The focus of this study was the use of regulatory talk during dinner in 20 Swedish families. The questions posed were: How is activity regulation at dinnertime realized, i. e. direct or indirect (“polite”), and what differences may be distinguished due to the influence exerted by contextual factors, such as age of participating children, number of participants and different kinds of conversational contexts(instrumental talk and non-instrumental conversation).
Regulatory utterances constituted about 10 % of all utterances produced during the family dinners in the twenty Swedish families. Except for an early explorative study of Ervin-Tripp (1976) and a socio-cultural study of Blum-Kulka (1991, 1997), there seem to be few systematic comparative observations addressing the relative amounts of different kinds of control acts in similar settings.
In the families included in this study, where the participating children were aged 7 - 17, regulation at dinner time appeared primarily to have the goal of asking for actions to be performed or objects to be handed over, mostly related to the main activity of having dinner (about 60 %). There were, however, also many so called pedagogic regulators, produced by the parents but also by the children. When the groups were compared, there tended to be more regulation in families with younger children (>11 years) and during dinners with more than four participants. Most of the regulators appearing during the dinners were formulated as direct requests and about 15 % of them were mitigated, softening the impact of coerciveness. Indirect regulators occurred in less than one half of the cases and could be more or less indirect – and perhaps more or less polite. Hints were rather uncommon in these twenty families. When occurring, they were not often responded to in the expected way. Disregarding contextual differences within the conversations, the tendency appears to be more indirect but less mitigated communication in the twenty Swedish families, compared to the American and Israeli groups in Blum-Kulka (1997).
The activity context had an obvious impact on the way regulatory utterances were performed. Most instrumental regulators were direct (somewhat more than 60 %), most non-instrumental regulators were indirect (nearly 60 %). There were tendencies of group variation in different contexts but the groups and the differences between them were too small to be significant.
Parental regulation was indirect in nearly half of the cases, but individual differences could be distinguished. Direct parental regulators were mitigated in about 25 % of the cases, closely matching the American parents in the study of Blum-Kulka (1990). There were also some striking differences between mothers and fathers. Maternal regulation was more indirect and maternal direct utterances were often more mitigated (21-48 %). However, the numbers of participating fathers was unfortunately too small (!) for far-reaching conclusions. In instrumental contexts, i. e. when regulating routine actions were related to the meal, most parental regulators were direct (60 %). In non-instrumental contexts, on the other hand, about 75 % of the utterances were indirect.
Not only activity context or talk genre seemed to affect the regulators used but also their intended goal, i. e. what action was wanted from the addressee. Thus, most often regulation at the dinner table concerned non-verbal actions and requests for objects, related to the main activity.
Finally, about 50% of the regulatory utterances in the 20 families were adequately responded to, both those of the parents and those of the children. However, parental regulators were obeyed to if indirect, child regulation if direct. In those cases when there was no compliance, negotiation was rather common, both to child and parental regulation. Ignorance and resistance occurred in less than 10% of the cases. Thus, judging from the realization of regulatory utterances and the outcome effectuated by the regulators, Swedish family members seem to be fairly indirect and “polite” around the dinner table.