The temporary academic relocations of conference season take us not only to strange and sometimes remote campuses but also suspend usual routines of behaviour. A friend and colleague said recently that there are distinct national types of conference etiquette. How would she characterise them? "Australian conferences are vicious and boozy, American conferences are status conscious and networking-obsessed and British conferences are polite and consensual." The insight in the observation triggered immediate flashbacks. In continental Europe it is different again, where conference participants don't ask questions but rather 'intervene'. It is hearsay but it is rumoured that on one occasion a prestigious French academic asked a question that lasted 45 minutes.
American conferences are conducted within an atmosphere of pragmatic professionalism, business cards are traded, dinner invitations jockeyed for and conversations between delegates sound like curriculum vitae being read aloud. There is also something very peculiar in the staged formality of US conference discussion that reveals their obsession with status. Even the closest of friends refer to each other with their full academic titles to emphasis to the audience rank and esteem. "I would like to respond to a point made by Professor Warshow [my long-time friend and former lover]... concerning one key aspect of this quite brilliant paper."
Conferences are places of self-promotion. "Hold that book up higher," says the keynote speaker to the poor soul chairing as her latest literary offering is hoisted skyward like a football trophy. It all seems to have become much more brazen in the colloquium market place. Like barrow boys flogging bunches of bananas, publications are advertised on the PowerPoint slides as if to set out the stall of ideas.
"Get your journal article citations here, three for a pound!" Sycophancy is the other tool at work here. It can be transparent but nonetheless effective. Even the most acerbic of critics finds it hard to resist being seduced by a compliment.
While there is plenty of this going on in Britain, conference etiquette in my colleague's diagnosis is quite different. The choreography of thanks to the organisers, co-panellists and indeed all those who have assembled at some ridiculous hour is terribly polite. Audiences nod like the purple cows that decorated the back seat windows of Ford Cortinas in the 1970s. Questions are introduced with the prefix, "Thanks, I really enjoyed your paper but..." Aching reverence is the preferred mode of self-presentation. In a plenary session a sociologist chastised the delegates at the event for too much nodding. "Aren't the nods of agreement all a bit too cosy? Shouldn't more people be shaking their heads instead?" As silent encouragement to a speaker the nod shows attentiveness and appreciation. I myself am a Pavlovian nodder; it is the conditional reflex inspired through attending too many conferences. Yet as Pierre Bourdieu might say, truth isn't measured in nods of approval.
There is a sinister aspect poking up through this surface of gentility. As a colleague put it, it's "a very British way of telling someone their whole project is worthless without telling them". It does not quite name itself but is nonetheless conveyed. "Thanks very much for your paper..." followed by a list of shortcomings that lead inexorably to the conclusion that it is ill-founded and actually not worth the effort or the paper it is written on. This is a very British, controlled viciousness that can be damning while at the same time very well mannered.