SIAM News Blog

How to Make Friends and Influence People at Conferences

By Nilima Nigam

After reading many, many newsletters of distinguished mathematical societies, I have come to one conclusion: most mathematicians are excellent at meeting new people at conferences. Countless photographs show happy people making eye contact and seemingly immersed in deep, meaningful conversations. Participants are quoted, cheerily and eloquently describing the valuable new networks and lifelong friendships they have formed. Career panels communicate the importance of making connections at conferences, and attendees nod their heads in vigorous agreement.

Photos from conferences typically depict happy attendees partaking in purposeful conversation and making lasting connections. SIAM photo.
I have a confession: conferences fill me with terror. The process of introducing myself to someone I do not know comes fraught with anxiety for me; many years and \(N\) (a large number) conferences have neither dulled the pain nor rendered the experience any easier. Meeting someone for the second or third time is only a slightly less awful prospect. There is a high probability that he/she has forgotten who I am, and my subtle attempts to unobtrusively raise my conference badge to eye level never really work. So I have to reintroduce myself to someone whom I had already done the arduous work of introducing myself to before, and who appears to have blocked out the memory. It seems better all around if I just avoid contact with other attendees.

I look at conference photographs in SIAM News and miserably wonder how I can join the broader fraternity of conference-adept mathematicians. Am I the sole misfit in this community of people who can happily meet and greet each other sans awkwardness? Everyone featured in articles that recap meetings seems chipper, sociable, and smart. No one appears to suffer from jetlag. No one visibly yearns for a quiet evening huddled with a notepad.

I have consulted many articles and blogs to glean wisdom on this issue, seeking help from various oracles. Some recommend having someone you know introduce you to other people. This assumes many things. Let us begin by defining, for a given conference attendee \(c\), the set of acquaintances

\[\mathcal{A}_{c}:=\{p\, \vert p \enspace \textrm {is a person at this conference already known to} \enspace c\} \subset \mathcal{U}:= \{\textrm{all conference attendees}\}.\]

The first and most important assumption is that that you already have a nonzero initial state of acquaintances at the conference (i.e., \(\mathcal{A}_{you} \not= \varnothing\)). The next assumption is that \(\exists p \in \mathcal{A}_{you}\), so that \(\mathcal{A}_p \setminus \mathcal{A}_{you} \not= \varnothing\); that is, at least one of your acquaintances knows people beyond your acquaintance-space. Even conditioning on these two facts, you must assume that your acquaintances are willing to perturb their acquaintance-state by introducing you to someone else in it. As we all know, injecting a longer-range interaction term in an inherently localized system is a recipe for weirdness. We are, in fact, looking for person \(q \in \mathcal{U}\), so that

\[q \in \mathcal{A}_{you}\cap \{ p\in \mathcal{U} \vert \mathcal{A}_p \setminus \mathcal{A}_{you}\} \cap \{w \, \vert\, w \: \textrm{is willing to risk an awkward three-way conversation}\}.\]

The cardinality of the set on the right is small indeed.

Some experts recommend approaching a speaker after his/her talk and asking a mathematical question. This strategy assumes that the question you carefully crafted during the first half of the speaker’s talk was not inconveniently and comprehensively answered on the penultimate slide, rendering your opening gambit useless and leaving you no time to formulate a backup question. “What about 3D?” only works so often.

Certain websites suggest trying to have a meal with someone you do not know. I have not yet found a polite way to say “Hello, I don’t know you, but will you have dinner with me?” It sounds about as easy as taking up another suggestion: arbitrarily contacting people on the participant list ahead of time and inviting them to a board or bridge game. I think that could be a lot of fun, but have yet to hit “send” on any such emails I have drafted.

Still life: plants and posters. Image credit: David J. Muraki.
At a meeting a few years ago, I deployed a foolproof strategy. I had read that hanging out near coffee tables or posters was a good icebreaker, and seeing posters arrayed near the coffee-break tables gave me hope. Surely two hours in the simultaneous vicinity of posters and coffee would help me meet people? Well, after one hour of diligent lingering and reading, I knew a lot about a mathematical model of some little bacterium. Then the poster presenter appeared. Over the next hour, the presenter and I very carefully read said poster. Each of us was very respectful of the other’s space and did not interrupt our careful reading to say a word. There is an art to reading a four-by-eight poster side-by-side while carefully avoiding any conversation, and I’m happy to report that I achieved complete mastery of this art. I am also now rather proficient in the ways of this bacterium, or at least as much as can be said on a giant sheet of paper.

A colleague once assured me that the situation would improve with more years in the profession, and there is certainly truth to this. You often see the same faces at conferences, and after a few years you might say “hello” and finally develop a collaboration. However, sometimes I like to learn new things and explore new mathematical areas before working up the courage to actually talk to someone about these topics. This means that I attend conferences where I know the names of authors but not the faces of actual people (online headshots are not helpful). The key reason to frequent such conferences is precisely to meet these experts...which is an excruciatingly difficult task.

By this juncture, the diligent reader may expect anagnorisis — that moment in a story where the protagonist makes a crucial discovery. Unfortunately, dear reader, prepare for disappointment. Conferences remain terrifying to me, and I fear that I am alone in this sentiment. I am utterly grateful to spot someone (anyone?!) I already know, and remain at the complete mercy of friends to introduce me to new people. The best advice that I can offer fellow sufferers—based on my decades of diligent conference-going—is to find a large potted plant (every conference has one). Learn to comfortably read behind it, leaning against the foliage. You’ll be doing this a lot.

Readers, do you have similar experiences at conferences? Or do you happen to be among the proficient few who have mastered the art of socializing and collaborating at meetings? Share your misgivings, experiences, and insights in the comments!

Nilima Nigam is a professor of applied mathematics at Simon Fraser University. She has acquired vast expertise on the indoor potted plants favoured by conference venues.

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