretly and falsely believe that other groups are having a much better time… Your conference strategies should therefore be geared towards counteracting the tendency to re-live your teenage years.
It’s surprising to realize how much “smart ways to behave at conferences” are really just “smart ways to behave in life.” (Though probably it shouldn’t be that surprising — academics aren’t the special flowers we like to think we are.) This bit of advice in particular struck me as useful:
[If] you worry someone will ask you what you work on, have something to say that’s three sentences long and takes fifteen seconds to get through. Write it down and practice it if you like.
I think every person should do that all the time. As you go through life, there will be multiple occasions on which people ask you “What do you do?” (If you’re in academia or an otherwise creative field, it will be “What are you working on?”) A high percentage of the time, questions like that elicit an awkwardly long pause, or something deflecting like “Oh, you know, lots of things.”
It makes sense. In your mind, “what you do” or “what you’re working on” is this incredibly rich, diverse, tightly interconnected set of things, and here is someone you don’t know asking you to instantly distill it down to a pithy phrase. Outrageous! And what’s worse, if you actually give a substantive answer, you’ll inevitably be leaving something out. You think, “Well I could mention this one thing that I’m mostly thinking about, but it’s not really representative of what I’m usually doing, so maybe I should mention this other thing…”
It’s not really a good look. Think about your own feelings when you ask someone what they do, and they respond with “Oh, I don’t know” or “Oh, lots of things.” Really? You don’t know what you do? Are you a spy whose memories are wiped at the conclusion of each mission? I’m sure you do many things, but perhaps picking out one would provide me with more useful information? At a conference in particular, it’s not the best first impression.
It’s important to come to terms with the fact that there are no perfect answers to the whatdoyoudo/whatareyouworkingon kinds of questions — and yet, we should have answers ready. Ones that are confident, short, and convey just a bit of the necessary flavor, so that more detail can emerge over the course of further conversation, which after all is the point of these well-meaning interrogations. This is especially true if you’re going to academic meetings, but it holds for life more generally. As adults, we should be better at these everyday skills than we were as teenagers.