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Off DeWall: Farewell Sydney

Submitted by njdewa2 on Sun, 03/18/2012 - 09:21 am

          Remember Crocodile Dundee? He was the Australian guy who visited America and looked goofy. He wielded a large bowie knife to fight crime. He wore a coat made of Crocodile skin instead of cow hide. And in one of his odder moments Down Under, he dressed up as a kangaroo and shot at kangaroo hunters. As I wrap up my last night in Australia, I reflect on what I’ve learned from my time here – and how I’ve stuck out like a sore thumb.

          To stick out isn’t a big deal. It happens all the time. When I open my mouth, I stick out because others know I’m not Australian. Then there are my frequent questions about all things Australian. “When was the Opera House Built?” (Answer: 1960s) “What does kangaroo taste like?” (Answer: Gamy if it’s anything but rare). “How do you avoid getting knocked on your back by the waves when you’re swimming in the ocean? (Answer: Dive under the swell instead of trying to jump over it) No big deal. Definitely not as cool as Crocodile Dundee.

          But then there are all of those things I learned simply by being a bit different. When I ask a question, I let others know that I’m interested in them. After morning brunch, some friends and I went for a walk around the Sydney Opera House. On our way there, one of my new friends said, “You know where the word kangaroo came from?”

          “I have no idea,” I responded. I knew I was going to eat kangaroo for the first time tonight, so she had my complete attention.

          “When Captain James Cook landed here and saw a kangaroo, he tried to communicate with the Aborigines to ask what the animal was called,” she said. “The Aborigine responded by using the word that meant he didn’t know. That word was gangurru, which later became ‘kangaroo’”

          I was glad to learn something new, but I also wanted to separate fact from fiction. When I got home, I did some web searches. Over and over, there was enough verification that the story was probably true. Pretty cool.

          That’s the sort of experience I continue to have when I travel internationally. I learn new things, from new people, and gain a new perspective on myself and the world. Sure, learning a word’s origin won’t get me a higher salary, a faster car, or a bigger house. It won’t help me achieve anything. But it gives me a sense of fulfillment that I am a better person now than the version that landed here two weeks ago.

Just as my trip to Australia has taught me many other valuable lessons – to relax and not feel guilty about it, to socialize more, and to try to share my adventures with others instead of keeping them to myself – it has also made me more grateful for what I have back in Lexington. Neither place is better than the other. They simply offer two faces of human experience. People are more similar than they are different, but my trip has also shown me how to appreciate the phrase, “Variety is the spice of life.” I’m no Crocodile Dundee, but I’ve loved going Off DeWall with you during the past two weeks.  

Off DeWall: We're All Kevin Bacon

Submitted by njdewa2 on Sat, 03/17/2012 - 10:29 am

          Take seven people and put them in a line. They can be from anywhere. One is from Papua New Guinea, another is from Kentucky, a third person is from Australia, and so on. What will these seven people have in common? One of the people will have a connection to another person in the line. Every person in the world is connected to each other within six degrees of separation. It isn’t just Kevin Bacon who is connected to others. You are too.

          From this perspective, it’s hard to get surprised when you find that you’re connected to others. Yet, today I felt that same sense of shock at how easy it is to find people with whom you have a connection. The story is a short one, but I like it.

          The story begins in January back in Lexington. In the Department of Psychology at the University of Kentucky, we were interviewing a candidate for a faculty position. His name was Will. He did extremely well and we offered him a job. About a month later, Will and his wife, Drew, visited Lexington to get the lay of the land before they made their final decision. They accepted the job offer. We were ecstatic.

          The turn came at Pazzo’s. Over lunch, I mentioned to Drew that I would be visiting Australia in March.

          “Really?” she responded. “I went to college in Australia. Where are you visiting?”

          “The University of New South Wales,” I said. “Have you heard of it?”

          “I went there,” Drew said, with a look of surprise on her face. “My brother goes there now.”

          Today I went to lunch with Drew’s brother (see attached picture). His name is Dax. He’s a second year student here who studies sociology and zoology. We had a blast. Dax talked about what it’s like to be an American studying at an Australian university. He talked about how excited his sister and brother in-law were to move to Lexington, and how he hoped to visit Lexington soon.

          After drinking some coffee on Coogee Beach, we went back to my apartment complex. I bid Dax farewell and told him how great it was to get to meet him. I also told him that I looked forward to seeing him when he visits Lexington.

          Will I ever fail to experience surprise when I experience this sort of connection? I doubt it. No matter how much I know about how easy it is to build social connections, I’m still amazed when they pop up out of nowhere.  



Off DeWall: Where Everybody Knows Your Name (and Your Order)

Submitted by njdewa2 on Fri, 03/16/2012 - 06:45 am

          What television shows remind you of your early childhood? I grew up in the 1980s, which makes reruns of The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and Cheers all qualify as nostalgic programming. As I left the office today, I felt as if I was living part of the theme song from Cheers: “You want to go where everybody knows your name.”              

     Today began my long goodbye to Australia. Although I’ll be here another two full days, it was my last day at the office. It’s been a terrific time. When I arrived, I had three work-related objectives. First, I needed to give a research talk and a writing workshop. I got them out of the way last week, and they were a blast. Second, I wanted to build a stronger collaborative relationship with my host, Tom. Check! We have one new paper ready to be written and two more in the wor

ks. Very productive. Third, I had to continue my science writing for the work I’m doing with my colleagues at Kentucky and elsewhere. This has also been a success. By the time I leave on Monday, I will have submitted three new manuscripts for publication. I met my three objectives.

          But I didn’t realize there were a host of other things I didn’t anticipate that were at least as rewarding as accomplishing my work goals. For example, I loved how much the graduate students and faculty were collegial and social. Every day I would see a graduate student or faculty member who would greet me by my name and ask me how my visit was going. I can’t remember a time when I felt left out, ignored, or excluded since I’ve arrived. Just a swell of acceptance.

         It didn't end there. Remember me mentioning how much I liked the Malaysian laksa soup that they serve here? I became addicted to it. In the nine days I was on campus, I ate laksa soup seven times. I ordered it so many times that when I went to lunch today for my farewell bowl, the lady at the counter wrote my usual order down and asked if I wanted a receipt. (There are lots of different ways you can get your laksa soup. See my earlier post about how I’m a creature of habit.)

         Having a productive work trip is one thing, but feeling connected to the people I’m visiting is worth as much as any paper I’ll ever write. From that perspective, I’ll be living Sydney a rich man. The people who made Cheers were on to something: People want to go where they feel recognized and valued. I’m lucky that I can experience that in Australia and Kentucky.  

Off DeWall: Friends Trump Pigs

Submitted by njdewa2 on Thu, 03/15/2012 - 09:03 am

          Have you ever had your heart set on something, only to have your hopes crumble before your eyes? Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, we all experience setbacks. When I went to college, I was convinced that I would become a famous musician. One difficult, and highly unsuccessful, semester later, I was confronted with the fact that I didn’t have what it took to major in music. I found another love – psychology – and have spent the better part of the past 14 years trying to uncover the mysteries of the mind.

          Today brought another opportunity for resiliency my way. Since I arrived in Sydney, my host Tom said we had to eat a famous dish served at a nice local restaurant. The famous dish is a pig’s head. I’ve never eaten pig head before, nor had I thought about it. But A&S Wired co-Directors Cristina Alcalde and Jeff Rice keep encouraging me to have a more adventurous diet. So when Tom asked if I wanted to eat pig head, I channeled my inner Cristina and Jeff: “Sure, I’ll try it,” I said. I was in.

          Tom corralled a group of seven people to the Pig Head Dinner tonight. We arrived with anticipation. As our server got our drink order, we told her how excited we were to have the pig’s head. One of the dinner goers was scared, as if he was going to have to chase the pig down himself. We gave him support.  

          “I’ve been thinking about doing this for six months,” Tom said. “I’m so excited. This is going to be amazing.”

          “I’m excited too,” I said. “I haven’t been thinking about it as much as you have, but I think it’s going to be good.”

          Suddenly our server returned with a dour look on her face. I didn’t know what was about to happen. And then she said it:

          “I’m sorry to report that we are out of pig’s head tonight,” she said. “I do apologize for this.”

          I saw Tom’s face drop in disappointment the same way mine did when I realized I wasn’t going to graduate with a degree in music. Okay, maybe not that serious, but you get the point. I felt for him. He’s my friend and I never like to see anyone experience disappointment.

          “Do you have any other piece of the pig that we could order?” I asked the server. The laughter that accompanied my question cut the disappointment a bit. Yet, I knew some negative feelings lingered a bit. I know I wasn’t the only one who considered going to a different restaurant.

          Then the group came together, we formulated a Plan B, and we had a wonderful evening (see the picture for proof). We laughed, I got to know everyone a little better, and we left the restaurant closer than we were when we entered it.

          You see, people almost never go out to dinner purely for the food they eat. We go to connect with each other, to create new memories, to laugh, and to get a bit of rest from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. The best source of nourishment we’ll ever get is what we get from each other. So, it didn’t matter whether I ate a pig’s head tonight. What mattered was that I experienced a funny setback with others – and we grew closer because of it.



Off DeWall: The Big Dance, Down Under

Submitted by njdewa2 on Wed, 03/14/2012 - 07:08 am

          Every year it happens. I gasp when I receive the email. I never remember when it starts, but I always remember when it ends. Yes, I’m talking about the NCAA tournament – and about the special bracket tournament that some of my colleagues at Kentucky take part in every year. We get an email reminder, followed by a flurry of activity when people assemble their predicted winners and losers in a neat, sideways pyramid.

          After filling out my bracket yesterday, I could barely contain myself. Would I have the best picks this year? Can Murray State really do that well in the NCAA tournament? Will Syracuse fall when I think they will? Armed with my enthusiasm, I went to a nice dinner with some colleagues and their friends. Two of the people at dinner were from America, so I assumed we could trade our picks for the upcoming Big Dance.

          “I’m so excited for this year’s NCAA tournament,” I said to my American colleague. “It’s huge back in Kentucky.”

          “Is that starting up now? I wasn’t paying attention,” he responded.

          A hush fell over the table, and I knew I might have to keep my excitement to myself. But it didn’t matter – I knew I would have enough excitement when I returned home. On the way back to my apartment, I reflected on how I often I had tried to take an interest in local Australian sports since arriving in Sydney. Almost never.

          Last weekend, I watched cricket for an hour while I worked out at the gym. (In full disclosure, the television’s controls were locked so that I couldn’t change the channel or adjust the volume. I tried to change both.) Bowl after bowl, wicket after wicket, and I still had no idea what was going on. I knew the parts they replayed were important, but I barely knew why. The in-depth analysis skimmed the surface of what I understood.

          Somewhat beleaguered, I mentioned that I watched a cricket match at dinner with a bunch of Americans who live in Sydney. I waited to see their response before I let them know about my experience. Can you predict what they did?

          They smiled in an all-knowing way, which was followed by muffled belly laughs that let me know I had struck a chord.

          “Believe me, you watched a little part of a cricket match,” my new friend Jay told me. “Some matches can last days. Believe me, it could take you years to understand what’s going on.”

          Then he went into helper mode, which I appreciated. He began to talk quickly about how you get runs, how you decide when you’ve had enough runs (sometimes you get a choice, sometimes you don’t), and a bunch of other stuff. The more excited he got, the faster he talked – and the more lost I got. He saw my eyes glaze over and then repeated his earlier statement, “You could watch it for years and still have no idea what’s going on.”

          Which brings me back to the Big Dance. I’m not surprised that people care more about cricket, rugby, or other popular Australian sports than they care about Kentucky’s #1 seed in this year’s NCAA tournament. Part of what makes us human is that we care about what’s close and important to the people around us. I care about my sports; they care about theirs.

I still think my NCAA bracket is great – and I still know that the University of Kentucky is going to win the whole thing. But I also realize that I don’t have to expect other people to care as much as I do. If I lived here, I would probably start to dream about tries, drop goals, or wickets. For now, I’ll still dream about Kentucky cutting down the nets in New Orleans. 

Off DeWall: The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Submitted by njdewa2 on Tue, 03/13/2012 - 08:17 am

         People love to imitate – and we love others who imitate us even more. When you scratch your face, the person talking to you will likely scratch her face. If you jiggle your foot in an interview, you might get a jiggle in return. Since I arrived in Sydney, I have noticed a lot of imitation. Most of it comes from people who have lived the majority of their lives outside of Australia.

          When I say the word “bay,” my voice lowers and drops off at the end. It sounds as if something is winding down, similar to a balloon letting all of its air out. The reason “bay” sounds that way is that I have a Midwestern American accent. Sure, I’m from Nebraska, where accents go to die, but that doesn’t mean my talk is free from these little peccadillos that set my speech apart from yours.

          When Australians from Sydney (not to be confused with Australians from Queensland) say “bay,” something different happens. Their voice goes up at the end, adding an “ih” to let the listener know the word hasn’t ended just yet. The same thing goes for “go” (“go-ih”). It’s a slight difference, but add to it changes in phrasing and speed of delivery and you have a confused American on your hands.

           But not all Americans experience the same confusion I do. These Americans have lived here long enough to not only understand the local dialect – they also use it themselves. Whether they’re from Texas, California, Massachusetts, or Hawaii, they  have grown to imitate the local pronunciation. And this imitation isn’t unique to Americans.

          The person with the best name I’ve met so far, Socrates Mantalaba, also shows this pattern. Socrates is from the Phillipines. He is the business manager in the School of Psychology, where he has worked for the past six years. When I bring him my receipts and he gives me the slip of paper to take to the cashier’s office, he asks me, “Are you-ih sure you-ih know where to go-ih?”

           My bet is that they don’t even know they’ve done it. Fostering connections with others depends on our ability to fit in. It isn’t phony, or fake, or anything other than normal to take on part of the identity of those around us. Taken to extremes, imitation can hurt more than it helps. Yet, imitation is often the sincerest form of flattery because it breeds relationship success.    

Off DeWall: The Pain of Paying

Submitted by njdewa2 on Mon, 03/12/2012 - 07:10 am

          Ever feel that it actually hurts to buy something? Maybe it was that pair of shoes you had to have that cost $500 but broke within three months? Or that $7 coffee beverage that your friends said was so great but you knew was overpriced? I experienced something akin to pain today, but it took an odd form.

          Psychologists have been studying the pain of paying for over a decade. It’s based on the principle that it hurts more to make some purchases than others. The more a purchase hurts, the less people are willing to make it. After all, who wants to experience pain, no matter how much you think you want something?

          As one example, it hurts more to use cash to pay for things than to use credit. When you fork over your cash to buy a pair of shoes, it hurts you more than if you gently swipe your card. This is why using cash – such as the Australian currency to the left – is an effective strategy to control your spending. My wife and I pay cash for almost everything. At the beginning of every week, we go to the cash machine and get what we budget for the week. Even people who pay their credit cards off at the end of every month will spend more than people who pay cash for everything.  

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at an empirical example. In one great study, Carey Morewedge and his colleagues checked the receipts of people as they left a nice grocery store. Customers who paid with cash spent significantly less money ($6.65) than customers who paid with credit ($11.45) or even a debit card ($11.08). Paying with cash hurts, so people refrained from spending it more than the people who swiped their cards.

          My pain of paying took a slightly different angle. It was when I realized it was more painful for me to spend my money than to spend someone else’s money. When I travel on business, the institution or company that hires me usually pays me a fee and covers my expenses. I keep my receipts to cover any costs I incur on the way and returning from the trip (for example, parking at the airport, coffee, a meal if I need one). When I return home, I send my receipts to their accountant who cuts me a reimbursement check. Easy, easy.

          Today I had a curve ball thrown my way: I learned that I receive a daily per diem, and everything I don’t spend I get to keep. Suddenly I’m not being reimbursed for my expenses; I am choosing to use my own money. How do you think this affected my spending?

          You’re probably right: I spent a lot more yesterday (prior to knowing about the policy) than I did today (after I learned about the policy). Being naturally frugal, I know that I’ll continue to spend the way I normally do back in the States. Instead of dining out for three meals a day, I’ll probably eat a bit at my apartment. Instead of getting that behemoth coffee with the extra shot of espresso, I’ll probably refill my bottle of water in the sink. After all, I’m not a glutton for pain – especially when it’s the pain of paying.

This sort of thing is probably natural. It hurts more for me to spend my own money that it hurts to spend yours. Unfortunately, this means that I will spend more than I need to when I know that I’m not paying. The bright side is that this experience has taught me the value of consuming only what I need, no matter who is paying. By taking the perspective of others, I can feel their pain of paying – and spend less as a result. 

Off DeWall: A Taste of Sydney

Submitted by njdewa2 on Sun, 03/11/2012 - 05:44 am

          What kind of taster are you? Do you have extreme reactions to food? Or does it take a lot to get your taste buds going? I’m what taste researchers call a ‘non-taster’ because I can’t taste anything when I put a slip of paper treated with a funky chemical – phenylthiocarbamide (or PTC, for short)– on my tongue. If you haven’t tried it, beware: I gave the chair of my department a PTC strip once and he made a face that let me know it was the worst thing he had ever tasted. He is a supertaster.

           Today I attended the Taste of Sydney festival in Centennial Park. It’s an event where many of the best restaurants put up tents, offer people small portions of great food, and encourage them to have a multifaceted dining experience. My colleague Tom Denson and his wife Nida picked me up, and we zoomed to the festival to meet up with their colleagues Michelle Moulds (clinical psychologist) and Jessica Grisham (clinical psychologist and great-niece of novelist John Grisham). We enjoyed little hamburgers made from Kobe beef, pork belly, ice cream sandwiches, and some nice shrimp concoctions. It was something similar to the Taste of Chicago.

            I’m always amazed at how easy it is to bond over a meal. Probably meals were the one time when our evolutionary ancestors had a chance to get together in safety to rest and have a laugh. We had plenty of laughs today. Several of the people I met today were strangers. But after we had enjoyed some food together, we felt a sense of camaraderie that I doubt we would have experienced had we sat at the beach, met at an office building, or done some other activity. Food breaks the ice better than anything.


        No matter what kind of taster I am, it didn’t matter today. I enjoyed lots of different types of food, made some new friends, and had an experience that will last a lifetime.    

Off DeWall: Time is Relative

Submitted by njdewa2 on Sat, 03/10/2012 - 08:20 am

         The best part of time is that you know what you have and what you don’t. I know that I only have a few more minutes before Saturday turns into Sunday. You know that you have a limited amount of time to read this post. We both know that we’ll never have enough time to do everything we want to do. Yet, time doesn’t always have to be so objective, so quantifiable, so drastic.

          Yes, time can be relative. Einstein knew it and, through a combination of thought experiments and painstaking calculations, he changed how we all think about time. But we don’t need to bend time to realize that it can do weird things. Today, for example, I learned that relative time could change how I approached different situations.

          I woke up early to take a meeting with one of my graduate students back in Kentucky, which was followed by a conference call with four Americans at four different universities. Our discussions were intense, spirited, and enjoyable. Usually I don’t take this tack when I wake up on Saturday, but it wasn’t really Saturday to everyone involved. For my graduate student and other colleagues, it was still Friday in the United States. There was still time to work, to plan, to achieve. Rest comes on the weekends, and although it was the beginning of the weekend for me in Australia, it was the end of the work week back in the United States.

          What happened after my conference call ended? Very easily, I went back into weekend mode. I rode the elliptical machine for an hour, swam in the ocean for a bit, and spent the rest of the afternoon reading and relaxing. A few hours later, I had a nice dinner with my host Tom, his wife Nida, his colleague Jennifer Richman, and Jennifer’s husband, Jay (see picture).

          We adapt so quickly to changes in perceived time because it helps us connect with others. If I had told my colleagues that they wouldn’t receive my full effort because my weekend had already started, I would lose their confidence as a collaborator who can’t go beyond his selfish needs when doing so can serve others. If I spent my dinner without giving my friends my full attention because there was still work to be done back in the United States, I would have also done them a disservice.

Balancing these two commitments – my time as it exists here, and my time as it exists in relation to my American colleagues – is tricky. But it’s worth it. From this management come all of the benefits of social acceptance – that sweet, tasty reward that accompanies adding value to others’ lives. 

Off DeWall: When Social Connections Induce Fatigue

Submitted by njdewa2 on Fri, 03/09/2012 - 06:15 am

          I love feeling connected and writing about connections. And for good reason; my mental and physical health depend in large part on my social connections; my writing about social connections helps pay my bills. But can the benefits of social connection boomerang, leaving people worse off than when they were on their own?

          I started my day having meetings with my graduate students back at the University of Kentucky. We met over Skype, which enabled us to see each other and hear each other through the use of our web cameras. My first meeting was at 6am (2pm Eastern time), and the second meeting took place at 7am (3pm Eastern time). As usual, they meetings were stimulating, engaging, and inspiring. Next, I wrote for an hour, walked to school with Tom Denson, wrote for two more hours, and then went to lunch. After lunch, I emailed, called a couple of people back home, and did some more writing.

          By the time early afternoon rolled around, I was exhausted. I had been so connected to others the entire day that I had worn myself out. I went home with aspirations to go to the gym and cool off in the ocean. I took a nap instead.

          The point is that social connections bring benefits, but they also have costs. This is why people usually don’t have more than five or six friends. Sure, you know more than six people, but do they really know about your deeply help beliefs, insecurities, and goals? I doubt it. You fend off people to shield yourself from mental fatigue. Juggling lots of relationships takes time and energy. Because our time and energy are limited, we do well by limiting our social connections.

          I learned the same lesson from social connections that I learn every time I overdo it on sweets: They’re good in moderation, but eat too many of them and you’ll crash and burn after the initial buzz dies down.