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Communicating fairly: an interview with Prof. Lynn H. Turner.

Yu: Professor Turner, would you please first tell us what led you to devote your career to the study of communication, especially gender and family communication?

Turner: I began with an interest in the theatre. I was especially interested in teaching dramatic arts to young people. I was inspired by a particularly wonderful drama teacher that I had in 7th grade. I did go on to become a high school English and drama teacher. After I had worked in that area for 7 years, I had the unexpected opportunity to fill in for a professor who was on leave at Iowa State University. She taught interpersonal communication and public speaking. Although I had not studied those topics, I took the job and began learning with my students. I enjoyed it so much that I went back to get my Ph.D. in the area of communication studies. The first class I took at Northwestern University, where I got my Ph.D. was family communication with Dr. Kathleen Galvin. Again, I was inspired by a gifted teacher, and I decided to make family communication one of my major areas of concentration. It was a fairly new specialty in communication at the time and that was very exciting for me as I could be a bit of a pioneer. I had always been interested on a personal level in issues of gender, and while I was at Iowa State University, I was able to collaborate with Dr. Judy Pearson who was one of the first in communication studies to conduct gender research. She asked me to become a coauthor for her text on Gender and Communication, and that solidified my interest in the area.

Tong: You've served in a number of different positions, such as the President of Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and Gender (OSCLG), President of Central States Communication Association (CSCA), etc., and also achieved many honors and recognitions in your teaching and study. How do you balance your work and life?

Turner: It's always a challenge. I don't especially like the metaphor of balance because that implies that a person is able to spend equal time on work and private life. I almost never am able to do that. Some times are very intense at work and then my family gets less attention; and then it works the other way at times. One thing that I learned to do early on was to include my family in my work life whenever possible. So, my husband and my daughter often travel with me when I travel for work. I tell my family a great deal about what I am doing at work (and luckily they seem interested). I also write a lot about my family, so being with them is kind of research for me!

Yu: Today, men and women work together more frequently and more closely than ever before, which highlights the importance of gender communication in workplace. Have you experienced any gender bias in your career?

Turner: Of course, just because I live in a culture that is biased in favor of men. I have been the recipient of sexist comments directed at me by bosses and coworkers when I first started working after graduating college. But, I have been lucky in my work on the university level. Education is not as difficult a workplace for women as other workplaces such as manufacturing, for instance, might be, and I have been working at a time when women have made tremendous strides toward equality with men (although we are definitely not there yet).

Yu: Families have been more diversified than before in terms of both structure and cultural heritage. What do you think are the keys to successful communication between husband and wife in this fast-changing society?

Turner: It is difficult to make blanket prescriptions about what makes communication successful in marriage. In large part, that is because of what you note in your question--things are changing quickly and the world is shrinking, making it possible that interfaith or intercultural marriages will be more common. When couples come together with very different backgrounds, they have to find their own unique "third way" that will make them happy. What works well for one couple may not work at all for another. Some couples thrive on arguing while others dislike that a great deal, for instance. Of course, another complicating factor is that each member of the couple may have differing expectations about what success means and might have differing preferred styles of communication. That said, most people would agree that it is helpful to have open communication between partners, and regular times to check in with one another to be sure they are in touch with one another and understand what is going on with each of them. Marital researcher, John Gottman, says that it doesn't matter how much couples fight, it simply matters that they maintain a 1:5 ratio in their communication (only 1 negative comment for every 5 positive comments). Relational reminders (like saying "I love you" or calling a partner by a loving nickname) are also considered to be helpful. Another useful key to successful communication is for the couple to have a strong social network of friends and family to help them navigate stress and strains. Finally, a strong commitment to the relationship on the part of each person is important and will help ameliorate many problems.

Yu: What do you think are the main differences in parent-child communication between Eastern and Western cultures? How do you comment on the differences?

Turner: I have not collected data in this area myself, but most of the research focuses on the difference between individual cultures (like Western cultures) and collectivist cultures (like Eastern cultures). This difference is salient in parent-child communication, especially in areas like conflict. Because Eastern cultures like China and Japan value harmony more than Western cultures like the United States, we expect to see more overt conflict between parents and children in the U.S. A recent study published in the Journal of Family Communication (2011), examined Japanese and U.S. young adults' recollections of conflicts with their parents. The authors of this study, Shearman, Dumlao, and Kagawa found that 23% of the Japanese sample said they could not recall any major conflicts with their parents. On the other hand, all of the members of the U.S. sample had a conflict to report. The authors also noted that the Japanese respondents reported that their conflict strategies matched their parents' strategies. This was not the case for the U.S. respondents. Researchers have commented that cultural values impact communication in relationships. Values such as the Chinese emphasis on filial piety suggest that conflict between parents and children would be comparatively muted in Chinese families compared to conflict in Western families.

Yu: The importance of interdisciplinary collaboration has been stressed by some scholars in recent years. As the Director of the Interdisciplinary Minor in Family Studies at Marquette University, how do you assess interdisciplinary approach in academic research?

Turner: Interdisciplinary collaboration is extremely important now. Some granting agencies will not award grants unless the research team is interdisciplinary in nature. In the capstone seminar that I teach for the Interdisciplinary minor in Family Studies, the students have to work in teams representing at least two different majors. They then work to find a question to research that falls within the space between these disciplines and use the literature from both disciplines to contextualize their work. It is an interesting project because most of the previous classes that the students have taken have worked to educate the students to gain mastery over one discipline. It is a challenge for them to switch gears and pull ideas from at least two disciplines. We work in the seminar to exchange ideas and enrich one another's approaches. Yet, it is also the case that disciplinary integrity is important, so there is always a dialectic between honoring a specific literature, and opening our eyes to more than one discipline's teachings.

Yu: Would you share with us your most memorable experience serving as the president of the National Communication Association (NCA)?

Turner: That's a difficult question because there have been so many interesting and memorable experiences in this job. I found the process of campaigning for the position quite memorable. At the time, we required candidates to visit each of the four regional conferences (Western States Communication Association, Eastern Communication Association, Central States Communication Association, and Southern States Communication Association) to talk to the members. That was such an interesting experience because I met so many wonderful members who were passionately concerned about the NCA, and had so many great ideas for enhancing the association. Of course, planning my convention in San Francisco, CA, in 2010, was also memorable. We had the challenge of a possible labor strike at our convention hotel and I worked closely with many of our members and the national office staff to craft the best solution for all of our members, some of whom felt strongly that we should not patronize a hotel that had labor problems. In the end, there was no strike at the hotel and our process for dealing with this challenge has been adopted by a few other associations. Our Executive Director, Nancy Kidd, was asked to write up what we did and present it at a conference for executive directors of other associations. I learned an enormous amount from that experience and I was gratified by the way our members engaged in civil disagreement and, for the most part, worked together for the good of the association. I also really enjoyed going to the conference in 2011 and delivering the Presidential Address. It was fun to think about "big picture" issues and I enjoyed the chance to communicate with our members in this way.

Yu: Where do you see the development of communication studies in 10 years?

Turner: Certainly the future has to account for social media, and I see the divisions between mass communication and human communication changing a great deal in the next 10 years. Social media certainly impacts some of our theories and in the next 10 years I think researchers in communication studies will have to account for this. If we know a great deal about a prospective date or roommate, for instance, because we can Goggle them or read their Facebook page, what does that mean for theories like Uncertainty Reduction Theory, Communication Privacy Management, or Social Penetration Theory? I imagine that questions like that will occupy us in the next 10 years. I think more inclusive definitions of family will direct our focus more toward issues affecting stepfamilies, cohabiting families, gay and lesbian families, families of choice, and so forth. In addition, questions focusing on culture will be ever more important as people travel more and Skype, and communicate with people across geographic distances. Further, the issue of civility is an important one that I think will continue to occupy us in the future. Communication scholars have a great deal to offer in this area, which overlaps with technology somewhat. Are we encouraged to be less civil because we are often communicating with people we do not see face-to-face? Overall, I think the future holds many exciting questions for scholars of communication studies.

Yu: What are the suggestions you would like to give to young scholars in this discipline?

Turner: (1) Follow your passions and study what you love. The worst paper I ever wrote in my graduate career was a paper I did on the history of the theatre program at the University of Iowa. I did not want to write about that, but the professor convinced me that what I did want to write about (the Federal Theatre Project in the U.S. in the 1930s) had already been explored sufficiently by other scholars. He wanted me to write about the University of Iowa, because nobody else had done so. But, because I really wasn't involved in that topic I didn't do a very good paper. I think if I had written about the Federal Theatre Project, my paper would have been much better. (2) Be open to discover new things that you may learn to love. If I had not listened to a colleague who was a rhetorician I might not have begun a line of research about women politicians. Initially, I didn't think I would be able to write about this topic because I was trained as an interpersonal communication scholar. But, in working with my colleague, I found a new passion and a fascinating new line of research. (3) Be aware of your personal life and although it may suffer for a week while you finish a project, do not let it suffer for too long. Families and friends need nurture and attention too. (4) Publish as much as you can. Try to be strategic about your work and maximize your publication possibilities whenever you possibly can. (5) Find a mentor.

Yu: Is there anything else you'd like to share with readers? Thank you.

Turner: This is an exciting time to be studying communication. We are living in a time of change and growth in communication technologies. It is our responsibility to offer critical and theoretical approaches that will help people use these technologies productively rather than be used by them. Communication ethics is a more important topic than ever now. We need to be at the forefront, teaching people how to communicate fairly, with civility, and productively.


Shearman, S. M., Dumlao, R., & Kagawa, N. (2011). Cultural variations in accounts by American and Japanese young adults: Recalling a major conflict with parents. Journal of Family Communication, 11(2), 105-125.

Tong Yu

China Jiliang University

Correspondence to:

Tong Yu

Department of Foreign Languages

China Jiliang University

Hangzhou, P. R. China

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Author:Yu, Tong
Publication:China Media Research
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Apr 1, 2012
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