Friday, May 27, 2011

Rethinking Conference Etiquette

As you know, I'm a student of etiquette, literally. I have most of the rules and protocol required for various situations stored away in my brain, try (with various levels of success) to conduct myself with decorum in public and regularly bemoan the "utter bloody rudeness of people today" to use a phrase from one of my favourite etiquette authors, Lynne Truss.

Once in a while, all of my notions of civility are challenged with pleasantly surprising outcomes. This week I attended MESH 2011, Canada's Web conference, where visionaries, experts, newbies, and people just desperately trying to stay abreast of trends (me) come together to connect, share and inspire. I'm here to talk about etiquette but let me just say off the bat that it was great - content, speakers, networking, venue, food - all well worth the price of admission.

So here's what I witnessed at MESH. When I walked into the morning keynote on the first day I was shocked to see the room doors were wide open, people were milling around and coming and going as they pleased. Almost everyone was engaged in something other than actively looking at the speaker. The iPads, laptops and smartphones on the tables outnumbered the people sitting at them.

The conference attendees were chatting, tweeting, eating, drinking and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Towards the back of the room, people were lounging on huge bean bag chairs so I decided to plop down on one and hey presto, I immediately became a "new etiquette" convert. Here's a photo of the Fat Boy bean bag chair which is the most comfortable thing in the world.

Over the next two days I continued to be amazed with this extremely relaxed approach to conference-going. While I eventually grew to embrace it, there were some people who took it a bit too far. A man slumped in the bean bag chair in front of me was so relaxed he took his shoes off, an etiquette no-no in any business situation. No one wants to smell your socks, no matter how informal the environment. And, chairs filled with beans are not always conducive to learning - a young woman to my right dozed off in her bean bag, Blackberry clutched in her hands. I even saw a woman knitting fervently during an afternoon session, which ironically, was more distracting than all of the electronic devices.

But overall, despite the casual atmosphere, everyone was very well-behaved. I didn't hear a single cell phone ringtone in any of the sessions. People formed orderly lines and behaved at the buffets, and most importantly, actively networked. Everyone was polite, kind and willing to share their business cards and their ideas.

I found myself thinking back to the hundreds of traditional conferences I've attended in two decades in business and if I'm really honest, there have been many times where I've sat on a hard chair, in a freezing, dated hotel conference room, bored by an uninspiring speaker and desperately needing to go to the washroom or refill my coffee (or both) but remaining glued to my seat out of respect for the presentation or a fear of being too conspicuous as I make my way to the doors. Likewise, I've signed up for sessions only to find out after a few minutes that I know more about the topic than the speaker and could have used the time more productively. MESH turns this on its head. They bring together the content, people and opportunities and provide a basic structure but its up to you to decide how you're going to make it work for you. If that means you want to be taking notes in the front row at every session, so be it. If you'd rather linger in the periphery sipping coffee, knock yourself out. If you only want to socialize and get the t-shirt, that's fine too.

The role of etiquette in society is to increase the comfort level of the people around you. Traditionally, this has assumed that the people around you are comforted by the same things that you take comfort in. MESH proves that's not necessarily the case and that, as long as no one is acting like a complete boor, and everyone is aware of the expectations at the onset, we can set up our own comfort levels. This etiquette afficionado takes comfort in the idea that the rules of civility are always a good way.


  1. I'm glad you were up-front about the fact that you have no idea how to behave at a web conference, but it is baffling that you think you're in a position to then criticize behaviour at such a conference. I understand that, without self-righteous condescension, a self-appointed etiquette commentator has nothing to say, but what is hilarious is the commission of such a glaring faux pas in the process of publicly complaining (on the web) about someone else's shoe-wearing, knitting, or napping behaviour (at a web conference). Your honest reaction to the laid-back nature of web culture is the correct one; go with it!

    I'm going to make two assumptions here. First, you have never been to a serious Internet hub before, such as Cambridge, MA or Silicon Valley (South Bay, San Francisco, Berkeley, etc), and are therefore a cultural alien, lost in a new world about which you know next-to-nothing. Second, you are probably in the group who is offended when, at an urban party, guests leave their shoes on a shoe rack. Particularly in a city like Toronto (which is snowy almost half the year) you must be aware of normative customs involving "outdoor shoes" (e.g. snow boots). Also, crochet is a totally trendy nerd activity. Look it up; don't talk trash on it.

    It's not much wonder this is the first comment you've received on this blog post. If you're able, I would recommend taking this criticism in stride, incorporating it, and possibly responding to it. I'd also recommend withholding criticism in a domain where you are a noob, because on the web, it's embarrassing to out yourself in this manner.

  2. Thanks for your feedback. I appreciate you taking the time to read my post and to respond. This is the first web conference I've been to and as I pointed out, I thought it was great. As you have correctly assumed, it's not my world and I'm navigating my way through what is sometimes unfamiliar territory. Overall, I think this is a great way to hold a conference and even though I may not personally have enjoyed every aspect of it, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to attending more.

  3. Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength.

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