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I was reading this question about famous people asking rude questions in talks, and it reminded me of a situation which happened at the end of my academic career. I would really like some advice on how I should have handled it.

I was giving a short talk at a conference and at the end the session chair asked for questions or comments. An eminent Belgian professor said "I really think you should look at X from 197y" and, since I had looked at X, I began to reply, and then the professor interrupted my reply with

"That wasn't a question. That was a comment."

I was speechless. This is Treppenwitz as it was several years ago, but what would have been a good comeback?

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    Heard in the back of the room: "Shut up, Alex Trebek!" – Compass Nov 27 '14 at 0:40
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    "Thanks for the comment. I'd like to expand on it. As I was saying..." – ff524 Nov 27 '14 at 0:42
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    "This is not an answer, but an invalidating counter-statement." – Penguin_Knight Nov 27 '14 at 4:08
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    I would give the audience a knowing sad-but-pained smile and move onto the next question. I think everyone in the room knew exactly what the elderly scholar was trying to do. – RoboKaren Nov 27 '14 at 5:14
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    Thanks for the comment! I should make a short note here: due to the brevity of the talk some details may be unclear, however I've checked that reference and it has been had into due consideration for the current work. You may like to check into more detail the presented paper/publications/work or we can talk about it later. Are there any more questions? – Trylks Nov 27 '14 at 11:53
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The question's title does not reveal the status of the obstructionist questioner, and this status matters enormously. Lower-status people behaving this way could not "get away with it". High-status people often can.

Given all the implicit primate-interaction and other presumption in anyone's behaving like that, in particular denying response, this should be treated like bad drivers on the highway, specifically, potentially more reactive than the indifferent bad weather or bad luck of various sorts. Namely, any substantial response, especially any expression of annoyance or umbrage, will incur a cost that makes whatever satisfaction one had hoped-for too expensive.

Instead, a dumb-happy-innocent smile and "thanks for your comment... then", to avoid engagement, is wise.

Sure, this amounts to a sort of impersonal bullying, but you yourself could not likely change the outcome. It'd require the intervention of someone of comparable status, blah-blah-blah.

So, in summary, no, such "comments" are not productive, are status-reiterating, ... and do create a generally stifling status-conscious atmosphere. Not that most human scenarios aren't status-conscious... :)

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  • The chair asked for questions or comments.
  • Your title is about being prevented from answering a question, but the eminent Prof was correct in one thing. It was a statement, not a question.
  • The eminent Prof acted as if there's a right to make a comment without you responding to it. Since your response made the remark look obtuse (saying you should look at something you've already looked at), it seems likely that interrupting you was a ploy to avoid embarrassment.
  • It's really up to the chair whether you should respond to comments or not, but usually if the speaker thinks they have a useful response then they should make it. So typically the audience has no right to make comments without allowing a response.

So, any further response you make to the interruption should bear in mind that the Prof is quite likely only interrupting you to avoid looking silly:

  • You could treat it as a heckle. If you have a useful remark on the applicability (or otherwise) of X, then ignore the interruption and continue making it. An audience member raised X, you're talking about X: that's what the questions and comments part of your talk is supposed to be for. Remember it's not the eminent Prof that decides who's allowed to speak, it's the chair. So you can speak unless the chair interrupts.
  • If you're just defending yourself against an accusation of ignoring X when you didn't, then state that X was considered and move on to the next question/comment.
  • If you want to put down the eminent Prof (perhaps because you're at the end of your academic career anyway), then you could try some cutting remark before continuing: "This isn't an answer, it's a response to your comment", "Yes, but your comment is so wrong it risks misleading listeners", "Your mother", etc.
  • You could make the point in a much more friendly way, that you're determined to speak about X: "I agree with you, X is relevant and interesting because..." or "I thought the same thing, but it turns out X isn't applicable because..."

I've just realised that the eminent professor was quite possibly referring to an anecdote concerning Paul Dirac:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/review-the-strangest-man-by-graham-farmelo/article4289494/

Dirac's incident was the other way around. An audience member said that he didn't understand an equation given by Dirac in a lecture. Dirac gave no response, and when prompted to answer the question it was Dirac who said, "that was not a question, it was a comment".

Therefore, it's possible that your eminent professor intended to come across more funny and less controlling than he actually did. Still wouldn't excuse him trying to prevent you speaking, of course.

  • Thanks for mentioning the Dirac thing. That's interesting. – Flounderer Jan 15 '15 at 6:35
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"Yes, and I'd like to respond to your comment by saying ...."

I'd avoid sarcasm, put-downs, or anything that could be described as a "good comeback."

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    Or "To answer the implied question: yes, I am aware of the 197X work, and [...]" – cloudfeet Nov 28 '14 at 14:19
  • While I agree that in general, one should treat even uncivil people with all the civility you can muster, a snipe "that wasn't a question" is bullying and you have to stand up to bullies. Tamely accepting their behavior encourages more of it in the future. – Malvolio Nov 28 '14 at 16:31
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    @Malvolio I think dismissing the bullying is generally enough - you only encourage the bullying if it accomplishes what the bully intended. – Brilliand Nov 29 '14 at 0:13
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I would tell him to accept the consequences of his comments or keep them to himself. Then, reply to his comment. If he has a legitimate concern that hadn't occurred to me, I would thank him for his input and take it into consideration (these are awkward moments, but I always learn so much from them). If, however, he attacks my findings and I am truly certain his attack is unfounded, I would tell him why I think it's unfounded.

Academia is about discovering the truth; status should never get in the way of that. If academia weren't allowed to speak their mind, how would we ever discover the truth?

That said, I think everyone has their own opinion on how to deal with these situations where you're unreasonably backed into a corner by someone with higher status than yourself.

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Since you had looked at X, a reply saying so is appropriate. There are two ways this could go:

  • you should look at X
  • in fact I have, and -
  • that wasn't a question, it was a comment
  • thankyou for your comment, which was founded on the invalid assumption I hadn't looked at X. [Grin. Adjust body language so you are no longer speaking to questioner but to entire audience.] Speaking of X, when I looked at it I found...

this approach takes the "it's my stage, buddy" position - you don't need permission from an audience member to do anything. It also puts the questioner down a peg, which might be a dangerous thing to do.

Alternatively:

  • you should look at X
  • in fact I have, and -
  • that wasn't a question, it was a comment
  • I see. Well, since I have looked at X, it turns out to be a rather nonconstructive comment. Do you have a question?

This is somewhat ruder and gives up the opportunity to talk about X, but might result in useful dialog should that be your aim.

Depending on the audience reaction to the rude questioner (and make no mistake, telling you what to read as though there was some sort of supervisor/student relationship, interrupting and correcting you, and not playing along with the unspoken rules of Q&A after a talk are all rude, and probably designed to show the commenter's superiority to you) you could also just roll your eyes or sigh and move on to another question as quickly as possible, optionally thanking the commenter first in a bored, polite voice. This is a good choice only if you can clearly tell that most of the audience doesn't see the commenter as superior to you or the comment as a "telling blow" on you.

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