The awkwardness of socializing at conferences

I used to go to lots of hi-tech conferences as a visitor and always felt extremely awkward to start talking to people. What could I say? Are we interested in the same things? Which one should I talk to? The tall? The short? The geek-looking one?

When I went to my first YAPC::EU in 2002 I was extreamly lucky as I was in the same hotel as the French group. Driven by my foolishness I started to talk to them in the lobby. I think I asked the guy next to me if this is his first YAPC. Later I found out that this is one of the funniest guy in the conference who has attended every YAPC::EU so far.

That helped a lot and I think I was sticking to them determined to get to know more people.

Or at least to find the venue.

In the conference hall there were some 300 people and I was really lost. Once in a while I tried to catch a speaker after he finished his talk but I was not alone with this and it was quite awkward talking to the heros.

I also gave a talk that brought me a tag with a special sign marking me as "speaker". Having such tags was a good idea so in the breaks I could approach other random people with similar signs and I could ask them what are they talking about. That was much easier than asking "Who are you?" or "What are you using Perl for?" or some similar stupid question I managed to come up with.

Luckily many people were quite friendly and somehow I managed to talk to a number of people.

1As I recall there was also a speakers dinner that was very good as that gave me the opportunity to talk to a few people. On the other evenings I somehow managed to join already existing groups going to have dinner and talk to my neighbors at the table.

It was much better than the average hi-tech conference I used to go in a large part due to the friendliness of the people. I still felt quite an outsider as many people knew each other from earlier events.

So my first YAPC was quite OK.

On the other hand the second YAPC::EU I attended in 2003 was a lot better. I already knew some people who greeted me which made me more relaxed. With the years it got just better and better and in Lisbon last year I already met a lot of people who I knew from earlier events.

Looking around though I saw a number of people who seemed to be alone or in small groups that are not connected to the hard-core frequent YAPC visitors. It must be quite awkward for them.

The way to overcome this might be to create a situation that makes it easier to start talking. e.g. if you are giving a talk - even a short one - that will get you a badge that is slightly different from the others. If you are not into that you could volunteer to be at the organizers stand for a few hours. That might give you a special status that can help. If you have a project you'd like to talk about either code or you are the organizer of a local Perl Mongers group then you could prepare a flier and hand it out to people. Some of the people will just rush away but with others you could give a short explanation about the subject and then slowly get into some conversation.

Published on 2010-05-09 by Gabor Szabo