Post Academic


More awkward academia-related interactions

Posted in First Person by Arnold Pan on July 27, 2010
Tags: , ,

"Hotel elevators" by Wesha (Public Domain)

My last post about talking to the guy on the airplane about academia–and postacademicinnyc’s comment about how to extricate oneself from such chit-chat–got me thinking about other awkward conversations I’ve been in or seen.  This time, we’ll limit the uncomfortableness to academic-on-academic action.  I guess the anecdotes would be more timely for convention-interview time, but these cringingly entertaining stories might whet your appetite for what’s just around the corner.  (By the way, the new 2011-12 academic job wiki is already up!)

After reading the stories, you can decide how you want to read the “more” in the title, whether in quantity–as in “more examples of awkward interactions”–or in degree–as in “more embarrassingly awkward interactions.”  Let us know about your own good (or bad) ones, too.

Getting stuck in the elevator: This awkward situation involved my friend being caught in the elevator with someone who had just interviewed him at MLA.  I was in there with them and happened to know the interviewer socially, better than my friend did actually.  So in some ways, I could be to blame here, because my greetings to the interviewer probably set a friendly, casual tone that may have gotten my friend in trouble…

You’ll have to go below the fold to find out what happened!

Anyhow, the interviewer and my friend felt obligated to engage in some banter, which led the former to ask the latter the inevitable MLA conversation starter about how his interviews were going.  My friend was caught off guard and told the enquiring interviewer that he had no other interviews.  I can’t remember what happened after that, except that things got a little uncomfortable until we parted ways.  My pal became a little bummed and started second-guessing his response: Was being honest the right move, to show how serious he was in the position?  Should he have lied, to seem like a more appealing candidate?  I tried to talk my friend down by saying the interviewer was a nice, down-to-earth guy (which he was/is), so there was nothing to worry about.  Which I think was true, but who knows?  The gist of this story is to never get caught in close quarters, like an elevator, but be prepared when you are.

To greet or not to greet?: Going from the specific to the general, I find myself in nervewracking positions where I run into my interviewers on the street or in the lobby after my interview.  What happens is that I stick around the hotel I just interviewed in, because it’s either the conference hotel where I’m doing other stuff or because I’m waiting to meet up with someone.  I’ve run into interviewers right after an interview, maybe going the opposite way on escalators or on her/his way out to a smoking break.  My instinct is to just play it cool and give them a quick nod or a hello.  Then I wonder if it’s actually a missed opportunity not to chat them up a bit for something like a supplemental interview, though that seems creepy or pander-y to me.  But then I start to worry that the quick greeting seems aloof or unfriendly, because, well, that’s how a lot of folks who don’t know me see me.  The awkwardness of this situation would be compounded by me trying to look away or act like I didn’t see the interviewer–which would be really bad if the interviewer did see me and I didn’t know!

As you can probably tell, I don’t have a good answer about what do in these situations, so maybe you readers could instruct me here.  Oh, I know one thing I should do–get the heck out of the conference hotel!

The bad connection: One thing that goes into the making of really awkward interactions is your inability to gauge affect.  This is particularly tough over the phone, when you can’t see someone or can’t quite catch the finer nuances of someone’s voice due to cellphone static.  I get particularly self-conscious when I’m being called to set up an interview, since that’s usually the first interaction you have with a potential employer.  I’m not always great at thinking on my toes and I can chuckle at inopportune times, so you can see why I might be sweating the smallest details.  Plus, a phone chat, even a brief one just to iron out details, can lead to a very stilted back-and-forth and a bad first impression.

Like the time I unwittingly answered my cellphone at a convention hotel and started talking to a member of a search committee trying to set up an interview the next day.  The problem was that the lobby was loud, my phone reception spotty, and I didn’t recognize the number to prepare myself.  But I tried to play it cool, even though I’m not entirely sure I heard the caller’s name and just ended up confirming the interview time–I think?–in the blind, not knowing if that was the purpose of the call or if he wanted to reschedule things.  Then there was the time I answered a phone call to set up a job interview while I was in the rushing through a yellow light at a left turn driving in one of those intersections enforced by a camera.  I don’t know what I was more worried about, remembering the date and time I had scheduled for the plum interview or not being sure if I was going to get a ticket.  The moral of the story: A cellphone isn’t convenient if you can’t hear anything or are too distracted to pay attention–just let it go to voicemail, then deal with it with a little more forethought.

Even more awkward academia-related interactions next time!

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2 Responses to 'More awkward academia-related interactions'

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  1. [...] was over at postacademic‘s place reading about those famously awkward conversations between academics and [...]


  2. Recently when I told someone about my PhD, she said, “You must be smart!” What DOES one say in reply to such a comment?


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