February 16, 2004

Relationships served up at World Views dinner

By Eric Rangus

As chairs were maneuvered into an oval and visitors casually milled around walking off dinner, Ginger Wickline stepped to the center of the just-made ring to survey the situation in the carpeted, cozy common room of the 18th floor penthouse suite of the University Apartments tower. In her arms she cradled a large bowl filled with Hershey's Kisses.

"It wasn't my plan," the fifth-year graduate student in clinical psychology said, referring to her cargo. "But it was a good one."

Wickline's bowl of goodies served a larger symbolic purpose than just guilty snack food. Could there be a more appropriate treat than Kisses to accompany a Valentine's Day-themed discussion about relationships in different cultures?

"Contemporary Companionship: Varieties of Relationships Around the World" was the latest installment of the World Views Dinner and Discussion series sponsored by the International Student and Scholar Program (ISSP). Scheduled to coincide with Valentine's Day, the event, which included a dinner of lasagna--just one of a wide variety of red and pink food offerings, the silver-wrapped Kisses were a rare exception--took place Tuesday, Feb. 10, at the Clairmont Campus.

Wickline, who works in psychology's Laboratory for the Study of Interpersonal Processes, facilitated the discussion. "The challenges are to find out the differences within the group that we can talk about in terms of our own upbringing and how they affect the way we look at relationships."

Wickline began the hourlong discussion with a history of Valentine's Day (noting that an estimated 85 percent of the 1.5 billion Valentine's Day cards purchased each year are bought by women--not coincidentally, perhaps, women made up 75 percent of the evening's attendees), then stimulated discussion ranging from perspectives on dating to how dating has changed over time, to finding non-dating relationships and even how technology can both benefit and harm relationships.

The living-room atmosphere (everyone sat in an oval on sofas and high-backed chairs) and intimate gathering (just 12 attendees) encouraged casual, open and frequently humorous discussion. Wickline didn't have to do a whole lot of facilitating.  

For instance, Maya Brown, a senior psychology major, said her parents did not allow her to go out one on one with boys. It was a situation she had to circumnavigate.

"I'd go out with my girlfriends as a group," she said. "We'd meet the boys later. It'd be a covert operation. It took a lot of planning."

Though the series title is World Views, Tuesday's discussion had a distinctly American feel. While several attendees had spent time abroad, just one, Chun Pfahnl, was born outside the United States. She related several stories about growing up in China, painting a picture of an adolescence that was studious (children did schoolwork morning, noon and night), cramped (college dorm rooms often housed a dozen residents) and a little strict.

"Nothing is said about dating," said Pfahnl, research specialist in cell biology, "But if you are caught having sex, you can be dismissed from school."

Interpersonal relationships on Emory's campus aren't quite so dangerous. Senior religion major Ilana Wachs said dating on campus generally falls into two relationship categories: long term and one night. Brown called 21st century dating a "joke," referencing gonzo reality-dating shows like "Elimidate" and "Ex-treme Dating."

Roark Miller, ISSP assistant director, spoke of his son's prom and how it differed from his own. The son's was more casual while the father's a bit more formal. Several students in attendance agreed that modern proms are less date-oriented than their forebears.

"Looking from generation to generation and the cultural differences among them was something the group was interested in talking about," Wickline said.

While a headcount of dozen might be disappointing for some, that's not necessarily the case for World Views. Series coordinator Dawn Williams said she wants to attract as many people as possible to the program's events, but the quality of the conversation is more important than the quantity of people.

'We want an informal setting, not something where people have to sit in a classroom," said Williams, ISSP's graduate international student advisor. "Everyone should be relaxed and get to know each other face to face."

The World Views series started in 2002 as a companion to ISSP's successful international coffee hour. It lasted for the year, but because of sliding attendance and a lack of focus, eventually disappeared.

A revamped World Views cranked up last November with a new attitude, better definition and a new home. Now based on the Clairmont Campus, dinners and the accompanying talks relate to the calendar. November's discussion, tied to Thanksgiving, was about gratitude. While the series' next offerings are still being planned, ideas include referencing St. Patrick's Day (expect lots of green for the March 17 event) and discussing different rites of passage in April since Commencement will follow one month later.

"If this goes well, we'll continue it in the fall," Williams said.

"Part of what we try to do is pick a topic where there will be a lot of differences–variations without saying there is one best way to do it," said Wickline, who along with Williams, Clairmont Campus' Zeb Simpson and Religious Life's Alex Kemmler, are members of the World Views planning committee.

"What I really like about the World Views group is that it tries to bring in a perspective that all the ways we approach relationships are meaningful and important," Wickline continued. "Not only does the group look at differences but also the things we have in common."