Regulatory talk and politeness at the family dinner table

Åsa Brumark


This study examined the use of regulatory talk at dinnertime in twenty Swedish families with children between the ages of four and seventeen years. The aim of the study was to explore activity regulation in the light of contextual factors, such as the age of the participating children, the number of participants and the different kinds of conversational contexts. Regulatory talk extracted from twenty videotaped dinner conversations was transcribed, coded and analysed within the framework of theories about the impact of context on control acts, indirect speech and politeness. Regulatory utterances, about 7 % of all utterances produced by all family members, were mostly formulated as direct requests and about 15 % of them were mitigated, softening the impact of coerciveness. Indirect regulators occurred, however, in nearly one half of the cases whereas hints were rather uncommon. Age of the children, as well as activity and conversational context had an obvious impact on the way regulatory utterances were performed. Most instrumental regulators (related to the dinner routine) were direct (somewhat more than 60 %) and most non-instrumental regulators were indirect (nearly 60 %). Furthermore, the intended goal i.e. what action was required from the addressee seemed to affect the use of regulators: Regulation at the dinner table mostly concerned nonverbal actions and requests for objects and was related to the main activity. Compared with the American and Israeli groups in Blum-Kulka’s study (1997), the Swedish parents together tended to be more indirect but less mitigating. However, in instrumental contexts i.e. when regulating routine actions relating to the meal, most parental regulators were direct (60 %) whereas about 75 % of the utterances were indirect in non-instrumental contexts. A comparison of these findings with the data from Blum-Kulka (1997) and with other similar intercultural studies leads to the conclusion that situational factors, such as family structure, conversational genres and communicative goals, might have more impact on regulatory talk than socio-cultural background.

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