Dinner Diffusion, and Difficult Decisions

The DAMOP conference is coming up, and that reminds me of a conference-related phenomenon related to gathering a group to go off to a meal. This doesn’t manifest itself when the conference provides meals, so it wasn’t an issue last fall; when the meals are being served you can just grab some people that you know and sit, or if you are so inclined, sit with some strangers and strike up a conversation. “What is your research” is a pretty safe way to begin. (etiquette tip: if your conversation partner has a really nice pair of research grants, do not stare at or make comments about them. It’s not polite.)

But when left on your own, you have a bit of a problem. The questions of who is going, where you are going (related to what you will eat) and when to go (less of a problem at lunch) all come into play. Usually the “when” is decided first, and you set a meeting spot. Often you’ll have a nearest-neighbor issue, where you ask someone if they want to grab something to eat, and they tell you they were going to meet up with someone else, and so on, or the reverse of that, where some of the people you’ve asked will later approach others.

People start to arrive at the meeting spot, with some distribution of arrival times probably not actually centered on the agreed-upon meeting time. Because of the aforementioned networking, the earliest ones may not know what size crowd to anticpate. People show up and mention who else is expected to arrive “soon,” and then an interesting thing happens: some people will decide that since departure is not imminent, they can run off and do something that will “only take them a few minutes” (make a phone call, drop off something in their room, change the transmission in their car) and the group size can stay roughly constant as people diffuse in and out. You’re kind of stuck if the group size is below critical mass — not really enough people for a good round of discussion or if you’re all colleagues already and there will be nothing new to talk about, so you keep waiting for that fluctuation that brings more people in than out so you can cross that threshold. (for me this is about 6 people or so). However, if the diffusion is happening with more than critical mass, you can either decide to leave for dinner en masse and abandon the people who had diffused out or are late, or some of you can fission out of the group, leaving the remainder as a nucleation site to gather a new dinner crowd.

Once you’ve sallied forth, the other decision needs to be made: where/what to eat. You can wander aimlessly from restaurant to restaurant, which is common especially early in a conference if nobody knows the town. The problem here is that someone will almost always find fault with the restaurant (price, selection, if there’s a wait involved), forcing you to keep moving on to find other eateries, which come with other sets of objections. My personal preference takes me away from seafood restaurants, and I know one or two people with honest-to-goodness seafood allergies who are good allies to have in voting against places that serve only seafood (this was especially handy when I was in New Orleans, pre-Katrina; some places seemed to have crawfish in every menu item). Generally the objections become muted as you get really hungry and/or tired of walking, and you all finally compromise on a place. The other option is to have a restaurant in mind, but if it’s later in the week and you keep gathering different sets of people, there’s the chance that someone will have just been there and will resist going again. I don’t have a real problem with resampling a restaurant if they have a variety of entrées that I like, but will back off going to the OneTrickPony Café on consecutive nights. Both of these problems get worse as the group gets larger, of course.

One thing I’ve discovered is that many people simply don’t like making the decision. They’re happy to go almost anywhere, but don’t want to be a strong advocate of anything because they don’t really have a conviction about it. If you try and form a consensus, (what do you think about Joe’s Steakhouse?) you’ll get a lot of lukewarm responses or very mild dissent, and the consensus-builder won’t get the warm mandate feeling. However, if you just announce “We’re going to Joe’s Steakhouse!” most people will go along, and be glad that someone else made the call. It’s only if someone adamantly opposes the announcement that you need to rethink things. If you can actually be so organized as to make this decision before gathering people for dinner, all the better.

Bon Appétit!

One thought on “Dinner Diffusion, and Difficult Decisions

  1. Tom,

    You did it. I think you completely summarized everyone’s conference experiences. This is great.

    (oh, I have a term for this – social inertia. The more people you have, the hard it is to get them moving.)

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