Dinner Talk: Cultural Patterns of Sociability and Socialization in Family Discourse

Dinner Talk: Cultural Patterns of Sociability and Socialization in Family Discourse

Dinner Talk: Cultural Patterns of Sociability and Socialization in Family Discourse

Dinner Talk: Cultural Patterns of Sociability and Socialization in Family Discourse


Dinner Talk draws upon the recorded dinner conversations of, and extensive interviews with, native Israeli, American Israeli, and Jewish American middle-class families to explore the cultural styles of sociability and socialization in family discourse. The thesis developed is that family dinners in Western middle-class homes fulfill important functions of sociability for all participants and, at the same time, serve as crucial sites of socialization for children through language and for language use. The book demonstrates the way talk at dinner constructs, reflects, and invokes familial, social, and cultural identities and provides social support for easing the passage of children into adult discourse worlds.

Family discourse at dinner emerges as a particularly rich site for discursive socialization and a highly meaningful enactment of sociable behavior in culturally patterned ways. Although all the families studied have a commom Eastern European background, Israeli and Jewish American families are shown to differ extensively in their interactional styles, in ways that enact historically different, community-related interpretations of the dialectics of continuity and change. Native Israeli, American Israeli, and Jewish American families differ culturally in the ways they negotiate issues of power, independence, and involvement through various speech activities such as the choice and initiation of topics, conversational story-telling, naming practices, metapragmatic discourse, politeness strategies, and in immigrant, bilingual families, language choice and code switching. Dinner Talk demonstrates the unique interactional style of each of the groups, linking the observed communication patterns to the ideological, sociocultural, and historical contexts of their respective communities.

This innovative study of family discourse from a cross-cultural perspective will appeal to students and specialists in sociolinguistics, communication, anthropology, child language, and family and Jewish studies, as well as to all interested in patterns of communication within families.


This book grew out of a cross-cultural Israeli American project on family discourse, carried out in two stages between 1985 to 1988 and 1989 to 1992. The project was funded by two grants from the Israeli-American Binational Science Foundation, and involved many people from both Israel and the United States. Telling the story of the project allows me to thank my collaborators, other members of the research team, friends and colleagues with whom I shared ideas about family discourse and who read earlier parts of the manuscript, as well as the families studied.

My initial interest in family discourse developed from work in crosscultural pragmatics; I wanted to compare Jewish American and Israeli interactional styles as manifest in a natural setting, through talk at dinner. The first problem in setting up the project was to select the families to be studied in Israel and the United States in a way that would ensure maximum compatibility. The process of selection was coordinated with David Gordon and Susan Ervin-Tripp, the U.S. collaborators in the first stage of the project. David and Susan then went on to supervise observation of the four Jewish American families recruited in Berkeley. With the help of Catherine Snow, who became a consultant to the project, we recruited another eight Jewish American families from Boston, subsequently observed and taped by Yael Zupnik and Susan Kline.

At the first stage of the project, the main focus of the investigation was on adult speech. Continuing my previous work on directives, I was particularly interested in issues of politeness and power in dinner talk. This interest coincided with the research agenda at the time of my U.S. collaborators, and I received much help from both in pursuing these issues. Susan generously shared with me her coding scheme for directives, which, with Esther Ziv from the Israeli research team, we adapted and applied to the family . . .

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