I'm thinking that someone needs to have a conference workshop on basic etiquette. I'm not talking about the sort of professional development stuff that young professionals and graduate students might like (and need) in which they can discuss such subjects as appropriate business attire, the need for business cards and thank you notes, and that you are supposed to thank the people who put together your panel before you start your paper and such (yep, just learned that one myself).
What I am thinking is a workshop that addresses much more egregious breaches of polite behavior by people who really should know better. Furthermore, those people who should know better should receive personal and engraved invitations to these workshops because -- damn! -- what the hell is wrong with them?
I will give you a few examples. These are all real events. I have not used names or many identifying features in order to protect the guilty -- who need no protection -- as well as the innocent -- who do. These stories do not all involve the same people, although the "you" in two are the same person, the rude person in two others are the same person, and the "you" in one example is the rude person in another. All of the rude people are men over the age of 55, and all but one are white. The gender and age of "you" varies, but they are all white (god knows how much worse these stories would have been had race been a variable). The academic class of the rude people is uniformly that of tenured, full professors. The "yous" are of all academic classes down to graduate student.
1) Let's say that you had written a glowing book review that was published in a reputable journal. Let's say that you subsequently ran into the author of the book. The proper thing for the book author to say to you would be, "thank you so much for your kind review." The improper thing for the author to say would be, "you did it wrong," and then proceed with a description of the review that s/he would prefer you to have written.
2) Let's say you are someone who became a parent later in life, and that this was a wonderful, exciting thing for you. Let's say that you show your baby pictures -- and your baby is gorgeous -- to a colleague. The proper thing for that colleague to do would be to say, "what a lovely baby, you must be so happy! Congratulations!" The improper thing for that colleague to do would be to embark upon a line of questioning about the parentage of the child that manages to be stunningly ageist, racist, and provincial.
3) Let's say that you have just received a book contract (based upon a proposal) with a pretty impressive press, in their trade division, with a (modest) advance. You see a former mentor and tell them this wonderful news. The proper response from the mentor should be, "what amazing news! You will do a great job, it's a great topic! Congratulations!" The improper response from the mentor would be to purse his lips, look out over your head, harrumph, and change the subject.
4) Let's say that you go to a session at a conference. The session is on a subject about which you know quite a bit and, in fact, on which you are writing a book. Granted, one of the panelists and you have a very unpleasant professional history, but that was at least 6 years ago, and you'd rather like to put it behind you and at least be able to nod at one another when you cannot entirely avoid one another. That panelist delivers an amazingly pedestrian paper on a more specific aspect of the subject that is connected to a broader historical phenomenon; and you have actually thought a lot about that phenomemnon since the popular conception of it is based on a lot of mythology that goes back a century and the academic scholarship has not fully reconceptualized it. So, you offer a couple of suggestions of ways for the panelist to think about that phenomenon that might allow him to inject some new and original ideas into his work by reframing a section of his paper and that will put him squarely into the reconceptualization conversation.* In other words, you see a way to help him make his paper much better and perhaps more important, so you offer your insight.
The proper way for the panelist to respond is to at least pretend that he is aware that words are coming out of your mouth as you make the comments, to thank you for your contributions, and to engage with the actual ideas that you offered.
The improper way for the panelist to respond is to not even look in your direction or acknowledge that he is being addressed while you make your comments, to become shockingly hostile and defensive for someone who is supposedly a senior scholar, to not even look at you when he responds to your comment, to act as if you said the EXACT OPPOSITE of what you said and, when you correct him, continues to act as if you said the EXACT OPPOSITE of what you said even when you have to correct him again,** (in other words, to completely avoid engaging with the ideas that you offered) then to some snide, unconcealed little comment to the person sitting next to him, as if he shouldn't have been forced to interact with someone as heinous as you, as the chair calls on the next person.
5) Let's say that you are a young woman. Let's say that you are minding your own business walking up some stairs. Let's say that you pass a senior scholar coming down the stairs. The proper way for the senior scholar to behave does NOT involve trying to look down the young woman's shirt.
6) Let's say that you are on a panel and that you are of an age not usually associated with childbearing. Let's say that you and your spouse are quite happily expecting a child. The proper thing for the chair of the panel to do when introducing you is to mention your accomplishments and your paper title. The improper thing for the chair to do is to note your advancing age, note that you and your spouse are expecting a child, and then make a nasty comment about you being perhaps too old to be doing so.
To be fair, so many other people around these examples were generous, smart, kind, supportive, congratulatory, and just plain decent that these egregious acts of rudeness stood out in stark contrast -- and they came in all genders, races, ages, and academic classes.
Still, these rude people are grown-ups, established scholars, who have the sort of privilege, success, and security that allows them to be magnanimous -- or, at the very least, polite -- to other people. There were plenty of examples around them. Saying "cute kids!" or "great news!" or "interesting points" or "thank you" or simply just not looking down shirts and insulting people's age, doesn't cost them any sort of capital. Not doing so makes these d00ds look like raving assholes. So, why on earth must they be jerks?
I mean -- damn! -- what is wrong with people?
*Incidentally, you are painfully aware of your unpleasant professional history with the panelist, so you are very careful to be complimentary and stress that you are trying to point out something that might help the panelist write something really good, and on your guard not to say anything that might be construed as bitchy -- you even ask another panelist afterward if you were being bitchy and learn that you were not.
**Seriously, you say something to the effect of, "I'm not saying that X is lying about the subject, I'm just saying that -- as another panelist has pointed out -- we should look at the context of what he says about the subject and how X is contributing to the national conversation about the events of the day that included that subject."
Then the panelist says, "well X isn't lying about the subject, the evidence proves that he isn't."
So you respond, "No, I'm not saying that X is lying. I am saying that he is speaking to this group of people, in this period of time, in which these types of people are saying these types of things about these events that happened 25 years earlier. So, approaching the way that X describes those events and knowing the evidence about those events, you might want to consider the ways that he is contributing to that discussion."
Then, the panelist says, "The evidence shows that X isn't lying. And X would never agree with those people."
You say, "I'm not saying that X is lying -- he is telling the truth and the evidence shows that he is telling the truth -- and of course he doesn't agree with those people, but to examine how he uses their language to make the opposite point might be an interesting and important way to go."
So the panelist says, "X isn't lying. He didn't agree with those people."
You then wonder if your lady voice is too high for his manly auditory abilities, and note that this was not the first time that you had observed a similar interaction in which a d00d totally ignores what a woman is saying in order to prove that he has the authority on the subject. You also wonder if the panelist REALLY doesn't understand anything beyond "X happened, then Y happened, then Z happened, and that means this very pedestrian point of fact that is on every historical marker between Baltimore and Toronto."
Then you bitch about it the whole two hours home until you can dump it on your blog.