I always enjoy the American Sociological Association Meeting – reconnecting with friends; encountering new people, ideas and puzzles; discovering people with complimentary interests and founding future intellectual and research partnerships. I always leave energized, eager to get back to my own work and committed to spending more time reading the work of others.
This year I am finding the social dynamics of the meeting equally interesting. I don’t know why I didn’t see it before, perhaps my time in China has made me more sensitive to face and status in interaction (and accustomed to being an “honored guest” – a position I certainly do not hold here), but I find myself surprised by the explicit demonstrations of deference and assertions of authority and privilege, and feeling generally amused (and slightly annoyed) by playing the game that seems to be fairly ubiquitous.
Here, as I see it, is the game: In the shadows of nearly every conversation lurks the fact that the conversation will end as soon as it is possible for one of the interactants to trade up on the status (in terms of career level and departmental prestige) of their conversational partner. As I stand and speak with acquaintances, I see their eyes scanning the room for someone that matters more. I am doing the same. When the opportunity arises, one of us will depart quickly with the understanding that there should be no offense taken. The goal of the game is to network up.
How to enter the game:
Option A – If you see an old acquaintance speaking with someone else, before you stop to say hello, establish who it is that they are talking to. Is it someone more important than you? If so, just keep on walking. Not sure? Try to make eye contact and give a little wave. This way, the person has the opportunity to bring you into the conversation or abandon the other person altogether. If eye contact is not forthcoming or a wave goes unacknowledged, just keep on walking. Once again, the assumption is that there should be no offense taken. Keep looking for a conversational partner.
Option B – Begin a conversation with some other unattached individual an acquantaince or stranger (if possible in the case of strangers, use visual cues e.g. school affiliation on name tag, age, etc to try to identify person with more status than yourself). This interaction may prove useful in itself or may provide you entree into another useful interaction. All the same, keep an eye out for other, more deciedly beneficial, interaction partners.
I’m sure that there are some other rules for important people needed to detangle themselves from interactions with status inferiors (i.e. grad students), etc, but we need someone who has played the game from that position to fill us in.