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Advice from a Student Leader on Conference Culture

I remember my first OCON. Summer of 2014, I was 19 years old, I had never been to a conference before, and ARI’s scholarship covered a gorgeous suite at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas. Can you imagine?

After that experience, I became sort of a conference addict. I have never missed an OCON or Objectivist student conference, and I have been to events hosted by a wide range of organizations that exist within the “liberty movement,” including Students for Liberty, Young Americans for Liberty, the Foundation for Economic Education, the Charles Koch Institute, the Leadership Institute, and the list goes on.

Conferences are wonderful tools for engaging your interests. Are you a journalism major? I advise you to find a student journalist conference! Are you an engineer? They have conferences, too. Conferences give you a chance to learn more about your interests and form valuable relationships with people who are just as passionate about your interests as you are.

On the other hand, it is not uncommon for young people to have mixed experiences at conferences. Being thrown into a new community can be overwhelming, especially if you don’t know anyone. You might feel excluded or nervous about meeting people because many of them seem to know each other already or they might use terminology that you don’t understand. Alternatively, some people might come off a little too friendly and make you feel uncomfortable.

I know firsthand that being surrounded by people who at least claim to love reason and freedom can make it hard to know what boundaries to set or whom to trust. For instance, you might be tempted to lower your guard and give strangers an unusually high benefit of the doubt in the name of shared values. This can sometimes lead to great friendships and valuable collaborations, but it can also get you into trouble if you aren’t careful.

All open-door events face the risk of letting in dangerous people and dangerous people are really good at finding open doors. Four years of attending conferences have taught me that one still has to thoroughly vet the people one meets, even if they use the same labels as you.

There is a wide range of nuanced social challenges that you will encounter as a new conference attendee, but there are steps you can take to ensure they do not harm your overall experience. The purpose of this article is to share some notes and pointers on how to avoid negative experiences and get the most out of a conference.

Tip #1: Identify your conference goals.

Ask yourself: What do you want to get out of the conference? Usually my answers include learning new things, forming new friendships, and exploring the city where the conference takes place. Remember that you’ve been brought to this conference by certain ideas and values you hold dear, and that the same is true of many other people there. How do you want to take advantage of this?

Once you’ve identified your goals, I suggest you develop a rough idea in your mind of what meeting those goals would look like and what it would not look like. What kind of people do you want to surround yourself with and what kind of activities do you want to partake in? What do you want to avoid? For example, I try to avoid wild parties in strangers’ hotel rooms, but, I am usually comfortable accepting invitations to group lunches or dinners.

Tip #2: Put yourself out there.

Overcome the urge to be a wallflower. I know how difficult it is making friends, especially if you are naturally introverted or shy, but don’t lose sight of the unique social opportunities conferences offer. Everyone is there because they share your interests, context, and/or values, meaning their best-friend potential is high.

Most student conferences schedule events that make it easy to mingle, including lunches, receptions, happy hours, etc. If you are seated at a table with a group of peers, make an effort to meet the people sitting next to you. If there is no seating, approach a group of students that look close to you in age. Pick someone who looks relatively approachable and wait for their attention to be unoccupied (not looking at their phone or speaking with another person). Seize the moment to introduce yourself. Smile, make eye contact, lightly shake their hand, and let them know that this is your first conference and you are excited to meet people your age who are interested in [insert conference-related topic].

Sometimes I like to defuse awkward first meetings by breaking the fourth wall. I might say, “Hi, I’m mingling, what’s your name?” Usually gets a small chuckle.

Acting excited to be where you are goes a long way. Positive energy is contagious. If you struggle thinking of things to talk about, try asking your new friend if they are enjoying the conference. If it is their first conference, ask what their favorite event has been, what events they are looking forward to, when/how they got interested in [insert conference-related topic], where they work or go to school, what their major is, etc. Eventually, something will catch on and you’ll be having a natural conversation before you know it.

Avoid coming on too strong by maintaining a semi-professional relationship with the people you meet, at least at the beginning of your relationships. Respect their personal space, don’t monopolize their time, spend time meeting other people, don’t invite yourself to their hotel rooms, and so on.

When you find someone who you get along with, ask them if they mind you tagging along with them throughout the conference since you do not know many people. I’ve had a lot of luck with this request.

Tip #3: Not all conferences are created equal.

Different conferences have different cultures. There are many organizations in the so-called “liberty movement” that market to the same group of young people, but their cultures are not the same.

I hate to say it, but there are certain events I will not be returning to because of the frequency or nature of unsavory experiences I had there. Sometimes these experiences pertain to the official conference content (lectures, keynote speeches, breakout sessions, etc.), but they usually occur in unofficial spaces (happy hours, room parties, group dinners, etc.).

As you try out new crowds, be aware of how different conference cultures feel. Do you feel safer or more intellectually engaged at one event over another? Are there certain organizations that consistently host events where you have good experiences or bad experiences? Make note of which cultures you prefer and which ones you might simply want to avoid.

Tip #4: Listen to your gut.

One of the biggest mistakes I made at the beginning of my conference career was convincing myself that an uncomfortable situation didn’t exist, despite my gut telling me otherwise. Listen to your gut.

It is not wrong of you to want to think the best of people who share your interests. However sharing your interests does not automatically mean that a person will know how to interact appropriately in social contexts, how to respect your personal space, or how to read your verbal or nonverbal cues. In the worst cases, people may even try to take advantage of your shared excitement, whether they consciously intend this or not. Some of the most common interpersonal issues that arise are ones related to gender and sex. Yet, I find that many of my peers shrink away from discussing these issues because they are afraid it will make them seem irrational.

Usually, the people talking about gender and sexual harassment are people on the left. However, this does not mean that gender/sex issues do not exist. They do, and there are rational ways to view them and address them.

Part of being a rational thinker is treating others respectfully, as ends in themselves. If you suspect that you are not receiving respectful treatment from a fellow conference attendee—whether you suspect it is on the basis of gender/sex or not—acknowledge the problem and take action to keep yourself safe.

Tip #5: Be aware of red flags.

I have my own personal list of red flags, which I have built over many years of attending various conferences. For instance, I tend to avoid people who frequently touch me or comment on my appearance. Everyone has different comfort zones and styles for socializing, so I cannot assume my red flags will work for everyone. Instead I suggest making your own list of red flags before going into any conference, and actively building on it as you gain more experience. This exercise is about defining your boundaries. Which specific behaviors would make you wary or someone, reluctant to be near them, or actually leave if they appear? Make a plan of action for each red flag and follow it.

Tip #6: Utilize available resources as soon as you spot a red flag.

You are neither alone nor without tools to take control of the situation. However, be aware that the support available to you will vary depending on the environment. The main types of resources are people and private spaces.

Let’s start with people. First, get to know some staff members who work for the organization hosting the event. I prefer attending events run by organizations that explicitly take responsibility for my safety and experience. Staffers should be prepared to deal with sticky situations and be able to direct you to specific resources. Nevertheless, some events are run by organizations that want to stay out of attendee relationships. Sometimes it is not even clear who the staffers are!

However, I am going to plug ARI and STRIVE here because I have worked for both organizations, I have been to many of their events, and I know the staff well. I have enormous respect for how these organizations treat attendee relations and conference culture. Please take the time to meet them and use them as a resource if you have concerns. If you’re not sure who they are, you can start by sending an email to info@striveclubs.org and asking for the names and contact info for some senior staff members who will be at the conference.

Peers are also a great resource. I have a number of friends who frequent the conferences I attend, some of whom I have known for years. Do not hesitate to tell your friends you feel uncomfortable with someone or in a particular situation. At the very least, they can ensure you are not alone or stranded and you can reciprocate the favor. Think of it as a self-made buddy system.

Lastly, utilize private spaces—places or decisions that you control. These are particularly useful when you are new to a conference and do not know anyone yet. Instead of accepting a shady invitation to a stranger’s hotel room, invite people that you trust to your room, where you can control the tone and activities that take place. Instead of going to dinner with a group of people 30 minutes away from the hotel, start your own dinner group at or near the hotel. Instead of getting into a stranger’s car, get your own Uber. Do your best to stay in control of your experience.

Start any conference off by identifying the available resources and/or creating your own so that you won’t have to figure it out in a hurry if/when problems arise.

Tip #7: Be proactive about creating an ideal conference culture.

Keep in mind that you are partly responsible for the conference culture. Your behaviors contribute to the tone of your environment and interactions. Take advantage of this fact by setting a positive example. I like to think about my influence along three dimensions: myself, others, and the culture at large.

First and foremost, I am responsible with myself. I try to behave and speak in ways that attract honest, reliable people. I am careful about who I spend time with or share personal information with. I try to act professionally, intellectually, and friendly. I prioritize creating a positive conference experience for myself.

I also try to be supportive of other people’s conference experience–particularly that of my friends and of first-time attendees. I make a point of introducing myself to the first-timers, recommending talks or events that I think are worthwhile, soliciting their feedback on how the conference is going for them, and just generally being friendly and approachable. I also keep my eye on them and I care about how they are treated. If I see or hear anything that makes me concerned for their safety, I speak up. The first time a red flag occurs, speak to the person who directly experienced it first. Ask them if they noticed anything unusual. They might disagree that there is cause for concern and it might be best to respect their judgement. However, if a situation is urgent and blatantly dangerous, immediately notify conference or hotel staff. Good-natured people can be oblivious to bad situations.

Finally, I feel responsible for the conference culture at large because I know it effects the movement’s culture. I have been part of the liberty movement, more specifically the Objectivist movement, for a long time. I have a stake in the shape these movements take and I want to help keep them safe and attractive to people like me. The best way for you to contribute is to be the best version of yourself when you attend conferences, or any space that is meant to celebrate and represent your ideas.

I hope you can take these tips and use them to navigate the wonderful world of conferences more effectively. Be responsible and have fun!

Posts in the Life section are intended to allow our readers to discuss how they understand the principles of Objectivism and apply them in their own lives.

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