Do unto others/what goes around/karma and other such truisms constitute the unwritten conference rule. This goes from pushing in ahead of people in the loo line to making rude remarks about people’s work. However, this rule is sometimes broken, particularly when it’s time for questions after papers.
Occasionally you see and hear a question-that-is-really-a-put-down so outrageously rude it’s almost to be admired. These question-put-downs become conference gossip quicker than the formation of the queue for the free drinks. This week’s quintessential conference put down – which of course I have only heard about and didn’t actually witness myself – apparently went like this….
A rambling and pretty appalling polemical paper finishes. There is silence. No one wants to engage. Then finally, someone asks in a terribly polite fashion, “So did you have any empirical data at all to back up what you are saying?” Ouch. There is, as you can imagine, an almost audible intake of breath as the the audience hears what they were thinking said out loud but knew it would be much too impolite to say.
I wasn’t told what the presenter said in response but you’d have to suspect there was no coming back from this question-put-down. And you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of this kind of response yourself – do unto others/what goes around/karma etc. I gather it almost made the audience take pity on the long-winded polemicist. But not quite. The observers could perhaps enjoy the presenter being paid out without having to suffer any consequences themselves.
Now this little anecdote does go to show the dark art of the academic put-down. It’s an apparently harmless question or comment which is excruciatingly patronising/passive- aggressive/caustic/acerbic. It’s not a full frontal attack. Its power is in its unfinished nature, it’s in what’s not directly said.
This level of rudeness doesn’t come naturally to all of us and it does take some level of audacity. However, I’m not suggesting that you practice the academic put-down unless you want to be the stuff of conference gossip and the occasional blog post. And I certainly hope you’re never on the receiving end of this kind of straight-faced sideswipe. But it might be fun to compile a list of the rudest polite conference put-downs you’ve heard.
Any takers to beat this one?