Emory Report
April 17, 2006
Volume 58, Number 27


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April 17, 2006
The art of connection

by David Raney

I study relationships,” said Stephen Nowicki, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology. That may sound simple, but it isn’t, as anyone who’s been in one—a relationship—can attest.

And everyone has—as parents, children, friends, lovers, teachers, students, co-workers. Nowicki has studied aspects of all these, plus other relationships that might not come as quickly to mind. In an undergraduate seminar he’s taught for 20 years, for example, Nowicki asks second-semester seniors to contemplate their connections not only to people they’ve met at Emory but to the place itself, and to their time here.

“These are a very important four years for most people,” Nowicki said recently in his office, filled with the books, papers and mementos of a 36-year career at Emory. “I ask them to think about their time here, to be intentional about what they’ll do to mark it off.

I want them to end well.”

The class has a standard analytical component—students read the latest research—but also “an experiential one,” Nowicki said. Students walk through Emory College buildings and grounds, for example, contemplating the implicit relationships imposed by architectural features and layouts (welcoming? cold?). And Nowicki urges them to “tell people what they’ve meant to you before you leave.” This includes friends, of course, but also “faculty, staff members, that person behind the counter you’ve talked to every day for four years.

Students always object: ‘Oh, she knows how I feel,’ or ‘Prof. X wouldn’t remember me anyway.’ I say, ‘You want to know a secret? Every faculty member I know has a file or drawer somewhere with cards, letters and e-mails from former students. Every one.’”

Nowicki’s own file is out in the open. Walking around his office, one can spy framed cards, poems, even a sculpture from students and classes who have taken his advice to heart. Since coming to Emory in 1969 after graduate work at Marquette and Purdue and a clinical internship at Duke Medical Center, Nowicki has seen nine full four-year cohorts and hundreds of graduate students pass through, and he’s clearly made a deep impression on many.

Graduate student Ginger Wickline said Nowicki “doesn’t just teach about the discipline of psychology; he teaches the art of living, mostly by example.” He regularly advises her, she said, to “keep my priorities straight, to make time for life outside of school as well as in it.”

Wickline’s specialty, the study of ethnic and cultural differences in nonverbal communication, is a perfect fit with Nowicki’s Laboratory for the Study of Interpersonal Processes. Though he has published on an exceedingly broad range of topics (including psychology and religion, social class and mental illness, facial memory, domestic violence and even the personality characteristics of policemen), Nowicki has for years been interested in nonverbal behavior: gestures, facial expressions, body language and the like.

Another category is “paralanguage,” he said, or “everything about speech except the words.”

“You can pick up the phone and say ‘Hello,’” he said, “and a loved one might say, ‘What’s wrong?’ That response depends on paralingual cues.”

This kind of behavior is continuous, he said, mostly out of people’s awareness, and largely learned: “How close you stand to someone, the tone and volume and rhythm of speech, reactions in the face or posture—some people are very good at interpreting these signs, and others are very bad.”

Nowicki and his colleagues have coined a term, “dyssemia,” for the difficulty some people have in expressing or receiving such nonverbal messages. This condition can “sabotage their attempts to relate to others,” as Nowicki wrote in a 2002 book with fellow C.H. Candler Professor Marshall Duke, Will I Ever Fit In? The condition can be particularly distressing when the sufferer is a child, a problem Nowicki has addressed in the books Teaching Your Child the Language of Social Success (1996) and Helping the Child Who Doesn’t Fit In (1992).

“I’d see these kids,” he said, “whose parents are good people, whose teachers are good teachers—they’re good kids. But they can’t relate to others; they just aren’t any good at making or keeping friends.” People with Asperger’s syndrome (high-functioning autism) and similar conditions, he said, “might be perfectly happy alone, not really need contact and relationships. But these kids do, and that’s the poignant thing about it.”

Asked about changes at Emory since his early days, Nowicki said the campus is “much improved, with bigger and better buildings.”

“But the basic things I do have stayed the same,” he said. “I am a teacher, and what I do is take students, wherever they are, and move them to the next step.”

After open heart surgery three years ago, Nowicki said he wasn’t sure he’d return, but “I realized the biggest thing I’d miss would be the students, and teaching moments with them.”

Nowicki’s empathy and dedication have earned him Emory College’s Cuttino Mentoring Award and the Williams Distinguished Teaching Award, as well as the honor of being asked by two graduating classes (1989 and 1996) to deliver their senior talk.

Students unanimously praise his support for their intellectual endeavors. But, as Wickline put it, Nowicki “cares even more about his students as people than as students.”

“I would not be who I am today without his influence,” she said.

Most teachers would agree there is no greater accolade.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2006 Quadrangle and is reprinted with permission.