On Awkward silences, or How To Kill A Conversation In Three Words

Want to know the easiest way to kill any form of verbal conversation at a professional meeting, conference, or convention? Tell your fellow attendees that you’re a housewife!

Last summer I applied for (and received!) a spontaneous scholarship to attend the Society of American Archivists’ annual meeting in Washington, DC.

Things worked out, my husband took a day off work to watch the kids, and I was able to go down to DC with a total of 26 straight hours by myself (woot!!!). It was only a day trip, but I was able to take in a few sessions and walk through the exhibition hall.

It’s been six years since I’ve actively archivisted, so I was itching to get a grip on today’s field. Instead of getting a grip, however, I got kinda bleh.

Between the homogeneity of the crowd (it looked like a Lisa Loeb cosplay convention) and getting bummed the hell out by a session on Palestinian archives — which was incredibly informative, interesting, and enlightening, but as mood-wrecking as a discussion on war crimes, human rights violations, and data destruction and obfuscation can be — it just depressed the fuck out of me. I enjoyed listening to the panelists and learning about their studies and achievements, but didn’t feel sparked or inspired by any of the sessions in particular. Even though I was surrounded by examples of how proper arrangement and preservation has worked, I couldn’t help but think, “But no one ever listens to the archivist. No one ever wants to fund the archives. No one else cares. No one outside this room even knows what the word “archivist” means.” Sigh.

The worst parts were the networking attempts. Now, I am admittedly an introvert and very happy to be alone in my figurative hamster ball, but I go into social butterfly mode when required for work. And this event was work. Granted, it’s been several years and, in my absolute excitement to be engaged with other adults on topics unrelated to the domestic sphere, I might have jumped too quickly over my own words, spoke too fast, or forgot to breathe before starting a sentence buuut…… the people I spoke with didn’t seem to mind that. It was only when the discussion turned to the organization I worked for or what position I currently held did things turn south very, very quickly.

“I’m a housewife, but I am here to stay abreast of the field.”

Record scratch.

Traffic halt.

Cue the sound of a tractor trailer slamming into 10-car pile-up.

Relevance dissolved. Intellect disappeared. Existence extinguished.

It was that bad. Awkward smiles. The “Oh…” accompanied by a swift eyebrow raising. One woman replied with a “Huh? Interesting…” before STEPPING TO THE SIDE AND WALKING AWAY.  I tried. I really did. Between the older women in shock that I left, the young grad students who couldn’t seem to fathom this whole house?… wife?… thing, to pretty much every single attendee who asked what I did for a living and had their inability to process “home now, still learning, planning to work again later” visible on their faces… I just wanted to hit up the Dunkin’ Donuts down the block (because there was no coffee. There was lemonade. There was sweet tea. There was no coffee. W.T.F.).  

So, I stopped saying I was a housewife and started telling people I was a consultant in private practice, focusing mainly on family papers and small corporate collections — which isn’t exactly false. I’ve freelanced on occasion and bartered archival work and information brokering in exchange for everything from free legal representation to reduced-price personal training sessions. The “new me” worked and I existed again, but after a short while I gave up trying to engage with the cosplayers and wandered the exhibition hall to chat up vendors to see what was new and score free stuff. 

All in all, the vendors were great because: a) they’re generally social butterflies; and b) they’re paid to chat up people who might make them money. As a housewife returning to the field, I might pay for training sessions or buy books (I did) to get caught up on the latest and greatest fads and fixes. As a consultant with her own business, I might buy their software, supplies, or conservation services for my clients. The vendors were amiable, interesting, and would talk to anyone. My status as an inactive archivist made no difference. In fact, I received one or two phone numbers to call should I want to get back to work on the sales side of things.

Plus, they had candy. Lots of it. Looking at the sugary swag I scored, you’d think I had the cutest costume on Halloween night. Maybe I did, who knows. I was just a housewife in her best working gal casual at a Lisa Loeb cosplay convention.


10 thoughts on “On Awkward silences, or How To Kill A Conversation In Three Words

  1. That was such a refreshing and real assessment of what it is like to attend a SAA conference. I wish I had met you because it would have been beneficial for both of us. I stayed home with my children for a few years and probably by doing so I gave up the opportunity to advance further than I did but that’s o.k. Those people that will never be President of the U.S. are still people of worth and accomplishment. The rudeness of those who only look out for themselves is pretty prevalent at even archival conferences. I continue to go when possible to SAA even if the cost is great for the average archivist and try to ignore those who are present to interact with their buddies from the past. I think you are to be commended for attending despite the atmosphere. It’s good to catch up on trends and sometimes serendipity occurs and you might have a few conversations with real people who are not caught up in flashing their accomplishments. Or maybe your life path will go in a new direction. Never forget wherever you are to reach out to others. The world will be a better place with empathetic souls who are not so self-important. Hope to cross paths with you someday!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just made my way here via the Lego post on the A&A listserv, then got sucked in to read everything… (Yay!)

    Boy, I hear you on the talking-to-people thing. I’m definitely an introvert too, I’d be happy in my hamster ball, but I can talk to people and chat with them mostly until the dreaded 10 car pileup. I attended my state archivist convention last spring, and even though I knew people from school and past workplaces and had a great time chatting with them, but when I talked to new people, any time the dreaded “I’m unemployed” came out, it was like ….cricket cricket… cricket cricket… What baffled me was like, what? There’s so many archivists for comparatively few jobs (at least in my state), and you’re somehow surprised there’s unemployed people? Or maybe unemployed people shouldn’t come to the conferences?

    Probably the worst was during one session where the panel moderator wasted a good half hour going around the room making EVERY single person introduce themselves by name and where they worked. Out of like 80 people, a handful were students, and 2 were unemployed. It was embarrassing and I tried to joke about it and everyone did laugh, but…geez.

    I actually enjoyed my state conference more than the few times I’ve attended the national ones, they seem a lot more laid back and like a nerdy family reunion and more practical experience sessions. I’m sorry you had such a roadblock with people being unfriendly! It baffles me. Glad the vendor room worked out though, and that deer is awesome. 😀 Hooray for the spontaneous scholarships nonetheless!

    Liked by 1 person

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