Math talk etiquette; also, hello from France!

20 Jan

I’m skipping a poster session right now at this incredible conference  to take some time when there aren’t 100 peoples’ faces around me (does this happen to other people?  I just need to *not* see a face right now), so figured I’d write a quick post while huddling in my room.  Also, I’m in math heaven again (MSRI was the last time I was in math heaven), only this time the rooms are in the building, and they feed us delicious French food for all our meals.  CIRM is pretty amazing and if any mathletes out there are reading this, I highly recommend finding a conference taking place here and going.

By now I’ve been to many math talks (and I hope to go to many more!) and I’ve picked up on some random math etiquette that beginning grad students/undergrads might not realize.  So here’s my list.


  • Write Thm: [Last name-last name of people who wrote it] theorem here.
  • If it’s your theorem, just use your initial.  Example: [D.-myfriend’slastname].
  • Names go alphabetically.  Because we’re math!  None of that first authorship/last authorship of other fields.
  • Speaking of underlining, underline all words that are defined too.


  • Always include history.  I didn’t realize this until I got to graduate school.  It gives your talk context and shows respect for those who came before you and made your research possible.  Plus it’s pretty awesome.  Exceptions if it’s a very short talk.
  • Always thank the organizers/inviters at the beginning and end.
  • One mathematical joke is really great.  Two is okay.  Three gets to be too many.  Zero is also great.  Even if you’re a huge goofball, it seems like mathematical audiences can only stand so many jokes (but we do love them).
  • Speaking of jokes, people love cultural in-jokes.  I heard three jokes about the number of saunas in Finland when I was at a conference in Helsinki, and it’s still funny.  If you’re American and reading this, avoid cultural jokes.  If you’re not, have at it!  I especially enjoy when, to skip a long calculation, speakers write “beurk” and explain that that’s French for “yuck”
  • Beurk!  It’s better to be too basic than too advanced.


  • If you suspect you will fall asleep (some of us are pros at this), don’t sit in the front.  Also, try to avoid that head flopping thing.  Either commit to the sleep if you’re falling asleep, or commit to not falling asleep (I don’t know how to do that).  Everyone has fallen asleep at some point during a talk.  My friend just told me that it was slightly comforting to have me fall asleep beside him just now, as it reminded him of the many classes we’ve taken together over the years.
  • Ask questions.  If the speaker doesn’t see your hand, it’s not rude to call out “excuse me” or “sorry” or “can I ask a question?”  Plus if you leave your hand up and the speaker keeps not seeing you, it makes everyone uncomfortable.
  • Don’t leave.  If you’re not sure if this talk will hold your interest for the whole time, but are still interested in coming, sit in the back and bring a paper to read or some work to do.  Be discreet.  Exceptions to the don’t leave rule: you or your partner is having a baby or a medical emergency, you really have to use the bathroom.

There’s lots and lots of other resources for this: this page from the Topology Students Workshop (which I attended two years ago) has links to all sorts of do’s and don’ts (I like Dan Margalit’s a lot).

I’ll try to do the thing I did last year when I was at this conference (it was in Haifa, Israel last time) and type up some notes.  I’m really enjoying Hee Oh’s minicourse so far, and Apollonian circle packings are a great and pretty topic for a blog post for non-mathers (and the rest of my notes might be useful for mathers).


One Response to “Math talk etiquette; also, hello from France!”


  1. An open problem in group theory | Baking and Math - February 25, 2014

    […] last post was about Hee Oh‘s talk at CIRM from that conference I went to last month-it actually covered the first third or so of the first of four lectures she gave.  Étienne Ghys […]

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