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Bolkan Hits Honors Trifecta

Published: June 3, 2013

For an expert in complaints, San Steven Bolkan doesn’t have much to find fault with when it comes to his recent triple recognition by the Eastern, National and International Communication associations.

The member of Communication Studies since 2009 saw three papers in which he participated named as the top or among the top research works submitted to their respective conferences. Bolkan studies how corporations deal with complaints with special attention to how different sorts of organizational phenomena can be applied to personal relationships—like those between students and teachers.

In addition, Bolkan was recognized recently as one of the top one percent most prolific scholars in his field in the last five years. The distinction came from a research paper in the journal Communication Education in 2012 that counted the number of publications authors had in a sample of journals. For the last 80 years, there has been a count of productivity in five-year time spans.

“It feels good to be recognized,” he said. “But as nice as recognition like this is to receive from your peers, what is even more rewarding is the potential use for this information. For example, if that knowledge can change teaching and affect students positively, that is the reward.”

Bolkan was named in April by the Eastern Communication Association as having written one of the top three papers submitted in in the Instructional Development Division of its regional conference held in Pittsburgh, Pa. The paper’s topic was student-teacher complaints. The Eastern Communication Association is the oldest professional association of Communication Studies scholars, teachers and students in the U.S.

This month, Bolkan will be distinguished again, this time at the International Communication Association (ICA) meeting in London on the topic “Challenging Communication Research.” His paper on humor in the classroom was named one of the top in the Instructional Development Division. The ICA is an academic association for scholars interested in the study, teaching and application of all aspects of human and mediated communication with more than 3,500 members in 65 countries.

In November, the National Communication Association’s 99th annual meeting in Washington D.C. will name Bolkan’s paper on how teachers can respond to classroom complaints as the top paper in the Instructional Development Division. He is a coauthor on this manuscript—the first author, Jennifer Holmgren, is a graduating master’s student at CSULB and the paper was born from her thesis.

Bolkan believes one reason for the critical three-peat is the importance of the topics.

“All three papers are readily applicable to the classroom,” he said. “Plus, I like to think the writing was done well. I also like to think the science is sound. But mainly I think people appreciated the practical applications of the papers. These papers are about doing practical things that can lead to positive outcomes.”

In addition to studying instructional communication, Bolkan pointed to an article now in press with Communication Quarterly as representative of some of his research on the topic of consumer complaining in a corporate context.

“In this article, we looked at what people say when they complain and we found four basic patterns,” he explained. “The first we called ‘hostile communication’ for its aggression. Hostile complaining includes telling a company how angry you are or what a terrible waiter you had. At the other end of the complaint spectrum are indirect complaints. This type of complaint may use a joke or hint at a problem. ‘Is my soup supposed to be cold?’ In addition, some communication is direct about the desire for a refund. People who complained this way stated flat out how they were harmed and what they wanted as a result. Finally, some complaints simply provide information. The provision of information is different from other types of complaints insofar as it tries to obtain change for future customers, not for the customer who experienced the problem. This type of communication involves suggestions for improving a product or service, for example. The paper concluded that participants perceived direct communication to be effective while hostile communication was perceived to be less effective.”

Bolkan believes most successful companies use complaints to monitor their performance.

“Smart organizations have a tendency to see complaints as positive feedback,” he said. “I hope my research helps corporations and consumers to reframe complaints as something more constructive. Without complaints, a person cannot fix what is wrong with the business in general and what went wrong for the customer in specific. Most companies that are successful tend to want complaints to come to them. That way, they have the chance to rectify problems.”

San Bolkan
San Bolkan

Moreover, complaints can deliver a sense of catharsis. “Sometimes complaints are less a matter of getting something for free and more a matter of making our feelings known. That said, a respectful response makes a big difference,” he said. “Among other things, positive responses to complaints involve what is called ‘interactional justice.’ It is crucial that companies deal with complaints by being respectful, polite and caring.”

In his recent papers Bolkan has used the notion of complaints as positive feedback to examine student-teacher interactions. According to him, organizational and classroom complaints have parallels. “My research has revealed there are three reasons why students are reluctant to complain; that is, to provide constructive feedback to their teachers,” he said. “It is the same reason employees do not complain to their bosses and customers do not complain to companies. The first reason people do not offer this type of feedback is because they don’t think organizations or teachers will be receptive. In other words, people tend to withhold their complaints because they don’t think anything will change as a result of their communication.”

The second reason for complaint reluctance is the relationship to the teacher, boss or business.

“If a student doesn’t think a teacher is approachable or employees don’t have strong relationships with their bosses, they are much less likely to complain,” he said. “It may seem counterintuitive, but it is the loyal employee who feels secure enough to complain. It is an expression of an investment in the success of the boss, teacher or corporation. Without that investment, employees start thinking about going somewhere else. Instead of doing that, those who voice their discontent would rather make the relationship work.”

The third reason is personal. “Some consumers don’t think a complaint is the thing to do and others don’t know how to make one or think that making one is not worth the effort,” he said. “Essentially, they think complaining is just too difficult. Therefore, if I were to advise a company about dealing with complaints, I would tell them to do three things: be responsive, build an open relationship with consumers and make it easy for them to give you constructive feedback.”

Bolkan received his bachelor’s degree in communication studies from the University of San Diego and his master’s in communication studies from San Diego State. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas in 2007.

Bolkan sees his scholarly interest in cavils, clamor and criticism continuing. “I like the idea of consumer complaints, mainly because it interests me and I can read all about it without it putting me to sleep,” he laughed. “There is a lot of room for communication scholars to uncover the intricate pattern of interaction involved in complaints. What do people say? Does it work? Communication scholars are in a unique position to answer these questions.”