How good is your think tank etiquette?

Attending talks at think tanks or other venues can be enriching and educational. It can also be painful, thanks to some members of the audience.

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Micah Zenko has had enough, and he’s naming names...sort of.

As a frequent attendee and sometime speaker, I have discovered that there a number of common mistakes made in a Q&A session, which can unfortunately detract from the event as a whole. In order to prevent well-intentioned attendees from making these same mistakes, I created a classification system to identify these saboteurs of academic or policy-related talks.

You’ve seen them all before: the “What About My Thing?” person, the “Shoehorn,” the “You Don’t Know Me!” foreigner or ex-pat, the “Spoiler” and the “Conspiracy Theorist.”

As somebody who splits his time between Washington and Brooklyn, I especially appreciate the “Wonk Hipster.”

Like the guy with a porkpie hat and bizarre facial hair whose favorite band is one you’ve never heard of, this audience member has some historical or current information that nobody else knows about. The wonk hipster initiates the unveiling of his hidden gems with, “Well if you’d bothered to read,” or, “You mean you’ve never heard of…?” More often than not, the secret information will not even be in the public domain, such as a recently assembled dataset that hasn’t appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. Victory for the wonk hipster is the smug self-satisfaction that comes with demonstrating mastery of the obscure and remote.

Final advice: “The next time you are sitting in such an event, ask a relevant question, pass the microphone, and listen.”

Allen McDuffee writes about politics and policy and covered think tanks for The Washington Post from 2011 to 2013. He blogs and hosts a podcast at governmentality.net and is currently working on a book about the influence of think tanks in Washington.

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