conference blog – dealing with ‘post paper’ questions

I like lippiness. When I was a teacher I liked the lippy kids the most. They had a bit of spark and energy. They were often smart and funny. And of course I’ve been more than a bit lippy myself on occasion so I always secretly thought we had something in common.

I remember being asked in a job interview whether I thought I could handle the leadership demands of a new school, given that I had a small child. A question that, even then, wasn’t supposed to be asked. Interviews were meant to be about public, not private lives, and there was legislation that said so. So interview questions about childcare were really off limits. But there it was! A naughty question. Should I have refused to respond? Reminded the questioner that this was the kind of question they shouldn’t ask? Politely said I had it covered? Well I did none of the above… I said “Oh, it’s no problem. I’ll just tie him up to the clothes line with a bucket of water and a sandwich and he’ll be fine till I get home.” You see, I was lippy. Definitely lippy.

Now it’s that kind of lippy response you probably don’t want to give in answer to some of the questions you might get asked after you’ve given your conference paper. You know already that not all questions will be benign. Some will of course. They’ll be genuine inquiries seeking more detail. And these kinds of information-seeking questions will be pretty helpful because they’ll provide a few clues about what you might need to do to improve your paper. And similarly helpful, but sometimes less easy to hear, are comments or comments-disguised-as-questions which point to things you haven’t thought of, connections you haven’t yet made, or books or papers you haven’t yet read. Best not to be lippy in response to those. Control the urge to be defensive and simply thank the person for their contribution – or say you’ll follow the suggestion up, think about it some more or talk it over with your supervisor/ co-researchers.

However, it’s the gratuitous supervision advice, the long speech about superior work (theirs), the snide comment about the research you didn’t do rather than what you actually did, that produces the urge to bite back. You might want to say “Oh, was that a question?” “Sorry, I wasn’t aware we’d already started the next paper,” “Thankyou, that would be helpful if that was actually the question I was looking at”… These kinds of retorts might be at the forefront of your mind and on the tip of your tongue, but just don’t give into them.

The urge to be lippy to ill-mannered audience members can be almost overwhelming. There’s nothing you’d like better than to verbally smack the competitive, the patronising and/or the self absorbed questioner into submission. However, it’s better to take the moral high ground. Be polite. Yes, be polite. Acknowledge the input and then swiftly move on. Hang the Bad Conference Questioner out to dry as quickly as you can with your polite response, and then get back to talking with the rest of the audience.

There are of course exceptions to the Be Polite rule. If questions or comments are sexist, racist, ableist or ageist then there’s no reason to put up with them; there’s no call to give the speaker any more time than they’ve already had. And rather a lot of conference questions are subtly or not so subtly about reinforcing status hierarchies. You don’t have to put up with that either. If you spot these power plays, you can choose to draw attention to them…” It might be interpreted that what’s going on here is… I’d hate to assume that your comment was actually…” Or you could be polite. Or you can just get lippy.

Not everyone likes or approves of lippiness, but I find you can often get away unscathed with the lippy come-back if it’s delivered with a smile and in a friendly tone. The real trick to being effectively lippy is being quick enough on your feet to put your thoughts into the right words. Being a teacher allowed me to engage in daily banter practice with the kids – good natured joking kept my lippy skills honed. And practice might work for you too. Practicing banter with your friends might help get you in the right frame of mind and be an entertaining pre-conference diversion. Verbal karate rehearsals can be good fun, and knowing what’s going on and having some different ways to respond can take the sting out of the post paper rudeness situation when it arises. But if this kind of practicing will make you nervous, then don’t do it – do just think of a few polite responses to the rude question/comment, and don’t worry too much. You’ll get along fine with polite.

But in the interest of sharing lippy and not so lippy responses to irritating and inappropriate questions and/or comments, can I ask, what are your favourite ways of handling tricky post paper situations? Any favourite ripostes you’re prepared to share?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in conference, conference papers, conference presentation, conference questions and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to conference blog – dealing with ‘post paper’ questions

  1. Helen Trevethan says:

    Thank you. I am an aging emerging researcher from a small teacher education provider in the south of New Zealand. Your words of wisdom are a real joy. I like your style and your lippiness. Any chance of a visit down our way? We do great food great coffee and of course great wine! Helen Trevethan


  2. Simon Bailey says:

    Did you get the job?


  3. Pingback: conference tips – the old-school handout | patter

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