It’s not you, it’s me

Prebake diversity (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Prebake diversity (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Does like attract like?

I’ve had a majority of introverted friends in my life. My most enduring friendships are with those who are poster-children for Susan Cain’s book, Quiet.

As we now know, because internet checklists and Cain keep telling us, no-one is ever 100% introvert or extrovert – we have tendencies towards each type, and there are some of us who can move between them such that the category of ‘ambiverts’ has now entered the conversation.

William Pannapacker wrote an excellent piece about academic introversion in 2012, which discussed the rewarded behaviours of academia, as well as how students’ academic participation is valued (i.e. through visible, heard contributions). His sketch of ‘wallflower’ students and how they can shut down and disengage reflected aspects my university student experience all too well (my personal blog post “Once a wallflower” gives you the goods on this front).

I recently attended a conference with my new job hat on. It was a conference I’d never been to before: the biennial Quality in Postgraduate Research (QPR) conference in Adelaide.

This post gives you an insight into the contrasts between how an extrovert and an introvert approach the conferencing game. Many thanks to Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) for playing along!

Now, to the conference! [Bonus: there's a quiz!]

QPR was the first concentrated exposure I’ve had in many years to research and debates on the experiences of research postgraduates, supervising, and research education policy and practice more generally. It was one of those situations where I knew a bit about most of it, but not a lot about any of it.

In addition, it was the first conference I’d attended where @thesiswhisperer was also a delegate. While revelling in and greatly enjoying that novelty, I couldn’t help noticing that we had very different approaches to how we ‘did’ the event.

One of the reasons we engaged differently with the conference is that @thesiswhisperer is a high-profile expert in the field of research higher degree education and training, and she’s a QPR stalwart.

Another reason is that @thesiswhisperer tends strongly towards extroversion. I am – as flagged above – the opposite.

To tease out these contrasts, I asked @thesiswhisperer if she’d complete with me the inaugural Research Whisperer mini-quiz (based on Cosmo quizzes I’ve known).

This is the result:

>> INSERT DOUBLE-ENTENDRE TITLE HERE

1. Before a conference, I…

  • TSEEN: Check who else is going, contact those I’d like to catch up with especially (usually a very small number – 1 or 2), and panic (hopefully constructively) about a paper if I’m presenting. I usually also go through the conference program and block out ‘must-attend’ sessions and keynotes.
  • INGER: [for QPR] Tweet in conference hashtag to net as many new colleagues as possible. Frantically finish the 5 collaborative papers I committed to (and hope my colleagues will forgive my sloppiness). Throw together the presentation for my solo paper at the last minute. Wish I didn’t over commit.

2. Finding myself next to the keynote in the coffee queue, I…

  • TSEEN: Usually end up asking how long they’re in town, then move on to some aspect of their address (if they’ve given it), or what their home university is like (if they haven’t yet presented).
  • INGER: Enthuse at them about their paper. Ask a difficult or provocative question and listen carefully to the answer. Try to gracefully give them my card. Try to entice them away from the coffee queue by offering to introduce them to someone they ‘should meet’.

3. At the conference, I tend to go to sessions:

o   Alone >> TSEEN

o   With another friend

o   With my group of friends >> INGER

4a. I usually attend the conference’s social functions: true / false?

  • TSEEN: False. Things I will attend include low-commitment ‘receptions’ where there are talking heads and finger-food. A buddy or two would have to be sticking around, though. I will also go to social things that involve doing something more than just standing around and being forced to interact (e.g. art or museum exhibitions, readings and performances). I do most of my catch-ups/chats with people in ‘hallway track’ time during conference day hours.
  • INGER: A must. But I never drink too much. I always try to arrange a big table of mates so I am surrounded by positive energy. I look for opportunities to introduce people to my mates, and vice versa. I usually ignore all bands and ‘entertainment’ provided because I think of myself as being there to build relationships and this means talking to others. I’d advise that you skip the dancing unless you really rock at it, or don’t mind the morning-after looks of mild horror.

4b. I usually go to the conference dinner: yes/no?

TSEEN: NO.

INGER: THAT’S A BIG YES!!

5. If I’m interested in following up with someone about their paper, I’ll…

  • TSEEN: Write to them after the conference and ask for a copy of the paper, or to engage with what they said more specifically. If that leads to more interesting discussions and we’re in the same city, then I’d arrange to meet up with them.
  • INGER: Write them an email during the event, and try to meet up with them at the dinner / coffee table.

At the end of a conference, I usually feel…

  • TSEEN: [if it's one I convened] Glad it’s over, and giddy if it went really well. [if I only attended] Depends a lot on who else was there, and whether it was a good conference (intellectually), but am usually happy to make goodbyes and steal off alone.
  • INGER: Completely drained of energy and exhausted, but happy.

So, that’s us, and that may not be you.

Did Pannapacker’s article resonate with you in soulful ways? Or do you see yourself as an extroverted academic who has their own particular needs for care and feeding?

I find that subscribing fully to either type, or dismissing either’s concerns as indicative of their ‘type’ rather than their invidual personality, is unconstructive. But valuing both and having an understanding of how our approaches can work together is extremely useful.

Now, if only we could find the time to focus on all these projects Inger and I want to hatch. ‘Lacking time’ is a trait that appears to afflict all academics, introverts and extroverts alike!

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

26 Responses to It’s not you, it’s me

  1. Regan says:

    My responses would be somewhere between Tseen’s and Inger’s for most questions, but unfortunately by answer to question 2 would be “smile awkwardly and not be able to think of anything worth saying so end up just passing them the milk”. I’m generally good at mixing at conferences except am terrified of the “rock stars”. Any tips for good conversation openers?

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I was that awkward smiley person for many years, Regan! Then I realised that many keynotes could be as uncomfortable as I am about having to mingle + be a ‘good delegate’. Plus: a lot of them get pretty tired of having to ‘talk shop’ the entire time they’re at the conf.

      Have tried out a few conversational avenues and the ones that seem to work really well are:

      * talking about the city where the event is being held (is it their first time here, how long are they staying, will they get to see X while they’re in town…).
      * asking about their home institution or country, and how Y is taught/approached/researched there.
      * asking about their current (or next) project.

      These topics are usually open-ended and neutral enough to lead other interesting stuff.

      I wrote this a little while back on academic fandom: http://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/aca-fandom >> You may relate to some of it. :)

      • Regan says:

        Thanks! The luggage minding story amused me :)

      • Tseen Khoo says:

        Just read the “Who I Am” page on your blog – great stuff. What a fascinating trajectory. If you’re ever interested in guest-posting for us on a topic around research communication / audiences, we’d be stoked (DM us on Twitter)!

  2. This is really interesting. I was recently at a paper by Dat Bao from Monash on student silence and reticence in class. Having just read Quiet, his work was really fascinating.

  3. amanibell says:

    Love it Tseen! I dfinitely need time alone to recharge, and dread the big conference dinners.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks, Amani! Yes, by the end of the mega-session crushes that make up our conferences these days (that ‘bums on seats’ logic that works against quality conf time), I’m ready to tune out until the next day’s program. Unless it’s hanging out with close friends, I’d usually disappear from social things fast. I dreaded conf dinners for years, and used to force myself to go. Decided that was kind of stupid, and have been much happier ever since (with no resultant loss of ‘network’!).

      • Lisa Merry says:

        (Hi Amani!)
        Last conference dinner I went to (ARMS) had such loud music, I could barely hear what people were saying. I had much more interesting chats on the tram on they way to the dinner venue! I’d much rather network in quieter surroundings. But also, the fixed table set-up is not really conducive to meeting new people – you tend to sit down with someone you know and maybe if you’re lucky, you might make a useful new acquaintance. I wonder if conference lunches/dinners could be more like speed dating? So long as we didn’t get indigestion from seat-hopping!!

      • Tseen Khoo says:

        I was at that ARMS conference – but obviously wasn’t at conference dinner! ;)

        Yes, that aspect of conference dinners being events where you feel ‘stuck’ with company really puts me off. Which is why Inger’s habit of surrounding herself with buddies isn’t a bad one. I do feel the need to recharge after a day’s full-on conference-going, though, and have no qualms about ‘missing out’ on what might take place at the dinner. Had an exchange on twitter recently about the most undesirable conference dinner location: on a boat!

  4. I am more like Tseen,but would like to socialize a bit more at conferences. I don’t think that attending the dinner conference would make a big difference for me. I also dislike people who talk to you just for strategic purposes. It is a bit dehumanizing. We are more than a potential joint paper or research project.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I think the key to conference socialising is that you feel you can choose your level of engagement. I sometimes try out attending the beginning of a social thing, and if it works well + I get chatting with people who are interesting/warm, then I’ll stay. But otherwise I’ll duck out. It has taken me a while but I’m at drawing the boundaries now, and comfortable saying that I’m not going to things. I tend to want to meet people with compatible personalities more than research areas – one often can lead to the other!

    • Yes – totally! Talk to people just because people are amazing and interesting and (almost always) worth it. Collaborations and so on may come of it, or maybe just a friend to visit when you are in ______, or even just an interesting conversation over a coffee at that moment. It’s all good.

  5. I have to pick up Quiet. I heard great things about the book.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      It has some great quotable quotes, and does capture introversion dynamics well. A friend of mine found the stats/heavy-duty research angle a bit disconnecting, but that seems to be a plus for others!

  6. 1. Before a conference, I…
    Go through the program, mark ‘must see’ and maybe sessions. Read list of participants and check out which buddies will be there, as well as those whom I don’t know but might like to meet on the basis of their work. Might fire them an email to introduce myself and suggest a quick coffee/beer appointment. Email buddies to say “see you soon!”. Frantically complete over-committed paper/s, chairing notes, social event organising, etc. Arrive a day ahead to break jet lag and provide bonus social time.

    2. Finding myself next to the keynote in the coffee queue, I…
    Introduce myself and maybe mention how I’ve found their work relevant to mine. Might ask them what new directions they’ve been taking since that work. May or may not end up continuing to chat, and if so, introduce them to any passing buddies. Always try to say hello in a way which gives them an honorable out if they have other pressing matters/appointments, or just don’t want to talk.

    3. At the conference, I tend to go to sessions:
    o Alone >> But normally end up knowing someone in the crowd to sit with; if not, I might introduce myself to someone sitting nearby while we wait for the papers to begin, especially if they look lonely.

    4a. I usually attend the conference’s social functions: true / false?
    Oooooooooooooh yes. Academia *is* my social life, in the sense that 90% of my mates are academics/researchers. I go to conferences 40% to hear or present new work/ 60% for forging, renewing and refreshing social contacts which are also intellectually vital to me. I will therefore be there for socialising in the ‘academic discussion reception’ model, the less formal continuation in the pub afterwards, and *definitely* the dancing. I sleep when I get home!

    4b. I usually go to the conference dinner: yes/no?
    Yes. If there is one. Absolutely.

    5. If I’m interested in following up with someone about their paper, I’ll…
    Depends how swamped they are at the end of the paper/session. I might try to catch them just to introduce myself/say hi and indicate I would love to pursue the discussion further on another occasion – this is one of the occasions when I reckon handing out a business card is really useful and not weird in the humanities; or if there’s a queue to people I might just email later, or try to catch them at one of the social events – see above.

    6. At the end of a conference, I usually feel…
    Absolutely exhausted and elated in equal measure; and already planning what my paper/session will be next time.

    Plus – since I do the extrovert thing well at conferences and have a pretty big personal network, I try to leverage it for my buddies who aren’t so inclined. I generally try to introduce them to people I know in their field of specialty, or to include them when I am introducing myself to someone new. Share the love, people!

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Brilliant! Thanks, Kathleen, for doing the quiz! Was great to see your answers.

      Your final note about leveraging your network for others is definitely something that was true of Inger’s behaviour, too. She’s v. diligent about putting the right people in touch with each other, face-to-face. I tend to do that via emails and online groups! ;)

  7. I’m an independent scholar so I love conferences – I like learning new things & catching up with people. Occasionally I stand around feeling awkward at the coffee station but I figure lots of other people probably feel awkward too, but we can’t see it.

    I don’t usually go to the dinners as I’m hearing impaired & after 3 days of listening I’m pretty sick of it listening. I’m also usually in a city where I have friends and I need to catch up with them too!

    I love your posts, it’s so great to see other people passionate about research out there :)

    Cheers,
    Jess.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks for your take on things, Jess.

      I must admit I tend to dive into my phone when I find myself without people to talk to – especially with twitter back-channels at conferences these days, I may well be ‘chatting’ with other conference-goers but just not f2f!

  8. Oh, you introverts! Bwahahahaha <— (before everyone gets all uppity about this comment, I know Tseen and I'm engaging in a little private jokery. We were colleagues at RMIT and have spent many a time chatting about this. Nevertheless: Bwhahahahahahaaa…) ;-)

  9. Anonymous says:

    I had my first conference experience last year. As I am much younger than many of the academics and a single female, I found I had to endure some uncomfortable conversations at the conference dinner when many people had a too few many drinks. This year, I will attend some of the conference social events, but have decided to opt out of the dinner.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Sorry to hear that you had such experiences at your first conference. Those kinds of things should not happen. Having a buddy at a dinner always helps – may be an option at your next conf?

      In general, I’m not a fan of going to events where people drink too much. As a non-drinker, it just gets boring.

  10. Pingback: Salty Death to Animation – A Conference Reflection | The Flying PhD

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