Did you have a break over Christmas / New Years? I hope so.
It’s summer here in Australia, so we are rolling into the quiet month of January. For the second year in a row, we have a low fire danger summer, instead of a repeat of the horror of 2019. In fact, it pretty much rained for most of December and I couldn’t have been happier.
Then Omicron happened.
Just in time for Christmas. Which we spent in iso after a positive case in our family. Basically 2021 looked at 2020 and said ‘hold my beer’. Personally I am still reeling from the end of 2019, so I don’t have much in reserve.
As regular readers know, I adopt a keyword for the new year, rather than a resolution. A keyword is a guide for living – something you can use to make decisions. I tried ‘Less’ for two years in a row, but I think I need to give it another try in 2022. I was going to write about ‘Less’ again, but in the spirit of Less, I thought I would adapt a piece of writing from a book I am working on for this first post. Double dipping for the win!
Below is the first version of a chapter from the book I am writing with Simon Clews about influencing people with your research. (We want to call it ‘Be visible of Vanish’ but the publisher is not keen… we’ll see!).
In the book we tackle about 20 scenarios where you will be asked to share your research, from conference presentations to interviews on TV. The basic idea behind this book is to surface the hidden rules of these common situations and offer some strategies for success. Each section starts with a TL;DR (too long, didn’t read) synopsis of the key points. Then an ‘in a nutshell’ description of the specific scenario where you will be asked to talk about your research. Following is a section on how to prepare, then some tips to help you be good at it. Finally, in the spirit of our changed world, we include a section called ‘notes on remote mode’ where we add twists, techniques or ideas to help you translate this advice to online formats which attempt to replicate these face to face situations.
Basically, in this book, we are are trying to get beyond generic ‘good communication’ advice which can be applied to any situation. Instead we look at presenting your research as a problem of mastering multiple specific genres, all different expectations and definitions of success. I genuinely think there is nothing like this book on the market at the moment – and there needs to be something. Simon and I have offered these tips and techniques in countless workshops and master classes in our long-ish careers, but we haven’t taken the time to write them down, other than the odd blog post. Similarly to How to fix your academic writing trouble, the motivation to write this book is so people have an alternative to attending face to face workshops – although I expect to use it as a companion piece for mine.
This section is called ‘How to talk about your research in tearooms’. It tackles the little explored realm of academic socialising and how to talk about research when you are in large groups of people. I hope you enjoy and keep an eye out for the whole book which will be appearing sometime in the middle of the year. I’ll give you an update when it’s available for purchase and (hopefully) a discount voucher.
- Yes, despite its reputation, Academia is a very social profession and no, you can’t avoid it (sorry).
- Just shut up: listening is more effective than talking to build trusted connections.
- Don’t be a bore and lecture people about your research in social settings, even if they ask you about it. Have a simple sentence or ‘log line’ that describes your research in an intriguing way. Test drive this sentence and refine it as you go.
- Recognise different types of conversational gambits and ‘troubles talk’ common to the academic conversational repertoire.
- Use social media to create your own tearoom vibe.
In a nutshell: why have ‘tearoom’ conversations about research?
Despite its reputation as a haven for introverts, Academia is a very social profession. It helps your career enormously if you become adept at talking to people in semi-formal professional settings. Our shorthand for this type of social space is ‘tearooms’ because food and drink is often present. These are definitely professional settings where ‘business’ is contracted, but it’s mixed in with general social chit chat. Think of the 4pm Friday lab drinks, or the dreaded wine and cheese evenings that seem to pass for fun on campus.
Semi formal spaces like tea rooms are more common than you might think. A variation on the tearoom is the so-called ‘corridor track’ of conferences. As you know, back in the before Covid times, conferences presentations are usually grouped into a series of ‘tracks’ dedicated to particular subtopics. ‘Tracks’ are basically rooms where three or four presentations are given consecutively. Tracks are a good way to navigate a large conference as staying in one room is a good way to get across a particular area of research. You can meet people with similar interests in these rooms, but the ‘rules’ of engagement don’t permit much opportunity to talk. ‘The corridor track’ happens outside these formal presentation spaces, where people gather to chat. All sorts of things start in the corridor track: invitations to collaborations, writing projects and even ‘the job interview you have before the actual job interview’ where people informally sound you out on your skill set and experience.
As the saying goes, you don’t have to be an extrovert to work here, but it helps. Tearoom talk is an opportunity to get to know people socially, which builds the social trust necessary for trading information about people, resources and opportunities. Show us a successful academic and nine times out of ten we will show you a socially confident person, comfortable in a range of settings.
That there are benefits to being socially successful is clear. Therefore the importance of the tea-room in academic life can present a barrier for people who are carers, or uncomfortable with free form social settings where they don’t know people well. This disparity prompted us to write this section.
Unfortunately, we can’t teach you to be more socially adept and comfortable – it’s a set of skills most of us spend a lifetime learning. If you are finding this aspect of academia difficult, don’t worry too much. Most people need help socialising while academic because, well – it’s awkward.
When you are an undergraduate, you only encountered academics in the classroom or during brief, awkward moments in the café coffee line. When you become a research student you are suddenly allowed access to the staff tearoom; a place that becomes more and more familiar as you progress to being a PostDoc and/or member of teaching staff. The academic tearoom can be a whole new level of awkward, so we thought we would include a short section highlighting the importance of these spaces and some advice on navigating this new social challenge.
How to prepare
We could have made this chapter all about listening. The more you listen to people, the more they tend to like you, but good listening needs to be active. Most of us believe we are better listeners than we actually are. Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of listening tips:
- Resist your natural urge to interrupt and try giving people at least three times as long to make their point. Giving people space to fully express themselves will make you a more comfortable conversationalist.
- Lean forward slightly when people talk to you: this is a common, non-verbal way of showing attention, as is eye contact, but…
- Continuous, direct eye contact can be intimidating. Go for short, but frequent glances. If you have trouble making and maintaining eye contact, look at people’s ears or glasses frames.
- Noises like mm-hmm and words like ‘yeah’ can encourage people to keep speaking but too much of it can be interpreted as asking someone to stop. A nod can be more effective.
- You need to listen, but also signal you have listened. The easiest way is to reflect back some content of what the person said to you in your conversational response. This is easier said than done. Pay attention next time you are in a social setting and you will notice that many people are bad at this obvious step in the listening process. Worse, some people are completely unaware of how little they appear to listen. Which people? I’m just going to say it: culturally, men are let of the hook on this aspect of conversation more than women. Showing genuine interest in what the other person is saying is not just a woman thing, but is the key reason why women are often framed as better communicators in the workplace.
- Asking questions is an easy way to signal you have heard what the person said, but you can also share a similar story or extrapolate from their point. Resist the urge to offer advice and ‘fix’ other people’s problems. Instead, commiserate and/or ask the person what they plan to do about the problem. Try banning the use of the word ‘should’ for a week and take note of how often you have to stop yourself.
- Make note of what people talk about – it shows you what is important to them. Remember these details for future interactions.
If you meet a lot of people, consider investing in a contacts database (used in a non-creepy way of course). Inger has a file of notes about her extended professional network, especially their research interests and specialities, so she knows who to ask if she has a specific problem. In our experience, people almost always appreciate being consulted about their research expertise as long as this is done without being demanding.
How to be good at it
“What is your research about?” is the most common conversational opener when you meet someone for the first time in a tearoom setting. This conversational gambit is small talk, not an invitation to give a lecture. Have a one sentence answer handy for this situation – preferably one that makes people want to talk to you more. This kind of sentence is called in the movie business a ‘log line’. Here’s the logline for the movie Jaws:
When a killer shark unleashes chaos on a beach community, a local sheriff, a marine biologist, and an old seafarer must hunt the beast down before it kills again.
A movie logline has both the characters and the plot line: these two ingredients can be redrawn in research terms. For instance, Inger’s PhD log line was: “I’m studying how architects talk with their hands so I can work out what gesture is doing in the classroom”. The character was architects and the plot was ‘what is gesture doing?’.
Your logline will probably change from time to time. For the last five years Inger has been studying post PhD employability – but this is a topic, not a log line. The PostAc research involves using machine learning and natural language processing (ML-NLP) to make algorithms, but that is a mouthful. Inger noticed the computer scientists called the algorithms ‘machines’, so she weaved that more colourful language into her log line. When asked about her research she now says: “I’m trying to teach machines how to read job advertisements so we can find out how many jobs there for researchers outside universities”.
The log line is a tease – you are not trying to explain exactly what you are doing but give people an easy opening to ask questions if they want to. The log line is just a tool to show people you are an interesting person doing interesting research. Being interesting is an important, but little recognised, cultural asset for a researcher.
Freeform conversations about research can be difficult, even if you are a confident extrovert like Inger. Tearooms do not have well defined ‘interaction structures’, like lectures or presentations, so unpacking the ‘hidden rules’ is a bit trickier.
A big room full of people you don’t know all that well can be confronting, but there’s a trick to inserting yourself. Generally, people can sustain a conversation in groups of up to four. If more than four people are standing in a cluster, one person is usually ‘holding the floor’, probably by telling a story of some kind.
To avoid finding yourself standing awkwardly on the margins of an existing group, use simple math. Approach someone standing on their own first – they are probably keen to have someone to talk to. If people are in groups, approach the groups of two – they are the most likely to be open to extra conversational partner. If you go up to a group of four it’s highly likely you will ‘break’ the group up, which might be welcome, you never know!
While there is a surprising amount of conversation analysis research, there is precious little about conversations between academics in these informal settings (Inger published one of the very few academic papers on the topic). However, between us we’ve had more than 45 years of immersion in academic life. (We also did some ‘research’ by asking people on Twitter, which confirmed many of our assumptions!).
There is a certain amount of predictability in these conversations, at least in terms of topic and structure. It’s possible to identify a few conversational gambits and develop ‘repertoires’ for responding in the moment. In fact, we advise making a study of these situations and practising your ‘tea room game’ whenever you can.
Here’s some conversational repertoires we have noticed and some ideas for dealing with each one:
- What are you working on?
- Let me bore you with MY research
- Here’s how we did it in the old days (variation: let me tell you why it was better)
- Why don’t you do that the way I would do it?
- Help! What would you do about [x]?
- Have you seen the preprint by X about Y? (thanks @quantum_graeme)
- Can you watch my practice presentation (thanks @Zelda_Doyle)
- Were you in [meeting]? Let’s discuss all the things that we really thought about it.
- F*^k I’m good, just ask me (FIGJAM)
- Competitive busyness
People complain to each other in academic tearooms. All. The. Time. The complaints range from bitching about paperwork to slanderous attacks on the characters of other colleagues. It can be a bit shocking to the first timer how much bitching and whining goes on in tearooms and difficult to know how to respond.
It’s tempting to see this kind of ‘troubles talk’ as a sign of low morale or a sick research culture, but the research on troubles talk tells a more interesting, nuanced story of human bonding in action. Sharing troubles is a way of demonstrating trust and envelops us in a warm glow of shared experience. There are ways to leverage troubles talk for these benefits, rather than descend in a spiral of negativity and gossip. In her seminal paper on the topic of troubles talk, Gail Jefferson catalogued three standard reactions to troubles talk: 1) diagnose the trouble and 2) offer advice and 3) share a similar trouble. The safest of these strategies, in our opinion, is 3) share a similar trouble. Always trying to ‘fix’ people’s troubles is annoying when what they really want is to be heard.
Or just change the subject!
Notes on Remote mode
There is no doubt that the best virtual replacement of the casual academic tea room encounter is social media. Sure, social media can be a toxic slew of algorithmically poisoned content and screaming trolls, but it can also be a place to create your own tearoom vibe.
The conversational ‘rules’ that work in social media are surprisingly similar to the ones we have offered above. Listen more than you talk and make sure you reflect the content of other people’s talk in your response. The key difference between the two modes is the way you start conversations. There is no space here to do justice to the huge topic of interacting on social media, so here are a few tips:
- Consider carefully how you ‘dress’ your social media handle: the pictures and words you use will clue people into what to expect from you.
- You don’t need to use a picture of yourself: for nearly a decade Inger has been a big pile of paper. She has no doubt this is the reason why she’s exprienced less sexism than other female academics, but don’t feel like you have to hide yourself away to avoid the trolls. Just block them.
- Curate your feed of people carefully: use search terms and hashtags to find people who share similar interests and follow them.
- Observe the talk between others carefully: what seems to be the acceptable topics and ways to respond in that particular community?
- Dip your toe in cautiously by responding to others who are having interesting conversations. Try to be useful and/or interesting if being witty is too hard.
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