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Employment

Catching up with old friends at conferences

The value of meeting face to face is something that social media just can’t replace

by Chemjobber
August 17, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 33

 

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Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Nothing beats a face-to-face chat.

Even if you crawled into bed at 1 AM the night before, getting up before the crack of dawn at an ACS national meeting to have a 7 AM breakfast with someone you haven’t seen in a long time can be exciting, and it can make the morning air that much more invigorating. When it’s combined with the newness of attending a conference in a different city in a hotel that you’ve never been in before, it makes the day ahead seem full of possibility and fun.

Whenever I travel for conferences, including ACS national meetings, my inbox fills up with meeting invitations from old friends, and I can’t help but forgo a quiet meal alone to find out what they have been up to.

Seeing someone’s posts on Facebook, catching up by email, or getting infrequent texts is not the same as sitting across from that person at breakfast, seeing the look on their face as they describe the high and low points of the intervening years or the joy in their voice when they tell you about the new job they’re taking or the tenure status or promotion that they finally achieved.

Lunch meetings typically start with frantic texting back and forth and the possibility that your lunch partner is delayed at a talk, or perhaps even cornered in the convention center by another old friend. When you finally meet and order your soda or iced tea, you’re ready to dive into a conversation about your latest tough project or get your lunch partner’s thoughts about that new position you’ve been thinking about at work. A good lunch with a friend seems almost conspiratorial, with both news about other old friends and plans for next steps in life.

Some of these lunches might include a pitch. Most of the time, it’s something pretty small: “Want to write a paper with me?” or “Wouldn’t it be fun to take that trip together?” But there are larger opportunities as well—getting together face to face is a great time to tell old friends that they are exactly the right people to come and work for your company or that you have a great idea for a business and you think they would be ideal partners.

Late-night drinks are when advice between old friends gets frank. Maybe it’s the lateness of the hour or the relaxing effect of a drink, but an evening one-on-one meeting lends itself to self-criticism and admissions about when you have screwed up in navigating a tricky project or when you blew up at coworkers (even if they deserved it). I value these conversations because they are opportunities to hear how other people solve the difficult problems in their lives.

The combination of a different city and different conversation partners gives you a chance to think bigger than normal and to see things from a new perspective. Hearing an old friend’s thoughts and discussing solutions to difficult problems can be freeing. Most important, your old friends can ask you candid, tough questions. The trust and acknowledgment that you’re the same decent person that you were years ago is enough to allow you the space to listen to your friends, and maybe even rethink your position.

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It’s a cliché to say that we live in a connected age and that electronic communications form those connections. Maybe there will come a time when face-to-face communications are replaced by social media, but I don’t think that time is here yet. Sitting down for a meal, a cup of coffee, or a couple glasses of wine is much more impactful than a tweet or an email and is a fantastic way to strengthen old bonds, hear what your friends are up to, and build those relationships for many years to come.

Chemjobber is an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at chemjobber.blogspot.com. Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at cenm.ag/benchandcubicle.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.

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