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My current strategy when seeing unpleasant, toxic academics in conferences is to ignore them, but I'm wondering if people have other suggestions.

When I was a grad student, I spent a few months at a research institution. I was in the computer room trying to print something, but it wasn't printing. Then a senior academic (mathematician) came in and I told him that the printer wasn't working. It turned out that he just wanted to make a photocopy, and that was fine. He told me, "It's working." Then he proceeded to get very angry and said, "You're lying! You're a liar!" I wanted to explain that it was the printer that wasn't working, but he interrupted and continued to call me a liar and stormed out.

Well! I continued my work but in later talks at the conference he would be quite nasty. For example, he would sit next to someone and tell them, "I want to sit here, not over there" referring to me. This was a senior mathematician who spoke at the ICM at some point in the 1970s.

I just ignored him but the whole situation was unpleasant and over something very petty. What is the correct protocol for dealing with people like this?

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    Indeed, all that you can do is just try to stay away from them. As always, "being a jerk", and even "being a jerk to junior people" seems not to be illegal... – paul garrett Apr 23 at 22:45
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    Are you sure that he was not trying to tease you (in an unwanted way)? – High GPA Apr 24 at 12:20
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    @High GPA Yes, I am sure he wasn't. – Mehta Apr 24 at 14:43
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    I would talk to my advisor or boss about a person like this. It often helps to discuss a bothersome situation, and your boss or advisor may have a good idea of the most appropriate action (or inaction) in your specific circumstances. – Jake Apr 24 at 22:09
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    Just for fun, I might even be tempted to move again, and sit close to him by his new seat. Continuing a couple of times could create a bit of fun, but not for him. – Tim Apr 25 at 10:29
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Unpleasant people? If you are convinced that you did not do anything to deserve their castigation (and from your story, it sounds like you didn't), purse your lips, raise a slight Spock brow, wait a second, and go/look somewhere else. Nothing shows your opinion about them more clearly than this wordless sequence. They will be seething, but you have better things to do.

If you can not avoid interacting with them, be unwaveringly polite, but distant. You may even exaggerate the politeness by using "Sir" etc. This increases distance.

It's not your job to educate someone who failed to learn basic manners at school. Their manners are not your responsibility.

If they stalk you at a conference, indifference is another strategy. Non-reactivity is boring and they will look for a more reactive victim.

Of course, many conferences have these code-of-conduct declarations now and you could try to invoke them, but I have no idea how effective that is in a case like yours.

Personally, I distrust the effectiveness of formalized rules of behaviour for anything but really egregious and obvious breaches of conduct, and even then I am not sure they really work, unless you belong to a well-delineated group that is seen as requiring special protection. But, your mileage may vary.

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  • And always be aware that 'Sir' might be spelled 'Cur'... – Tim Apr 25 at 10:24
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    @Tim Yes, but that requires people to know Ye Olde English insultes. – Captain Emacs Apr 25 at 12:28
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I'd suggest that if you are a junior person and they are senior, then ignoring them is probably your best option. Be polite if you have to interact with them, but otherwise just stay away.

You might ask some neutral person if the professor is jus a jerk generally. Some people have a reputation for being unpleasant - especially to junior people.

Nobody really wins a public shouting match.

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Handle it the same way you'd handle an unpleasant neighbor or coworker, be civil.

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Many conferences these days (at least in my field) have a code of conduct which all attendees agree to abide by when they register. An example from a recent conference is here: https://www.cosmologyfromhome.com/code-of-conduct/

If an attendee breaches the code of conduct (and shouting in that manner at another attendee would certainly constitute such a breach) they can be reported to the conference organisers. The most severe consequence would be asking them to leave the conference.

So, if you are now in a position where you are organising conferences, including a code of conduct would be an excellent thing to do (or suggesting it to the organisers if you are not on the committee).

While the tactic of ignoring the person is another possibility, I worry that this is something of an easy way out. By doing nothing, we are giving tacit approval to harrassers and bullies, effectively emboldening them since they face no consequences for their actions.

We get many questions on this site about how to deal with abusive PhD supervisors and the advice then is never to silently put up with it. Imagine being the PhD student of the person who called you a liar and didn't want to sit next to you at the conference. You were only subjected to that treatment for a day; they could have been subjected to it on a daily basis for years. Think how demoralising it must have felt to have everyone around them ignore this person's behaviour.

I do not, therefore, advocate for ignoring harrassment if you are in a secure enough position to challenge it. Obviously if the harrasser has or could have some power over you in the future, it is sensible not to confront them. But if you are a peer or the senior party, you can at least have a quiet word with that person, or ask them not to talk to people in that way. They probably won't change overnight (or perhaps ever), but it's important not to give the message to junior people that you don't care about harrassing and bullying behaviour.

Another practical thing you can do, if you are now senior in your field, is to warn junior people about the behaviour of such a person, especially if their harrassment is particularly targeted towards junior people. Dissuade them from approaching the person in question. Dissuade them from doing a PhD with or collaborating with them, if you can.

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