I am a Ph.D. candidate in the USA, and almost every three/four months, I go to different conferences. I have found it really hard sometimes to start, and more importantly, to KEEP conversations with people, especially those that I know from before: because I know who they are and what they do and where they live and what is the focus of their research and so on!

Also, the people that I am talking about, they are in higher positions than me; like they are not students. I know how to start and keep conversations with students; e.g. how is your research going, when will you finish, what are you going to do after you finish, etc, but they are either professors or post-docs or run huge R&D incorporations and so on. Also no need to mention that they are older than me!

I do not know if this is due to lack of confidence or the fact that English is not my first language, but whatever the reason is, it does not let me communicate with people efficiently and makes me nervous whenever I see those people and I am like what am I gonna do, what do I say, and that eventually results in awkward moments like long moments of silence or saying something completely nonsense!

So, what are your suggestions? What should I do? What are some good questions to ask that can lead to keep good conversations? Like with people that I know from before, all I can say is “hi, how are you, how is everything, when did you get here, how was your flight”. And that's it!! You know I cannot tell them how is your company doing these days or when are you planing to retire and what are you going to do after that!!

  • Hi Antonio! Questions asking 'what should I do' are now off-topic on IPS, as are questions specifically asking for lists of things to say (See our help center), so people have voted to close it recently. Perhaps your question may be salvaged, if you can put more clearly how a typical conversation goes with someone that's not a student, and where the converstation stops where you'd like to continue it. If you could edit in more details, we might be able to reopen it. – Tinkeringbell Nov 18 '18 at 11:51

As some general advice, it always helps to relax and put things in perspective. You are probably overthinking it.

Unfortunately, age differences are going to limit personal discussions. Most of my colleagues are much older than me, so we can't really always relate our lives at my workplace.

But That's Okay.

Remember, we are all human, and your age doesn't define you. The more confident you are, the more people will listen. Always. So when you're talking with older people, even in higher positions, just act confident and talk about what you know. If you actually know it, they will listen.

There will always be people who will be condescending based on age or experience. Be polite, but ultimately ignore them.

Obviously, this may not be enough in a personal conversation, because simply lacking things to talk about may turn awkward.

Here are some strategies:

Talk within the context

You're at a conference! Surely the conference isn't so dull that you can't discuss it with others. And if it is, talk about how dull the conference is!

For example:

That speaker was really good. The topic they discussed was interesting. Maybe I'll dabble in it in the future. What did you think about it? Do you have any experience with that subject? Do you think it could benefit your [company/university/teaching/research]?

Obviously don't say that whole thing in one breath. Space it out, weave it into the conversation. You may find that one sentence can spark hours of conversation.

Or, maybe the conference sucks:

I wasn't a huge fan of the presentation. The content seemed okay, but I don't really see the importance. What do you think?

Be careful about throwing insults around, though, until you know how the other person feels.

Talk about YOU

No one likes people who never shut up about themselves, but on the other hand, no one really likes to be interviewed during a conversation.

So keep a balance. Talk about your research a little, and maybe how it relates to the conference. You can also relate it to what the other person does, such as their company or their own research.

You may even find yourself a professional connection.

Just say Hi

There's nothing wrong with saying:

Hey! I remember you from the last event we attended. I hope everything is going well. I just wanted to say hi.

It's very possible the other person at this point will start a conversation if they want one. That's good!

Know when to leave it alone

Silence is only awkward if you make it awkward.

If the conversation dies, use your body language. If a presentation or something is going on, pay attention to it.

Silence becomes awkward when you're paying your attention to another person without conversation. So divert your attention just enough so that it doesn't look like your scrambling for things to say, but not so much that it will look like you don't want to be interrupted.

Also, know when to say:

It was nice catching up to you again. I hope we speak later. I'm going to go check out that presentation over there, or that poster, or that other thing. Bye!

  • Thank you so much! You can’t imagine how much it helped! – Antonio May 4 '18 at 3:27

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