Suggestions for Coping with a 5000-person Conference.

So you’re about to attend a conference with five thousand other people. Maybe you don’t enjoy being around thousands of people for multiple hours over several days. Your reasons are your own, though they might include the endless small talk; walking with, through, and around hundreds of people just to get from one end of the building to the other; or the overstimulation of hearing the surrounding conversations, seeing the throngs of people, or sensing not only your restlessness, but also the restlessness of thousands of other people stuck in the same building.[1. I am always delighted if people find posts like this one helpful, though this one is clearly a reminder for me. I’ll be at the National Council for Behavioral Health Conference this week. And, while I am pleased with the opportunity to learn stuff, I’m not thrilled with the prospect of spending three days with five thousand other people.]

Here are some suggestions to cope with make the most of your time at the conference:

Sit up front and near the center aisle. By sitting up front, you’re more likely to forget about all the overstimulation people behind you. Sitting next to the center aisle (if there is one) does the same thing; you don’t have to look over an entire room of heads to see and hear the speaker. If you’re more comfortable with one-on-one conversations, this seating strategy mimics that interaction: You can tune everyone else out and focus on the speaker.

This strategy doesn’t work well for speakers presenting to enormous rooms because the seats up front are often pressed up against a stage… which puts you close to loud speakers and Powerpoint presentations with words that are wider than your head. In that case, I still suggest sitting near the middle, though you’ll have to decide how many dozens of people you want to climb over and can tolerate for at least an hour.

Bring your own meals, snacks, and beverages. If you don’t like spending time with thousands of people, I am going to guess that you also don’t like waiting in lines with dozens of people who are hungry and thirsty. Packing your own food will give you the freedom to find a quiet corner or hallway between sessions or during lunch while everyone else is waiting in line.

Learn the locations of the bathrooms that are a little out of the way. This is particularly useful for the ladies because it is entirely possible that several hundred women will use the women’s restroom at the same time. If you use the bathrooms that are a little out of the way, you are less likely to both wait in line and have to make small talk. You are thus more likely to have a few more quiet moments to yourself.

Bring a lithium battery charger for your phone. This ensures that you will have sufficient charge to text your other introverted friends and colleagues when you want to share something without talking. You also won’t have to worry about your battery draining when you’re live-tweeting the sessions. And, if you really need to tune out, you’ll have the power to plug in headphones between sessions and listen to music you like. The visual cue of headphones prevents most people from approaching you to talk.

Sit by yourself with your nametag out of sight. The more people at a conference, the more anonymity you can have. If you’re one of a thousand people sitting in a room, you can easily surround yourself with others who also don’t look interested in talking to strangers. Being alone all together often doesn’t feel overstimulating because that pocket of people is focused on the speaker, not on each other.

To be clear, sometimes this strategy backfires: You might sit down next to someone who looks uninterested in small talk, but then she starts asking for your name, where you work, and what you do there. This is my “woo woo” strategy, which is going to sound weird, but it works for me: If I’m not in a space where I want to talk to people, I make a point of “turning my energy down/making myself invisible” before I walk into a room. I literally tell myself, “Okay, Maria, make yourself invisible.” In my mind’s eye, there is a light—like a spotlight—that emanates from my chest outward into the world. When I make myself invisible, I dim that light in both color and intensity. My body language and “energy” must visibly change because people leave me alone.[2. Conversely, there are times when I want to make sure I’m visible. I “turn up” the light before I teach or give presentations. I also brighten the light when I’m crossing the street and a mob of people are walking towards me. Again, my body language and energy must change sufficiently because most people get out of the way.]

Remember why you’re there. Remember that you don’t have to talk to anyone. If your goal is to learn from others, you don’t have to do anything but listen. If you have questions, you’ll naturally ask them. If other people talk to you, you don’t have to have a conversation with them. There are ways to stop talking without coming across as rude, though many of these strategies involve avoidance. If these are people who don’t know you, though, they won’t think about or remember you or what you did. Provided that you were courteous and didn’t zip a sweater over your entire head when they started talking to you.

You’re not the only person who feels overstimulated at these sorts of events. There are plenty of other people who will feel relief that you’re not introducing yourself with the energy of a thousand suns, talking about the weather that lacks the light of even one sun, or asking questions to determine how you should file them into your mental catalog.

And, lastly, remember that you’re not a curmudgeon. You’re just an introvert attending an extroverted event in an extroverted world. Good luck.