Materials Girl: Conference etiquette

Like Comment

[Posted on behalf of Materials Girl, who is blogging from the Spring 2010 Materials Research Society meeting.]

There often exists an unfortunate lack of connection between presenter and audience. What with non-native English speakers – bless them – insufficient amplification, convoluted PowerPoint, and all the rest, we all may find ourselves itching to be at another symposium. Unfortunately, leaving mid-talk constitutes disruption and some insult to the presenter. (I’ve made it a habit to sit unobtrusively in a corner, and to only sneak out of large, full rooms when the speaker’s back is turned.)

This introduces the subject of attendee etiquette. Half of the audience may walk in late or leave midway through a presentation, although that can be excused in light of travel considerations, lack of personal relevancy, etc. Much less forgivable is the making of excess noise during talks, or squeezing past people to reach a seat near the front. (It’s really not hard to stay in the back, and to wait until questions are finished to move around! Most people do, but occasionally someone bustles about loudly.) Perhaps the worst offence is maintaining noisy conversations outside in the hall, or even in the room. The perpetrators’ voices might be at their normal speaking volume, but everything is loud to the audience of a silent room. All of these annoyances can be avoided with a little bit of consideration…

We might also consider direct interaction, where occasionally some poor young graduate gets ripped apart by a cantankerous researcher, or a combative questioner harasses speakers over minor details. Probing questions and challenging ideas are helpful, but personal/professional/political issues are best left for private debate! As Tim Miller noted in his excellent seminar, Mastering Science Presentations, it is best for all parties to maintain complete civility and to firmly disregard unscientific impoliteness.

On another note, the clothing ranges from business suits and dress shirts, to jeans and t-shirts – sometimes even flip flops! Personally, it feels awkward to wear anything short of a black coat, slacks, heels/boots, etc. (So I generally resemble a character from the Matrix. Or a dude.) Attire is a minor issue, though, particularly since most attendees are males whose formalwear is relatively comfortable and easily come by.

So, considering general dress and behavior (aside from interpersonal relations), conference etiquette boils down to a major question: how stiff and formal are we expected to be?