Note: Since this is my first conference I'll likely be updating as new info comes in. Stay tuned.
Another quick note on the topic of encouraging involvement in the general conversation of EA and its community; I view it as a problem not critical, but still important. If adding a new agent to a complex system creates the possibility of even higher order emergent action and potential results, then I believe that introducing more agents into this mix will provide the necessary components to create higher order organizational thinking and exploration. Facilitating those additions is exactly what this article aims to address.
I am a significantly introverted person. The idea of doing a week long silent meditation retreat (no talking) seems kinda fun. This said, I went to my first EAGx conference recently and had various length conversations with ~50 people, met more than a few who gave me largely helpful longer term advice, had an incredible time, and, most importantly, was completely exhausted the entire time. Talking to people can really drain me, especially new people that I may or may not have to drive conversations with. It can feel like work, and work I don't enjoy.
That was not the case for this meeting. The biggest reason I felt so exhausted is because I was so excited from the general vibe of the conference and all the people I was meeting, these people gave me so much to think about that my body couldn't help falling asleep.
Again, I am an extremely introverted person.
How could this happen given my temperament?
I have a few tips that have helped me overcome a lot of intense social anxiety, a couple I picked up at the conference itself, and finally an important fact to know is that this is the perfect place to develop these skills. (Note: this is my first so I very well could be wrong.)
One critical piece of advice for enjoying this conference is you should understand that regardless of where you are in your journey, you have something that you can give, and obviously gain. (Proof: If you feel you had nothing to give, you would actually have to know everything about everyone at the conference to be able to determine that (which I'm assuming you don't know.) On the other hand, if you feel you've got it all figured out why are you going to a conference where people are trying to fix problems?)
Does this convince you that you are welcome to participate in this event and that people may want to hear advice that could help them? Or that you could get advice which helps you? How about both? I'd be much more surprised to hear if neither happened (and if so, dm me when it happens and I'll update my beliefs.)
If you first believe you can take part in the general conversation, we can proceed to getting in the conversation.
Finding and Starting the conversation
The next three sections deal solely with creating the environment to converse in, after that it's onto what to do when you're in that convo.
Be visible (If you don't broadcast, there is no reception)
I had several very fun conversations that started from just walking in the halls and saying "hello" to someone. Some people prefer the randomness, others had 40 one-on-one's (wtf) throughout the weekend. Really it's up to you how you meet, but! what will preclude you from meeting people is not getting caught in the social crossfire. If you would like to get in the mix and meet new people, you have to throw yourself into the mix (which I completely empathize with, I understand the overwhelming gut sensation. But, this way leads to growth, the other, less so.)
In general, be on your phone less and be present in this situation you've traveled to. Walking around by yourself doesn't make you look weird, especially when you can relax and feel comfortable in your own skin. Further, when you are focused too heavily on yourself (self-consciousness or what have you) that leaves you unavailable to focus on outside connections and therefore prevents you from making any connections. Be open to these chance encounters (this will take experimenting with to really understand that feeling. Be patient.)
Speaking of making visible, make sure you tell CEA how good your organizers did on the event. It can often a thankless job and a lot of "no news is good news". Hearing you had a good time makes people feel good, that their efforts were worth it. (If there is a preferred avenue to post this feedback in, please comment and I'll update.)
At this conference, this next idea likely works (but you should be iterating to find out what works for you.) Walk around people, have friendly demeanor, when you make eye contact with someone, smile and say "hello :)". Read those instructions again. Please. Walk in public spaces, have friendly demeanor, when you make eye contact with someone, smile and say "hello :)". It's simple, and I've made friends from this. It likely will fail a couple times, no sweat.
Another tip is to ask to sit at people's tables, especially if they're sitting by themselves. Ask them if they're wanting space or ok with having company. If they are hoping for someone to join them, they will be very appreciative of you. These posts may be of use to you (the first link features a rabbit hole of socializing resources in its first sentence, which lead to the next point...)
One on one's
Something I found particularly helpful for me was having an accurate "What I can receive help with" and "How I can help others" on my bio. Being new and at my first conference I didn't think that I could offer much but ended up putting in my bio "am decent at helping people navigate social situations" (which I didn't think was very useful) yet someone came with multiple questions prepared that they had been wondering about. (Again, unless you know everything about the situation, you can't know what's useful to someone else.)
That said, be honest about what you're looking for, list something you have experience in (even if you think it's not relevant) and put some of your personality in there. People are looking to meet people. You very well can meet your next best friend here.
There are other posts that have gone into detail about how to go about one on ones and you should check them out.
Continuing the Conversation
Ok! At this point you've somehow come into contact with someone and your conversation is just beginning. How do you have a fun conversation? Many ways: Find shared interests by listening to them, be comfortable talking about your uncertainties with EA/career (if that's big to you), be comfortable with someone talking to you about their uncertainties with EA/career, be open to being taught something new (especially if you think you're settled on an issue), and make sure you can connect with them after the conference (Swapcard/whatever).
In general, people love talking about themselves. But if they were to only talk about themselves, you'd get bored. So talk about yourself a little bit! But if you talk too much, then they get bored. Hmmm. The key is to follow the momentum of the dance that you and this other person are engaged in, which can be a tricky thing to gauge. Everyone has different backgrounds on what's acceptable or not and it can take experience to develop a sense of how to navigate this.
One of the first things you could do is to ask them questions to help you both find common interests that you both like talking about. Have a couple standard questions that you can use as a springboard to get to topics that are related to you two. You both have to find something that you can base your further conversations on, how would you build a fire without wood?
A related note to the above point; while you should keep an eye on the things you have interest in, don't let your focus on that detract from the conversation itself as you may miss an even more interesting point.
Huge point to add: regardless of what you may think, I'd advise paying attention to your conversations to see if you dominate conversations (if you don't have the chance to listen to the other person). If you are dominating it's likely you don't realize it and this can lead to people not seeking out conversations with you and you not knowing why.
This can be an awkward thing to bring up to somebody; this is why I suggest the self-reflection.
Being comfortable with uncertainty (and know your biggest ones well)
The question came up a lot for me, "What's your background? What are you looking to do/get into? What do you do?" Which in the past has been a stressful question, especially when I have a lot of uncertainty about what I'm doing next. I happen to feel good about it right now and felt comfortable telling people "I have no clue. I'm back to square one again"; and if you're in the same boat, I'd highly recommend doing the exact same thing. Why? Because if you know what it is your struggling with and happen to tell the right person they may give you the right answer (or could point you to someone else who might.)
The squeaky wheel gets the grease and again, the people at this conference want to do the most good possible, which means filling roles that are currently open, which could mean you. The flip side of this is make sure that you don't just pile your problems on others. There's a difference between, "This is where I'm at" and "PLEASE GOD HELP ME". You'll share this with someone and they may have nothing, and that's ok. Being too eager can push away people who may have answers for you as well.
Possibly the biggest take away I had from the conference was when a friend of a friend ate lunch with us and a completely random conversation took place yet followed the above pattern. They asked me, "What would you say is your biggest uncertainty right now?" And because I could simply present it to them, they had a simple answer; career coaching. This leads me to my next point...
Cultivate mom energy
If you're on the receiving end of this, pay attention to them to see how they're doing. If they're relatively stressed then the thing they may need at that point is someone to listen, maybe a hug, and to tell them that things are going to be ok. (If they need proof; "Look at these people, are there people smarter than you here? What are they doing? Trying to make the world better. Do you think that all of them will fail? Even if only slightly, things will get better.") Once they're a bit more calm then they're in a better state to receive logical information, then feel free to give it to them (if you have it!) This is a huge help and means a lot to them, possibly in proportion to the level that they're feeling stressed.
Be open to changing your current ideas
The idea of having a life changing conversation sounds pretty neat, no? If it is, then you have to be willing to change in the first place. If someone starts talking about an area that you feel you've come to a final conclusion on and aren't interested in contemplating further, then there's little to no possibility that anything will change. A plant that receives no nutrients will have nothing to build itself up with.
On the other hand, actively listening to someone bring a new perspective on a topic you may not even be remotely interested in can bring new information, which can bring new insight. You may find a connection between both of your fields that you hadn't found (maybe because you hadn't looked...) that shifts how you come to think about your trajectory, a project, or even about a belief you had you thought was already correct.
There's a lot of info going around this meeting; don't lose your connections! When you're sitting at a table it's not a bad idea to place your badge on the table in front of you so people can add you when they have the time. The conference as its own thing should be enjoyable and beneficial but you are missing out on potential long term benefits if you don't follow up with people and strengthen your connections.
To sum up, these conferences seem to be a perfect place to fall flat on your face when it comes to socializing. If you make a mistake: genuinely apologize, and learn from that. Our mistakes are often our best teachers.
Going on to further conferences I have some suggestions:
A need for matchmakers?
To the wonderful organizers of these events; I think it could be an interesting trial to see if having dedicated "matchmakers" to wander around the event and talk specifically to the people who don't feel comfortable reaching out on their own. Maybe a Swapcard feature would be a button you can press to tell these matchmakers that you're feeling this way and they can stop by when needed. (Potential attendees are welcome to comment on this to let them know if this would be valuable or no; This could very well be an awful idea for all I know.)
Another feature could be a checkbox that says "I'm generally uncomfortable talking to new people." Similarly, having a checkbox for volunteers who are more comfortable navigating unfamiliar social situations would be an easy pair to make. Should enough people use this, it could warrant a session of gathering these users to get their feet wet in an environment where everyone else is making the same mistakes, and helps them get used to it.
Using the matchmakers could encourage 1. the ability to directly make meaningful connections (and connect those who otherwise would have greater difficulty doing so), 2. prevents possible feelings of alienation by not being part of the EA group, and 3. encourages a more engaged community at each of these events (leading more people to want to come back, to invite others, in general to increase the surface area of how EA is impacting individuals' lives.)
If a need for this seems important I have more thoughts I'd be happy to flesh out.
Parting words and a favor...
To those wonderful people who've read this far; make sure you use this info (get in the van) to actually become better (let it change you.) And once you have, use this info to help others who are struggling with this. You know exactly how they feel are in a better position than any to help relieve what you've gone through yourself. If this post has resonated with you, how does it feel to have a potential solution to this? How would another person feel towards you when you gave them this gift?
All comments, criticisms, and dm's are welcome :)
I really like a lot of this advice, thanks for posting!
Re: matchmakers, we had some "guides" at EAG London 2021 IIRC. We didn't set this up for Boston but it sounds like a good way to add value so we'll consider this for next time. Thanks for suggesting!