One of my friends recently suggested that I write a blog about how to deal with the stress of going to conferences when you are an introvert. This is a great topic, and I am not the most outgoing person in the world, but I find the social side of conferences stressful for a slightly different reason—not so much because there are too many people, but because there is only one obvious topic of conversation (math!), and it is a topic fraught with peril. It is great to talk about math and ask and answer questions, but talking only about math can be very discouraging—there is so much struggle inherent in internalizing very abstract objects and difficult mathematical concepts, and people are specialists in such small areas, that math talk can be isolating and high-pressure. It’s enough to make me hide out in my hotel room all day, like a true introvert. Full disclosure: that is what I’m doing right this minute.

So here is my conference social stress question: how do you comfortably hang out with mathematicians that you like but don’t know well, without talking about math? I would like to get to know math people beyond their math, because that is the usual human way to know people, and because it makes talking about math more fun. So it would be great to find a low-stress way to get to know people, that doesn’t involve math, when in fact math may be the only thing we know that we have in common.

One answer: drinking beer. Unfortunately there are a few flaws to this approach: I can’t keep up with this as I get further from graduate school; there are many people who don’t drink, and this leaves them out; plus sometimes it stresses me out even more to have multiple drinks with professional acquaintances I don’t know very well. What if I say something weird?

Another solution: games. Yes, this is fairly obvious—where would math graduate students be without board game nights? But somehow I forgot about the power of games to ease math hangouts until I spent some time last summer at a math institute that featured a daily hour of tea, bad cookies, and games. Unless some dire circumstance prevented it, pretty much everybody came to the common room every day at 2 pm and spent an hour or half playing/watching other people play chess, bridge, go, backgammon, Civilization, Innovation, Settlers of Catan, only-down-clues group crossword, the to-me-totally-mystifying cryptic crossword, or several other games that I never learned the names of. Game tea-time was fun, but it was also a bit magical, math-wise—people talked to each other over games. Suddenly they were more comfortable with each other, and were more comfortable talking about math. I wished that I could carry that atmosphere with me to research conferences, so I started looking around for people to play games with. Which brings me to…

My current favorite math hangout game: bridge. Again, bridge is nothing new, except to me. Apparently almost everyone used to know how to play bridge. However, since it’s not as common with early-career people, one motivation for this blog is to advertise bridge for those who do not already play. Because bridge is kind of complicated and intimidating, but ultimately so fun and worth the effort of learning (ooh, remind you of anything? math, anyone?). For those who have never played, bridge is a card game for four people, in two sets of partners. Each hand involves a round of bidding and then a round of play, which takes about 5-10 minutes total. The bidding round involves a system of encoded communication with your partner across the table. The playing round is about taking tricks. Simple right? Well, kind of. It can also be pretty hard, and as rich and complicated as you can stand.

Okay, so why is bridge great, for math conferences and otherwise? Bridge is a group game, but for a small group, so you get to engage with everybody. It is substantial enough that you can play your whole life and still keep improving and enjoying it. It involves chance and skill, so it is not the perfect-knowledge, bare-intellect grudge-match of chess or go, or the total blank probability fest of bingo or dice. If you don’t care to keep score (and you don’t really have to), you can play it in 5-minute chunks, so there’s no big commitment. A large number of people all over the world already know how to play. It can involve a great deal of fairly sophisticated reasoning, and lots of math people enjoy that, so it’s even easier to find math people to play. And, conferences aside, it’s especially likely that you can get a table going among senior people in a math department, so bridge is a nice way to spend some lunch hours bonding with your senior colleagues.

This blog was directly inspired by the phenomenal time I had playing “non-serious” bridge at a recent conference. At this conference, I found another beginning player and a couple of more experienced players who agreed to play very non-seriously. The only deck of cards we could find was kind of a disaster—anyone who wanted to identify the jack of spades (which was actually a modified joker) from the back could easily have picked it out at three paces. But we had a great time, and two hours passed like absolutely nothing. The next night we played again, though we had to take turns because there were several more people who wanted to play (and alas, still only one deck of cards). Playing was fun, and I felt like I got to talk to some people in a different way than I generally would have at a conference. It was awesome. Hooked, my fellow beginner and I decided to get a math group together for online Skype-bridge. We Skyped and used the website Bridge Base Online and some pretty basic bidding conventions. We made a lot of mistakes, but again, it was totally fun. I think this is the clearest way in which playing bridge is like talking math—you have to be willing to make mistakes in public, but the payoff can be great when you get going. I can’t wait for the next one.

I think my only caveat here is that, as in a mathematical collaboration, matching expectations is key—I am still a beginner, and a good, serious bridge player who unwittingly got stuck with me as a partner would hate it. However, while there are many competitive, skilled bridge players in math, it seems that even really good bridge players can have fun playing with beginners, as long as they know what they are getting into. Playing online, though, people can be very unkind. I’m talking to you, guy who all caps yell-chatted at me for playing too slow.

So, the moral of the story is that I think everyone reading this should learn to play some very basic bridge. When we meet at a conference, we should have a great time playing and getting to know each other. We can then ask each other math questions, and the math world will be that much better connected, and happier. Problem solved.

Okay, the real moral of the story is that I learned again that doing non-mathematical activities at conferences can be surprisingly and wonderfully worthwhile. I’m selfishly advocating that everyone learn bridge, but I also had a great time trying bouldering and going hiking with people at the same conference. When we are not doing math, these others are actually just people. Somehow, building awareness of this fact makes it infinitely easier to talk to them about math. With that in mind, maybe it’s time for me to head to the conference reception.

Best conference hangout strategies? Games you like? Bridge tips? Please share in the comments.

Thank you for a fun post, Beth! I whole-heartedly agree with your suggestion of using games to bring math people together. For decades now, I’ve been using card games to get students of all ages to connect with each other. (Those of you who know me, know that my number one game for this is FISH, but that there are other games for when we don’t have exactly six players.) I must admit that I’ve avoided bridge for exactly the reason you mention: some people take it very, very seriously.

I would also like to throw in the fact that there are a lot of things other than math to talk with other mathematicians about. In fact, an awful lot of the mathematicians I know honestly have no interest in the math that I do. They might politely let me talk about my research for a while, but they really aren’t interested….

With mathematicians I’ve not previously met, I will sometimes ask what their research area is, but I will usually move on to asking what school they’re at, and asking about the school and geographical region: how they like it, what are the best parts. I might ask them about aspects of their schools that I haven’t experienced at the schools where I’ve been, for example: Does it cause problems to have a large fraction of your students be commuters? If they are established mathematicians, I might ask them about their academic experiences: Were you ever Department Chair? How did you like it? (This can get some people talking like crazy!) If all of this sounds too personal, try talking about food!!

Yes, if you talk with someone who is in your area of research (particularly if you just gave a talk), you should expect to talk math with them. If you really don’t want to talk about your work much, say a bit, then ask them about their work. And remember, you don’t have to interrupt them every time they say something you don’t know, but you should feel free to do so occasionally. Who knows? You might even learn something!

Finally, if you really are nervous about talking to other mathematicians, look around for someone else who is standing off to the side watching. Perhaps you can bring yourself to do a good deed and talk to that person — not necessarily about math…perhaps ask them if they’ve ever played bridge!

Thanks for the ideas, Helen. You are a conference social guru.

As another idea for games, the first conference I went to as an undergrad, a bunch of people I met on the train invited me to play Dutch Blitz. This is a great card game which is a combination of solitaire and speed. I think the Bridge idea is really great for a quiet evening of talking, which is good for getting to know people. Dutch Blitz is more a game of slapping other people’s hands and laughing when someone beats you to a card. It’s a lot of fun and a great way to get to break down barriers, especially if it’s between mathematicians from different stages in their careers. The game also goes by the name Nertz. I highly suggest checking it out as an ice breaker at a conference.

That sounds great. This sounds fast and simple enough that it might even be good for undergraduate class icebreaking?

I’m totally bringing a deck of cards to every conference I go to now!

Yes! Let’s play some bridge!

One conversation that’s great with senior, famous, mathematicians is to ask what conference sites they recommend. They’ve been everywhere many times and can tell great stories.