‘Otherness’ and Conference Advice

As I went on twitter to pore longingly over the tweets for Leeds IMC, I found an (unrelated) post from the Chronicle being enthusiastically recommended. It’s full of excellent advice for anyone new to academic conferences, and it’s titled How to Talk to Famous Professors. Humanely, the author Robin Bernstein begins by pointing out how arse-clenchingly awkward it must be for your average relatively eminent academic to walk into a conference and be faced with a lemming-like procession of over-caffeinated doctoral students all intent on racing off a garbled summary of their thesis work to date (just me, then?), who become toe-curlingly awkward when faced with the person whose name is on their bookshelf. It’s good to be reminded that, if Famous Prof does beat a hasty retreat after such an encounter, it’s probably because s/he simply finds it as awkward as you do. Or because your thesis summary length exceeds their bladder capacity by around 90,000 words.

It isn’t charitable of me to pick holes in good advice. But, I’ve been listening to a lot of colleagues’ pretty awful experiences of conferences lately, and one thing struck me as profoundly ‘off’ about Bernstein’s advice. Bernstein suggests that, if struggling for chit-chat, you might fall back on an old conversational standby.

To wit, the question ‘Where are you from, originally?’

I have, as the youth say, many feelz about this question, but instead of offering them, I shall quote Zadie Smith’s British-born son of immigrants, Millat Iqbal. Told he looks ‘exotic,’ Millat is faced with the aforesaid question.

“Oh,” said Millat, putting on what he called a bud-bud ding-ding accent, “You are meaning where from I am originally.”

Joyce looked confused. “Yes, originally.”

“Whitechapel,” said Millat, pulling out a fag. “Via the Royal London hospital and the 207 bus.”

There are many ways to put your foot in it at conferences. But I’m fairly sure that using a phrase that’s stereotypically associated with ingrained racism/xenophobia is one of the more easily-avoided ones.



3 thoughts on “‘Otherness’ and Conference Advice

  1. The gist of this question isn’t particularly rude in the modern era. We live in an increasingly mobile society. I grew up several thousand miles from where I live as an adult (in the same nation.) That’s common now.

    It becomes trickier when the parties involved in the conversation come from very different backgrounds, especially if one has obvious differences of race/class.

    My approach–that I think allows for the desired, readily accessible and innocuous conversation, without undue burden to someone with valid reasons to presume offense–is to flip the question. “Are you from this area? Did you have to travel far?”

    Most folks at a conference did travel, but this opens up lots of small talk while assuming nothing. The recipient of my question can answer with an origin story, or a gripe about travel or the airlines. Small talk!

    In addition to being a famous professor, my husband is an immigrant. When asked where he’s from, he ignores the potential of xenophobia and just gives the name of the town in our area where he spent his American childhood. He assumes people are asking something like, “Tell me a bit about yourself” instead of ” How do you justify your presence in my country?”

    Most people do seem to mean the former.

    • I like ‘did you have to travel far’ too.

      I think the issue with the question is that, while some people will experience it as innocent (and it’s often meant that way), others will associate it with past experiences of it being used as a coded way of saying ‘hmm, your skin colour/accent doesn’t fit in, justify yourself’. It seems a bad question to recommend, for that reason. There are so many others.

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