Off DeWall: Nothing Lost in Translation

DeWall speakingYesterday I gave a speech at the Department of Psychology that covered my social exclusion research. It lasted about 90 minutes, which included time for me to field questions from the audience. I had a terrific time! But this isn’t a post about how great the talk went. That’s not up to me, and it’s none of my business. What struck me, from the second it started to when I floated up to my office afterwards, was that the talk made sense because it focused on something that’s true for most people—the need for close relationships, and the pain that ensues when those relationships crumble.

To be honest, my talk got off to a rocky start. My host, Xinyue Zhou, introduced me. This is completely normal. But it wasn’t like any other introduction I had ever experienced: she introduced me in Chinese. I caught about five words of her introduction (Nathan DeWall, social rejection, Kentucky). While I was listening to her, I wondered what else she was saying. Was she giving them special instructions about how to listen to my talk? Were they supposed to interject questions if something wasn’t clear? Did she forget to tell me that I had to give my talk in Chinese?

            These thoughts rushed in and out of my head, distracting me a bit from what I was there to do. And then people started to applaud, which let me know it was my time to talk. Slightly dazed and confused, I thanked her for her kind introduction, curious about what she actually said. (She told me later that it was a standard introduction and that I didn’t miss anything important.)

            Once I started talking, things fell into place. Getting to share the research we do at the University of Kentucky with other people is truly one of my favorite parts of being a professor. To see people grab on to new information, to make common sense seem like uncommon sense, and to hear their reactions and ideas is like the cherry on top of a wonderful ice cream sundae.

            When my talk was over, a faculty member stood up, turned to the audience, and said something in Chinese. I knew she asked them a question, but I didn’t know what it was. To try to figure it out, I looked at the audience members’ non-verbal behaviors. They were all nodding their heads and smiling. I asked the faculty member what she asked them. She said, “I asked them if they understood the material you covered. They all did.”

            That was when it struck me: no matter what language people use to communicate, there are some topics that strike home for almost everyone. Close relationships, in all their glory and gore, are no exception.