How to Walk into a Seminar Late

I was sitting in a small seminar today (about 20 people in a conference room) when someone walked in about 10 minutes late for the talk. This didn't bother the presenter, and I'm not even sure if everyone saw this person walk in (I was sitting particularly close to the door). It wasn't that she was walking into the seminar late that bothered me -- we all get caught up doing things only to realize that we nearly missed an appointment -- but how she walked in. I'm sure everyone has walked into a talk after it has begun, and, depending on whether it's a lab meeting, departmental seminar, or platform session at a conference, the response from everyone else can range from negative to neutral. But there are ways to walk into a meeting late that do not draw attention, and there are ways to make everyone notice. After the fold I present my guidelines for how to walk into a seminar late.

I am assuming that you do not want to draw attention to yourself when you walk in late. The ideal situation would be for no one to notice you, and you find a seat for the rest of the talk. In reality, the best we can hope for is some folks see you but are not distracted by your tardy arrival. And, of course, finding a seat is a big plus.

  • Do not do anything obvious to draw attention to yourself: Do not violently throw open the door. Do not run into the room screaming. Do not charge up to the presenter and give him or her a bear hug. This is pretty obvious stuff, so I won't dwell on it.

  • Do not try really hard not to be noticed: This is where most people have trouble. They open the door very slowly thinking that it will make less noise. Most doors do not have squeaky hinges. No matter how slowly you open the door, it will not make noise. In fact, a squeaky hinge will make more noise the longer you spend opening the door! Also, the more time you spend opening the door, the more time for people to notice you walking into the room. They then peer in as they are opening the door slowly and make that stupid "Oops, I'm walking in late face". They think that if they make that face people will forgive them for walking in late. It just makes me want to kick their ass. Next, they slowly close the door for the same stupid reason they open it slowly. Once again, more time to make noise and more time to be noticed. All in all, it's a bad strategy.

  • Know the lay of the land: It's better to walk in late if you know how the room is set up. Usually, if you know how the room is set up, you've been to a meeting in that room before, and you know some of the people who will be in the room. People who know you tend to be more forgiving, as well. If you show up late, and you don't know how the room is set up, you'll be stuck trying to be stealth in foreign territory, and a bunch of people who don't know you will think you're a disrespectful asshole. If you know the lay of the land you'll be able to find a seat quickly and improvise if none are available.

  • Find a seat quickly: Ideally, you want to sit, not stand, for however long you're in the room. If you're at a conference with 15 minute talks, and you plan on staying for a single talk, then you probably don't need to worry about being stealth (if you arrive late, people probably won't notice you and you'll miss a large portion of the talk) and having a seat isn't all that important. This list is geared more towards hour long talks such as departmental seminars and lab meetings. You do not want to stand for an hour, so you need to find a seat. If you arrive late, chances are most of the easy to reach seats are occupied (if not, sit in one of those). If you do not see any easy to access seats and you know the lay of the land, figure out where the open seats are. Find the closest open seat that you can move to with the least distracting maneuvers. For example, if there are two seats equidistant from the door, go to the one that requires you to be in the fewest lines of sight. If there are no available seats (and you cannot see anything from the ground), find a sturdy table and sit on it or lean against a wall (if you really wanted to sit down you would have shown up on time).

  • Do everything with a purpose: Open the door with confidence, walk into the room like you belong there, and sit down quickly. The less time you spend as a distraction, the less of a distraction you will be. This goes along with not trying hard not to be noticed. The problem with people who try not to be noticed is that they are timid. In their feeble attempt to go unnoticed, they end up drawing attention to themselves. If you walk in late as if it's no big deal, it will be no big deal. It's like Zen for walking into meetings.

  • Do not ask questions: Any time you walk in late, you run the risk of missing some important material. If you ask a question, it's possible that you will point out your ignorance of that material. In the best case scenario, the presenter quickly summarizes what you missed and answers your question. At worst, the presenter says, "I covered that already and I won't repeat it," and everyone points at you and laughs. Either way, your cover is blown. Everyone knows you walked in late.

Any other suggestions?

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Any other suggestions?

Suggestions for what? Sorry...was late to the blog. :)

A corollary for the speaker or leader of a seminar to which someone arrives late:

Pause to let the person find a place but don't say anything. In a seminar room, most people will notice a late arriver and for a short while shift their attention from your talk to the arriver. You can best help your listeners retain the train of thought by allowing a short silent moment for the distraction, then picking up again where you left off. If you keep going without the pause, your listeners will be distracted and lose a bit, if you draw extra attention to to the new arrival, you are actively breaking their train of thought more than necessary, and will have to work to get people on board again. (And of course, scoring cheap points off the late arriver with sarcasm will only make that worse.)

While it is never fun to be interrupted, you can minimize the damage.

In the monastery, this is my technique when arriving late to the dining room (also our conference room, our party room, our lecture hall), I first find and slip over my head a chalk board (I should explain, when one takes a vow of silence, one is permitted to carry about a smallish chalk board, usually hung from the neck by a simply flaxen cord, I suppose looking somewhat like a youth wearing an iPod, dangling from the neck). Then I hurriedly chalk the word "SYGNOMI" onto said chalkboard, now hanging from my neck. Then upon entering the dining room, naturally all eyes will greet me with the usual knitting of the brows, but nevertheless, I will stride in and holding the corner of the suspended chalk board in my right hand with thumb and index finger, I will kind of give the chalk board a tiny thrust toward any glaring eyes, whereupon the glare immediately shifts to the speaker, for most brothers, even though they are sticklers for decorum, will begrudgingly respect a brother during a vow of silence. Of course this technique requires that I chalk all questions to the speaker ...

A corrolary to the "find a seat quickly" item: find a seat that requires the fewest distractions for you to get to. It might be better to go four rows back than to slide past three people seated in the row nearest the door. Counterintuitively, the front row, often unoccupied, and nearly always possible to find a seat in without requiring others to stand, might be your best bet.

These tenants seem to work well with college classes as well. Would you recommend any other tips for those ignorant undergraduates who walk in late to your class?

The front row is a great place to find a seat, but it depends on how the room is set up. In the seminar that inspired this post, the room is poorly designed for maximizing seating (there is a lot of unvailable space in the middle of the room taken up by tables arranged in a circle). I just got back from another seminar that was in a more classroom style room. I checked the back of the room (where the doors are) and 5-10 people were standing, while there were unoccupied seats in the front.

I like to walk in late and tell the presenter that they may now continue.. just kidding! I am NEVER late, becasue my Dad taught me that if you're not early you're late. Words that I have been hard-wired to live by.

What if the chairs are arranged around tables, and the tables are too close together for you to walk between them, and the seating is assigned, and your assigned seat is on the far side of the room? Then what?

By David McCabe (not verified) on 15 Feb 2006 #permalink

I would add, as a corollary to 'know the lay of the land':

If at all possible, enter in the rear of the room

Most -- maybe all -- of the conference rooms we have here at LANL have two doors, and are set up so that the speaker will be at one end or the other. I am often mystified by those -- who I know know the layout of a particular room as well as I do -- who choose to enter late on the speaker's side fo the room, thus maximizing the distraction.

By Hank Alme (not verified) on 16 Feb 2006 #permalink

Avoid obstructing the view of other attendees as far as is possible.

It is really annoying to be interupted when in the process of reading a slide, graph, etc. Stick to the sides of the room until you know where you're going to sit, sit down quickly once you decide, and whatever you do, don't walk in front of the projector.