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As a graduate student, I am relatively new to my community. From my point of view, the best approach to get to know new people is randomly walking around and start conversations (with anyone, no matter what age or known/unknown). But is that appropriate at academic conferences? How do established researchers think about that?

I am asking because in my previous conference visits, I often felt that people are annoyed or not interested when I just walked up and started a conversation. What would be better approaches for getting to know the community?

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    This seems like a question about basic social interaction, not anything specific to academia? – Lightness Races in Orbit Sep 19 '14 at 10:18
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    I've had the best conversations with people I didn't know during poster sessions. You have always a default topic to start the conversation and can then steer the conversation anywhere you like. – Roland Sep 19 '14 at 10:35
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    Whether or not it is socially acceptable to start up a conversation with an individual you just met is going to vary quite a bit depending on the country and culture of where you are. – IQAndreas Sep 19 '14 at 10:42
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit The question relates to social interaction in an academic context, which seems different in some points than in other areas. – user2212461 Sep 19 '14 at 10:45
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Absolutely. It helps, though, to be a little context sensitive.

If you've just come from an amazing presentation and want to talk about it to someone else, then "did you just hear that great talk by/about X?" is a good way to start the conversation, better than just "Hello" or "Great conference, eh?"

If you know who the person is (they're speaking, you recognize them, etc), then greeting them ("Hi Kate," or "good morning, Dr. Gregory," according to your industry norms) and introducing yourself with context ("I'm Susan, I really enjoyed your book") is a fine first sentence but please, have a second sentence ready. After the person says "thankyou, that's very kind," what will happen next? A question is good here - perhaps there's something you've always wanted to ask - or you could go back to your opener for a complete stranger, "did you just hear that great talk by/about X?"

Never open with something negative - "were you in that stinker of a session? Wasn't it the most boring thing ever?" - is right up there with the friend of mine who asked someone at a wedding "who is that obnoxious fat woman in the flowered dress and why is she even here?" only to be told "that's my mother."

My biggest problem with conference conversations is when someone wants to have a conversation with me but doesn't actually have anything to say. That puts all the conversational effort on me and it's hard work. Should you find yourself in this situation, have a selection of questions you can ask:

  • is this your first time at [this conference]? (don't ask an industry luminary, or a speaker, this question)
  • are you enjoying the conference so far?
  • what is your favourite talk so far? (not good the morning of Day 1)
  • is there a particular session you're really looking forward to?

It's a little trickier to ask questions outside the scope of the conference, like "where are you from" or "where do you work?" because they often contain assumptions - you might assume someone is a student who has graduated, or is a prof when they aren't yet, or is in a lab when they are not, and it's possible to offend someone. So don't lead off with these. Often, stating your own circumstances is a way to prompt the other person to respond in kind: "I flew here from just outside Toronto. You?" or "I'm doing/finishing a Ph.D/postdoc/intership at ABC. You?" though again be careful if the person thinks you should know this thing about them, or if it's on their badge. You usually want to get a paragraph or two into conversation before discussing "real life" rather than the conference.

Well chosen questions not only move the conversation along, they can meet your other goals. Maybe you'll decide to attend a session you hadn't planned to. Maybe you'll learn about a great book or other resource related to something you enjoyed. Maybe you'll be invited to something, or exchange business cards, or al those other benefits of networking at conferences. None of those things can happen if you just say "hi" and leave it at that, the other person says "hi" and then the two of you stand there awkwardly, wondering why you're not having a conversation.

I read and enjoyed a book called How to Work a Room that emphasizes knowing what you want from encounters like this. Are you trying to find a job? Hire someone? Learn more about something? Tell people what you've discovered? For every want you bring to that conference, someone else brings the matching one and if you two find each other you will both be happy - but only if you tell them what you're looking for and what you have to offer. This is a skill you can learn, and marching up to strangers and saying "hi" is only the first step.

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    This community is great because of answers like yours. Thank you. – user2212461 Sep 18 '14 at 16:53
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    Agreed with above user. Well researched, thoughtful, in-depth answers like this are what makes Stack Exchange the best place to ask questions. – Lou Sep 18 '14 at 23:17
  • I'm mostly with you, although I would say your conversation opener questions are a bit boring and should only be used as a last resort. (Like asking a woman at a bar "so, do you come here often") – CaptainCodeman Sep 19 '14 at 8:30
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    I think that "what is your favourite talk so far?" is the best question one can ask (to learn about interesting talks (especially if there are many sessions), to learn about one's interests, to be a good starting point for academic discussion, etc); plus, it is positive - people do like talking about things they like :). – Piotr Migdal Sep 19 '14 at 10:13
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    Another very useful question: "Are you speaking here?" or "Have you spoken yet?". It's even better if you know they are speaking because you saw their name on the program and on their name tag, so make sure you look at the program before you approach people. Academics love to talk about their own work (me too). This works equally well if you are the junior member or the senior member of the conversation. – Oswald Veblen Sep 21 '14 at 0:08
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In general, this is perfectly appropriate behavior at a conference.

However, people differ. Not everybody wants to small-talk with people they do not know. Some people see no "value" in talking to younger students (clearly, this is a short-sighted view). As such, you should not take it personally if somebody does not want to talk to you. Maybe it is in fact them, and not you.

That being said, it also depends a bit on (a) what the person you are chatting up is currently doing, and (b) what you actually say after starting to talk. Most people will be annoyed when you interrupt them while doing something else. Also, clearly, most people will have little interest in talking to you when what you say isn't very interesting.

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Yes, it is appropriate to walk to random people at a conference. (At least I do it often; all in all, conferences are to learn new people / network in the same field.)

Of course, you cannot expect everyone wanting to talk with you: there are personal preferences, some people are waiting to discuss with someone else (or just want to rest from talking :)), some want to "climb" and are more interested in talking with superiors, sometimes the conversations do not "clicks" for them.

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If the conference is quite small, then accosting random strangers is probably appropriate. For larger conferences, I'd recommend a more targeted approach: have a specific question or reason why you're interested in talking with this person.

  • This is interesting. I only visited relatively large conferences so far and obviously I didn't study the CV of every single visitor before approaching them. – user2212461 Sep 18 '14 at 15:54
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    That's an exaggeration of what I'm suggesting. My advice is in line with Kate Gregory's very helpful, detailed response above: if you want to make a connection, then have something to talk about. – postdoc4J7 Sep 18 '14 at 16:08
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    Large conferences often have specially designated social times, which may be called mixers, receptions, etc. People go there with the idea of socializing, but you still need to have the first two lines ready, per Kate's great suggestions. – StasK Sep 18 '14 at 16:23
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If you're trying to meet people, one good approach is to go to the poster session and talk to poster authors. Assuming it's a good conference for your specialization, you will likely find some posters that are interesting: then you can strike up a conversation with the poster author. You can also talk to other people looking at the same poster, if they look interested in one you're also interested in.

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As most of the others have said, talking to new faces is not only appropriate, it should even be encouraged. After all, that's one of the main reasons for holding and attending conferences: to network, mingle, and meet new people.

However, you said that people you've talked to seem "annoyed," which made me wonder if something else is at work here. I've never been to a conference that discouraged people from meeting new acquaintances or exchanging business cards, so why would you be having trouble?

Remember, there's a right way and a wrong way to do just about anything. Timing is key. I don't start conversations with "random" people, but I do initiate plenty of conversations with people I haven't met before. The difference is subtle; I left out the word "random," because "random" could mean I'm not being receptive to when it's a good time or place to start a conversation, and when it might not be.

For example, one good place to start a cold turkey conversation with a stranger is at a conference lunch. I often start conversations when I'm sitting at one of those round tables that seat about 10. Look for a table that doesn't have people who seem to be from the same university already engaged in a lively conversation. Instead, find a quieter table where people are just staring silently at the centerpiece.

Another thing that should be said – this may not apply to you, but it may apply to someone in your same situation – is to practice good hygiene. Even the most amiable social butterflies at the conference may give you the cold shoulder if you have bad breath or body odor. (Take advantage of the vendors in the exhibit hall who are passing out mints for conference swag.)

Practice good manners as well. Make a good first impression. Be positive, curious, polite, and friendly; don't come across as someone lonely in the field seeking a mentor. I'm not sure why you put this quote in your question:

I am not famous so there is no value for others in getting to know me

but it's not a very positive attitude for starting a conversation. (It also devalues the work of anyone at the conference who isn't famous – which is probably about 90% of the conferencegoers).

Lastly, manage your expectations. Don't expect every conversation to go into a lot of depth. Some people may have other things on their mind.

  • I understand your concerns about my statement "I am not famous so there is no value for others in getting to know me".It was meant to be a figurative description of an impression and by no means a discrimination of the general audience. Now when I read it, it sounds a little exaggerated, and "uninterested" would have been sufficiently figurative. – user2212461 Sep 21 '14 at 12:03
  • Sure, but "uninterested" doesn't sound particularly positive, either. My point is that even the most amiable conference attendees can be put off when they sense a self-defeatist attitude. Arrogance is a bad thing, but you can go too far in the opposite direction, too. – J.R. Sep 23 '14 at 19:15
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If anyone you know is also attending the conference, and has been there or otherwise interacted with the community before, ask them to introduce you to some other attendees. My advisor makes a point of doing this for new students at one of our biggest annual conferences, so that we recognize the big names of the field in person, and so that they have some idea who we are if we interact with them later on.

  • I agree that networking starts with the people you already know. In my previous conference visits, however, my earlier advisor didn't join so I literally started from scratch. – user2212461 Sep 18 '14 at 18:19
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It's appropriate, although you have to be a bit careful about how you go about it.

If you're junior, one way is to walk up to more senior people and let them start talking to you (instead of you to them).

Another point is "not to change the subject." So if everyone is talking about the subject matter, you might not want to talk about the conference, and vice-versa.

Basically, you want to be a good "audience" until you are accepted into the group. Then you can start worrying about being a good "talker," or about what to say.

  • By "accepted into the group" you mean I have published enough so people recognize me? Generally, from such conversations I hope to (1) get some feedback/view from a different angle on my current work (also includes listening to the opponents work), and/or (2) initiate professional relationships for the future and/or (3) have fun because spending time alone at conferences is boring. – user2212461 Sep 19 '14 at 19:06
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    @user2212461: No, I meant "socially," whereby people will turn to you, address you, ask what you think, etc. If you're senior, social "deference" will come to you naturally. If you're junior, you have to wait for others to "come around" to you. – Tom Au Sep 19 '14 at 19:19
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The prior answers are fine as far as they go, but maybe address substance as well as form? You are putting yourself out there for a reason and it is not for the small talk or facial recognition. You are there to network and protect your future or you would just soak up the academic content of the presentations and go back to planning your first IPO. This is a total package we are discussing.

Before approaching anyone, know what are you asking for and what you have to offer in return? When starting a career you are beginning a long-haul cold-calling sales job and the product is you. Times are tough and new grad working cash register to make ends meet (or even abandoning a career) has become a sick cliche now that technical jobs can be instantly exported to the lowest bidder overseas regardless of which continent you happen to be standing on.

Your opening salvo is a crowbar to get your foot in the door. Your crowbar will be seen as such so keep it friendly and subtle. Be prepared with a business card and a thirty-second speech, or a C.V. (and maybe a thesis) on a USB stick for a good prospect, or a short discussion of your interests and the potential business venture you are considering, or the current football score if all else fails. You want them to have a good impression of your professionalism and you want them to relate their own experiences to yours.

Professional conferences can be fun but not like the more casual atmosphere college students experience on campus, not even at an academic conference on campus. Professional decorum is mandatory (even in Silicon Valley).

As you work the room, track your performance mentally in real time, or better yet, also in a notebook offline, and hone your networking tactics and strategy based on your results. If you are not paying attention you could repeat the same mistakes forever. For best results you want people to like, respect, and maybe fear you as a potential competitor a little in order to capture their attention, and what you want them to remember about you is how they can benefit from knowing you.

In this modern era of the revolving door through government and rampant legal corruption of politics with corporate money, the 'little guy' is a splat waiting to happen (even in academia). Be aware that powerful hidden forces are moving through the room. The higher up the ladder those you reach out to, the more powerful those forces, and they might not have your welfare at heart. Think Hollywood drama on steroids without the fiction.

The way people respond is highly dependent upon your personal appearance. This affects everyone regardless of sex or attractiveness. If your appearance has built-in clash due to poor sense of image, you will not be taken seriously no matter how good your pitch is or how much your clothes cost. Think frumpy little old lady in bright red lipstick and flowered hat with a bow versus sleek professional model. Tart yourself up appropriately and people will respond better to you. Your investment will pay off as you avoid wasting money on apparel that hang in your closet forever unused.

You can buy your way into a professional look with an image consultant, but you can also learn it for free from books. In this discipline people are classified by 'season' (spring, summer, fall, winter) according to bone structure, geometry, coloring, and personality etc. It is purely an abstract concept that has nothing to do with the weather but rather how people as products of nature tend to reflect the traits found in nature. Everyone has a unique set of colors, textures, shapes, patterns, and style that 'harmonize' with their body and personality. For example, a 'spring' has small symmetrical geometrical patters such as circles squares and triangles with small bone structure versus a 'fall' that has large irregular shapes and a strong bone structure and both tend toward greens and yellows as opposed to reds and blues. Image consultants are trained to recognize such characteristics and advise you on how to take advantage of your personal attributes.

If you develop a personal interest in someone, well, be careful. It could be the best time of your life or it could ruin you. Be sure you know the risks you are taking, and why, before committing yourself. Times change. Tomorrow your suspended sentence for drunk driving her home might force you out of your profession and your nude pictures on the Internet could ruin your life forever.

I know of no one who got anywhere without some rough patches. Dare to be bold and maybe it will pay off. Happy hunting.

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    The question is about academic conferences, not professional conferences. Most of these suggestions would not be helpful at any of the academic conferences I have been to. – ff524 Sep 19 '14 at 5:36
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    Are you aware that the OP is asking about academic conferences and this is Academia Stack exchange site? If you want to talk about Professional conferences, you probably want to go to Workplace Stack Exchange. – scaaahu Sep 19 '14 at 5:40
  • I've been to more professional conferences than academic ones and these suggestions would not be any more helpful at those – Kate Gregory Nov 27 '14 at 17:01

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