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Impression Management at an Academic Conference

Academics love conferences. It’s where we present our research and as you’ll see, present ourselves. In this post, Sarah Michele Ford examines the ways in which we all engage in impression management in professional – and really all – situations.

I spent the end of last week at an academic conference – the annual meeting of the Association of Internet Researchers. It’s a gathering of researchers from a wide variety of academic disciplines, countries, and perspectives. It’s also a gathering that I have often described as a very intellectual high school reunion.

Photo by Hayal Oezkan | CC: By-SA

While the conference is very fun, it’s also a multi-day exercise in impression management. Impression management is a key component of symbolic interaction theory, arguing that, in all of our interactions with other people, we are using our self-presentation to influence their opinion of us. These attempts are sometimes conscious, but in many cases they are not. Everyone has a number of tools with which to engage in impression management; we can influence opinion through our dress, through our interactional behaviors, through our adherence to social norms. Impression management is also very much tied to the various social roles that we all inhabit; the self that we present in a professional environment may be very different than the self that we present when we are at school or when we are with our friends or family. This all comes back to the dramaturgical perspective advanced by Erving Goffman.*

While we all engage in impression management in every interaction, there are times when we are more aware of it than others. I personally become especially aware of it in the conference setting because I find myself in the position of being a researcher, a graduate student, a teacher, and a friend all at once.

My practices of conference impression management begin before the conference itself. As I choose what clothing to pack for the trip, I’m making strategic choices with the goal of presenting myself in a professional manner. Once I arrive at the conference itself, I continue with that same goal – creating a positive, professional impression of myself. This happens whether I am interacting directly with another person or not.

Photo by Jeremy Hunsinger | CC: By

When I’m in the audience, listening to another person present their research, I am still engaged in impression management. In order to convey my best professional self, I want to look like I’m engaged with what the speaker is saying, or like I’m taking notes (even if what I’m really doing while looking at my iPad is surfing the web…). In order to convey my best professional self, I want to make sure to ask intelligent questions during the question and answer period after the research presentations. If I’m really invested in making a strong positive impression on someone in the room, I might make a point of introducing myself and continuing the conversation. In those direct interactions, there is even more that I can do to present my best self. I can make sure to listen attentively and ask more intelligent questions. I can try to make connections between their research and mine, and I can make sure that I adhere to the norms of professional interaction as best I understand them.

Things get even more complicated when the role that I didn’t expressly bring to the conference with me – wife/mother – requires my attention. When my cell phone rings and it’s my nine-year-old daughter wanting to say good night, how do I balance being a parent with maintaining my professional demeanor? On this most recent trip, I just found a quiet corner near the hotel meeting rooms where I could FaceTime in relative privacy but I was definitely still aware that I needed to project my Professional Self at the same time.

The academic conference is one setting in which a person might be hyper-aware of the practice of impression management; there are many more settings in which most people can be more or less oblivious to it. Whether we are aware of it or not, though, impression management is a key part of everyday social life.

*See Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Think of three situations in which you engage in impression management. What do you do to manage others’ impressions of you in those situations? How do the norms of behavior differ across those situations?
  2. In what types of situations are you more aware of your impression management practices, and in what types of situations are you less aware of them?
  3. How does impression management make social interaction go more smoothly?
  4. What happens to interactions when a person does not engage in “appropriate” impression management?