Friday, October 1, 2010

Socially-Inept Scientists

I'll come back to the Blue Ocean Strategy a bit later, but I thought I would say a few more words about social interactions.  A few commenters have mentioned that they really appreciate advice about social situations.  For example, I talked in a previous post about how to approach a Famous Scientist at a conference mixer. People who are naturally comfortable in social situations perhaps think everyone is like this and do not realize how awkward some of our colleagues feel when they venture outside their laboratories.  Those of us who have learned through experience how to navigate socially are aware of this, but soon forget what it feels like to be in an awkward social situation.

As a young woman, I suffered from social anxiety--big time.  I could barely bring myself to speak in front of more than one other person.  And if there was someone present who was intimidating--a Famous Scientist or someone in authority--I was paralyzed.  It took many years and forcing myself to learn how to interact with people and to lose my self-consciousness, but I finally overcame this problem. It not only held me back socially, but professionally.  I rationalized that it did not matter--that I could do my research alone or with close collaborators and would succeed.  I did not realize how crucial it was to my career development.  Only after overcoming (to an extent) this social anxiety have I realized what an impediment it was.

I'm still not a social butterfly and people probably do not view me as someone they would really like to get to know, but I am now comfortable in social situations.  Even if others don't feel totally at ease with me, I feel comfortable talking to strangers or just standing or dining alone.  It just doesn't bother me any more.  At conference mixers, I often look around the room for someone who is alone and looking uncomfortable.  I will strike up a conversation with them and try to make them feel more comfortable. 

At most of the conferences I typically attend, I know a lot of people and am fairly well-known myself.  I am approached frequently by students who have read my papers and want to meet me.  However, I just recently attended a conference where I did not know many of the attendees, and the conference focus was somewhat outside my field (so no one had heard of me or my work).  This was a small conference--about 150 people.  I chatted with the one or two people I knew (distant acquaintances).

Most of the other attendees seemed to know everyone else and naturally congregated in animated groups during breaks.  It would have been very difficult to approach one of these groups as a lone stranger.  There were very few people standing around alone--as I was.  I decided this was an interesting situation--one in which I was a total stranger to most of the people--and decided to do a little experiment.

During the session coffee breaks, I stood by myself to see if anyone would spontaneously start up a conversation with me.  When people passed by, I would smile or nod, but not initiate a conversation myself.  The first day, no one approached me--despite the obvious fact that I was alone and knew few people there.  Then, on the second day, I gave my presentation (in the plenary session), which was something of a departure from the other talks.  After this, people began approaching me during breaks.  Some had questions about my work.  Others just seemed to feel more comfortable about approaching me since I had been "introduced" via my talk.  In one case, I was invited to come give a seminar later in the year.

There are a couple of lessons here for the socially-disadvantaged.  One lesson is that no one is going to come to your rescue in a semi-social setting like a conference mixer.  Part of the reason is that people want to feel comfortable, and talking to strangers is usually not comfortable--especially if you have to make the first move.  Another reason is that people are there to make important contacts and to make themselves known to potential advisers or employers.  They don't have time to waste on someone they view as being "unimportant" to them.

If you want to meet people, you have to make the first move.  The experience I described above showed that people only felt comfortable approaching me (a stranger) after 1) they became aware of me, 2) had been "introduced" to me via my talk, 3) had something specific to discuss with me, and/or 4) saw me as someone important to meet.

The second lesson is that if you give an oral presentation, you become "known" to other people, and they feel more inclined to approach you in a professional or semi-social setting.  They may be interested in your work or impressed with how you delivered your talk.  If someone comes up to you after your talk and compliments you, try to start up a conversation.  Don't just say, "Thanks." and then turn away tongue-tied.  You might ask what they enjoyed most about your presentation or if they have any questions.  Mention some aspect that you thought might have been unclear and ask for an opinion.  Always ask if they do similar work and to tell you about it.

The key to engaging people is to get them talking about themselves.

A final point is to realize that scientists as a group tend to be more socially inept than other groups.  So the chances that someone else will rescue you from a socially awkward situation is much lower at a gathering of scientists.  The motives behind people's behavior at a professional gathering are also different from those in a social setting.  It's important to be aware of these distinctions when planning your strategy.  The lesson here is that you have to change your behavior instead of waiting for others to change their behavior toward you. 

How do you begin to change if you are really paralyzed in social or professional settings?  What ways might you meet people at conferences and other gatherings of scientists?

One very easy and less painful way to meet people is during the poster sessions.  There are lots of people standing by their posters expecting (hoping) others will approach them.  It's very awkward for poster presenters to stand there waiting for someone to approach.  So they will often be relieved when someone comes along and starts up a conversation.  You also have lots of opportunities to meet many people--especially people doing work in your field.  However, I've found it's sometimes easier to talk to people who work on topics I know little about.  By confiding to the poster presenter that you don't know anything about their field puts them at ease.  Students and young scientists are especially afraid some expert is going to come along and ask them a question they can't answer or will disparage their work.  So, they will be especially open to someone who knows little about their topic.  Ask them to explain their work to you (you can say you've always been fascinated with the topic, but that it is outside your field). By doing so, you put them into the role of expert and you in the role of interested listener.  Few people can resist an opportunity to be looked upon as the more knowledgeable in a conversation.  You must be sincere, of course.  If you are not, people will see right through you.

You can also approach speakers after their presentations, but this is sometimes difficult if they are surrounded by other people also wanting to talk to them.  However, in every session, there will be the "stars" who are immediately surrounded during the break and the "unknowns" who won't be so tied up.  Approach the unknowns and ask them a question about their talk.  They'll be grateful to you. After you gain some practice, then you might try approaching Famous Scientist after their talk or at the coffee break.

I also make a point of complimenting students who have given especially good talks.  I do this both for students I know, but also for students that I do not know and/or who are in other fields.  When I was a student, it would have meant a great deal to me to have an established scientist compliment me.  So I know it has an effect on their self-esteem.  You can do this also--even as a student.  Compliment other students or even established scientists.  I guarantee you even the most Famous Scientist will be pleased if someone comes up to them after their talk and tells them how much they enjoyed it.

Finally, don't get discouraged if you get rebuffed initially. You are learning a very difficult skill.  It's to be expected that you'll make mistakes at first and that it may take some experience before you become successful.


Socially inept scientist said...

Oh, this very much describes my last conference.. I spend three days hiding and walking away of all social action because nobody would speak with me, and then, after my presentation, people all of the spudden approached me. I was at first quite perplexed but it does make good sense now. I also very much like your advise about showing interest in the work of non-big-wigs! And, thanks for writing about this again.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

A final point is to realize that scientists as a group tend to be more socially inept than other groups. So the chances that someone else will rescue you from a socially awkward situation is much lower at a gathering of scientists.

People say this all the time, but I am aware of absolutely no evidence that it is, indeed, the case. Why are you repeating this old canard?

Anonymous said...

CPP, it's true for Doyenne's field and mine. Painfully true. I can break my field into 3 groups of men.

1. shy men who would rather die than walk up to strangers. they don't leave their offices, contact comes to them passively, they construct perfect emails and correspondence, but are not good scientists, mentors, or networkers. on panels, they sit there blending into the background. they don't push the bounds of their own bodies or their minds, they don't seek people to work with or things to do. people will say how nice they are as reviewers or participants, but they certainly don't say how awesome their science is.

2. egotistical blowhards that tell everyone how great their shit smells even though everyone smells crappy shit. they group with other loudmouths, barflies, and some hangerons. they spend more time blithering and shooting the shit about their work than actually doing a good job on it if they even finish it at all. talk talk talk and posture. the minute you say that you are working on something, they pipe up with "I AM WORKING ON IT" because of course, they are *always* Working. On. It.

3. awesome scientists who present good work, they network about their findings and the work of their students and postdocs, they are engaging speakers, good mentors, well known well respected for the science as well as being decent human beings. these people are rare.

Jan Moren said...

Anonymous, nobody would argue that there aren't plenty of socially inept scientists. The question is if scientists, as a group, is _more_ socially inept than other groups. And in that I agree with CPP that it is generally not the case.

Think about it: Chartered accountants. Real estate assets managers. Meat packers. Systems analysts. Industrial laundry workers. You'll find lots and lots of socially awkward people in all of those professions and in many others.

And scientists have plenty of practice to be social. Teaching, mentoring, presentations, seminars, collaborations - the job often requires you to be socially adept. That may in fact be where this stereotype comes from; social ineptitude is highlighted more often for scientists than for, say, accountants or other jobs that rarely need such skills.

Anonymous said...

What I find particularly difficult at conferences is sticking to the subject I would like to discuss. People are nice but the conversation, oh so quickly, passes to another subject - and discussing various ideas, techniques etc becomes increasingly difficult - especially if the setting is relaxed and involves beer/wine. How do you keep on track, especially if you are on the bottom of the food web

Kirk Mantay said...

This is a very well written post!

Since age 30, I haven't had a huge problem socializing with others in a professional setting, but when I was a young scientist, I faced issues with constant disrespect due to my age. What could I know? I'm not a withering 65 year old who has been cranking out obscure LPU's from 30 year old fieldwork done by his students in the 1970s....what.ever. Regardless, it would have been great to have information like you have provided here. Thanks.

Also, much thanks to "anonymous" for grouping male scientists into 3 categories (would there be charges of sexism if I proposed that there are merely 3 categories of women scientists?). I'll go ahead and note the irony of you commenting on others' social skills while choosing to comment as "Anonymous." I'm sure you're a real go-getter.

Kirk Mantay said...

Janne - I saw actual data on this at a previous "wetland based workplace." About 80% of us had MS level education, about 20% had PhD. We were about 75% introverted, which was compared to I think 55% of the American population.

The point of the exercise was to show that despite the criticality of marketing, partnership, and collaboration in our field, we are probably worse at it than the average American.

But no - it's not a night and day difference. I'd call the preponderence of introversion in STEM "slightly elevated" from the data they showed us.

Alix said...

"I will strike up a conversation with them and try to make them feel more comfortable."

How interesting. I do the same, as someone who also long-sufferingly taught themselves how to be sociable (about ten years ago, but the empathy doesn't go away, I find).

It was simple observation of others, really, that did it for me. I started copying behaviours I saw other socially successful people performing - when and where to talk to people, what to say, how much to smile, when to stop! - and worked out what suited me by trial and error. I'm not a STEM person, but it strikes me that STEM types might find that methodology very natural, once they get going.

(I'm highly amused BTW by how a current plurality in both the STEM and non-STEM polls see themselves as "imposters".)

Prisca Sapientia said...

I can't offer statistical evidence to support/refute the statement "comrade" thinks a canard - scientists as a group being more socially inept - so will only offer this for consideration:
Asperger's Syndrome is thought to be more prevalent in scientists and mathematicians than less cerebral professions (e.g., meat packers, laundry workers, politicians) and aspies are notoriously socially inept, even high-functioning ones with modest coping skills.
I'm an aspie, have a science background, and am a socially inept recluse.
Now, please point me towards the jumbo shrimp and an EXIT sign before I begin hyperventilating.