Surviving Convention Season: Part 5 — Etiquette

Hot Elf Guy wants YOU to not be a dick.

It’s been awhile since I’ve written a new installation of my convention survival series, and this topic is an important one. Every social situation has its own rules of etiquette. Some things are just basic manners and apply to nearly every social situation; other things are specific to being polite in crowds; other things still are specific to the convention environment. This post will primarily be divided up into those three parts, but the entirety of everything below can be summed up in two points:

  1. Do not neglect personal hygiene.
  2. Don’t be a dick.

However, as I am well aware, the type of individual who is attracted to the convention scene is also often the type who needs things spelled out a little more specifically. As geeks and nerds, social graces are not always our particular forte, crowds can be stressful (especially for claustrophobes and introverts), and the impulse to become a squee-ing fangirl or fanboy is a bit difficult to overcome sometimes.

Basic manners

Bad touch! Bad touch!

For whatever reason, when a lot of people get together in large groups, the anonymity that the crowd gives them tends to cause basic manners to be tossed to the wind. Conventions in particular seem to bring out certain bad behaviors that I’m fairly certain most of the people acting that way would never do otherwise. At the top of the list of basic manners that should be observed is the respect for personal space. In a crowd, the definition of personal space gets a little skewed, but the underlying principles remain the same: don’t touch strangers without asking first; don’t touch people who don’t want to be touched; and if you accidentally bump into someone, apologize. You wouldn’t just walk up to someone in the grocery store and give them a hug without warning because you like their shirt, and you shouldn’t do it at a convention, either. The good news is, however, that while the person at the grocery store would undoubtedly give you a strange look and tell you no, the person you ask at a convention would, at a minimum, not be weirded out by the question and would be much more likely to respond favorably to your request. But if you don’t ask first (in either situation), expect to be taken to the floor in a rather painful fashion.

The next basic, common-sense item I’m going to discuss is personal hygiene. Just do it. I know some of you probably do only bathe once or twice a week (and I’m occasionally guilty of it myself when I get really busy), but if you’re going to be around people in a social or professional setting, please try to bathe more regularly than that. This goes double for conventions, possibly even triple for big shows at the peak of the season because it’s hot, crowded, and you’re probably a lot more active than your two-to-three-times-a-week shower schedule probably works for. Even if you don’t live up to the stereotype of the unshowered nerd and do tend to bathe regularly, the bustle (and booze) of a convention may still tempt you to leave the shower by the wayside and cause you to also forget your deodorant. Don’t give in. It’s hot, you’re sweaty, and con funk is NOT spontaneously occurring. Take a shower every night (or morning), and don’t forget your deodorant. Brushing your teeth once or twice a day is probably not a bad idea, either. If you don’t have a hotel room or if you’re not attending a convention close to home, it’s likely that you know at least one person who has access to a shower they’ll let you use. Just ask. When it comes to not having to smell your personal marinade, people can be very accommodating. (Though I would like to emphasize that you should probably ask someone you know, as a stranger will be less likely to acquiesce no matter how bad you smell.)

For completeness’ sake, though this should also go without saying, abide by all local laws and written policies for the venue and convention. Your convention membership is not a license to do whatever you want, and you can still be arrested or kicked out of the convention if you destroy property, steal, harass people, get into fights, expose yourself, etc.

Crowd etiquette

The rules for being polite in a crowd and making your and everyone else’s experiences as pleasant as possible have their roots in basic manners. If you like, consider this Level 2 in the Manners Skill.

When in a crowd, don't be a zombie. Nobody likes zombies. Hot chicks REALLY don't like zombies. (Credit: Andrew Guyton)

Since space in a crowded area tends to be at a premium, you will occasionally accidentally bump into people, step on their toes (or trailing costume bits), or need to ask someone to move so you can get through. “Excuse me” is a multi-purpose phrase that works in all of these situations. Your parents may have taught you this at some point, and you may even use it regularly. Don’t forget about it at conventions. It’s useful.

Sometimes, if you need to get through a crowd, it’s too loud for people to hear you, and they may not hear your request for them to move out of the way. This is a circumstance in which it is okay to make physical contact with an individual without asking first. The best, least awkward way to get someone’s attention when they don’t hear you or otherwise seem unaware of your presence is to touch them lightly on the upper arm (between the shoulder and elbow). You can use the front or back of your hand, but be sure not to grab the person or touch them for longer than is necessary for them to realize you’re there. Then say “excuse me” (even if you said it already) and continue on your way.

If you’re walking in a crowd that is moving (such as in a corridor or near stairs), don’t stop in your tracks suddenly. This has very much the same effect as slamming on your breaks on the highway. Sometimes it’s necessary to avoid a collision (someone cuts in front of you, a kid trips and falls across your path…), but if you’re stopping because you think you’ve lost your party or because you want to look at something, try to move to the side and out of the path of traffic before stopping.

Related to this, don’t block doorways, walkways or stairs by sitting or standing in/on them. This creates a fire hazard and can also cause a tripping hazard (or a getting hit in the face with a door hazard) if someone doesn’t see you there. Convention staff or other security personnel will tell you to move if you do this. Don’t argue or get pouty if they do. It’s their job, and they’re right. Just move. I don’t care how much your feet hurt or how tired you are, and neither do they.

For escalators and moving sidewalks that are wider than a single person, remember the rule: “Stand to the right, walk to the left.” Some people are in a bigger hurry than others. This applies in pretty much any situation where you’re using an escalator, not just conventions. If you need a way to remember which side to stand on, if you live in a drive-on-the-right-side country, it works the same as on the highway–slower traffic (in this case standing traffic) keep to the right. If you live in a drive-on-the-left-side country, you probably already know this rule and have had it beaten into you and don’t need a way to remember.

It should also go without saying that priority for elevators always goes to the disabled, no matter how long you’ve been waiting for one. If they want to defer to someone who’s been waiting longer, that’s their call, but you should never shove into an elevator in front of someone in a wheelchair. (I would argue, however, that this rule doesn’t apply to obese people on motorized scooter chairs, so feel free to make your own judgement call on that one.)

Convention-specific etiquette

Every social situation has rules of engagement that are specific to that situation. A convention is no different. Some of these rules build on crowd etiquette and basic manners. Others are specific to conventions and similar gatherings.

To start, just because someone is in costume, is scantily clad or is otherwise dressed in a manner that excites you somehow, that does not give you license to touch them, hug them, glomp them or otherwise molest them without asking first. I know I covered this somewhat in basic manners, but it bears repeating in a specific context. I would wager that more often than not, if you tell someone that you like their costume and ask if you can touch the fabric or have a hug, they’ll be okay with it. Cosplayers appreciate being appreciated. Of course, whether or not they’re okay with it is usually going to depend on how you ask. A few examples:


“Hey, that’s a really good Power Girl costume! The fabric looks interesting; would you mind if I touched it?”


“You look hot as Power Girl. Can I pet you?”


“I like your shirt/costume. Can I have a hug?”

(The success rate for this is higher among women askers than men, but this is the proper way of asking for either gender.)


“OHMIGOD I LOVE [fandom/character]!” *glomp*

(Attempting this may win you an express trip to the floor with a complimentary concussion.)

Don't do this. Ever. (Credit: Andrew Guyton)

Similar rules govern taking pictures of people. Under most circumstances, if you want to take a picture of someone, ask them. If they’re in costume, they’ll almost always say yes (unless they’re in a hurry to be somewhere). Taking pictures and having pictures taken is a big part of convention and cosplay culture. If you see someone in costume who is already having their picture taken by someone (or several someones) and you want a picture too, it is usually acceptable to join the group and take a picture without asking explicitly–just make sure you don’t get in the way of the other photographers.

If you’re trying to get a cosplayer’s attention to ask if you can take a picture and they don’t acknowledge you, don’t take it personally–they probably didn’t hear or see you. Just like most everyone else at the convention, they’re likely thinking about something other than having their picture taken. I know I’ve been guilty of not noticing when someone wants to take my picture, usually when I’m on a mission to get somewhere. To that end, walk-by photos are not inherently creepy, so if you can’t get someone’s attention or it’s not practical for one or both of you to stop, and you really want a shot of their costume, it’s probably okay to snap a quick picture.

Most people in costume don’t mind having their picture taken in general, so if it’s not possible to ask them if you can take a picture, it’s still usually okay. However, do try to ask permission whenever you can. It’s just polite. Additionally, whether you’re snapping pictures with permission or not, DON’T BE THAT GUY. You know the one I mean. Don’t be that guy who sneakily (or sometimes not so sneakily) takes pictures of girls’ butts and boobs to the exclusion of the rest of them.

Another rule about taking pictures is more related to crowd etiquette: avoid blocking foot traffic when you’re taking pictures. It always seems that you find the best costumes while you’re on a crowded walkway. It’s like the Murphy’s Law of cosplay photography. When this happens, ask the person if you can take their picture, then ask if you can move to the side or go over by the wall so you don’t get in everyone’s way. This really has three benefits: you don’t piss other people off by blocking traffic,  you usually get a cleaner background  for your picture, and you don’t feel as rushed to take the picture since you’re not in anyone’s way. All of these things result in better pictures.

Before I move on to other convention-specific manners, a final note about taking pictures of cosplayers: Whenever you can, thank the subject for letting you take a picture. It’s just polite.

While it should just be common courtesy, it always seems that some people need to be reminded that it’s not nice to harass the convention’s guests. Wil Wheaton recently posted an account on his blog about a very rude individual who accosted him at SDCC, and I would point to her as an example of how NOT to act. (Go read the post. I’ll still be here when you get back.) Also related, when it comes to Q&A in panels, questions such as “does the carpet match the drapes” are NEVER appropriate to ask.

Can't we all just get along?

Speaking of panels, while in a perfect world there would be infinite space in every panel, the laws of physics and the fire code prevent everyone from being able to get into every panel they want to see. Thus, we wind up with long lines of people waiting for a spot in the ballroom, sometimes hours in advance. This can be a real pain, and when you’ve committed the time to wait in line for two hours, it really sucks when someone jumps the line. As much as you may be tempted to do so, do not jump down the throat of the line jumper. You may gently suggest that the end of the line is back there, but it’s hardly ever worth it to appoint yourself as queue enforcer. To that end, don’t jump the line. The acceptability of having a friend hold a spot for you because they can get there sooner is something left up to debate, but I would argue that holding a place for one or two people or for your immediate family is fine. Holding a place for your entire graduate school cohort is not. Likewise, if someone near you in line needs to run to the restroom, the nice thing to do is let them back in their place when they get back.

Finally, be nice to the convention staff. At most conventions, staff members are unpaid volunteers who are fans, geeks, nerds, gamers and people just like you. They are giving up time that they could otherwise spend in panels, wandering the dealer’s hall or partying so that the convention runs smoothly and so that you can have a good time. It’s true that some volunteer staff members do tend to be a bit dickish or go on a power trip, but it’s better not to engage them. If a staff member is acting in a way you find inappropriate, your best recourse is to find a department head or head staffer and report the behavior. (Most conventions have the locations of Operations, Lost and Found and/or First Aid in the program guides. Directors can often be found in these locations, or at the very least someone who can direct you to the right person.

All in all, convention etiquette is mostly an exercise in common courtesy and common sense. It’s important that in all of the crowds, sensory overload and excitement that those things don’t get lost. In the end, it makes a better time for everyone.

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