This paper is a contribution to the developing understanding of social relationships in institutional care settings. It focuses on two areas that have been neglected in research: the reasons for and types of social interaction in institutional settings, and the ways in which the context of people's lives shapes social interaction. The paper draws on ethnographic observations conducted in four care settings in Scotland using a symbolic interactionist perspective. It finds that residents communicate and interact, and that the personal, cultural and structural contexts frame social interaction and influence the ways that residents use humour, express sexuality, and show hostility. The paper concludes that residents create social interactions in which action is embedded, but do so within specific structural and cultural contexts. These contexts ‘control’ resident action by establishing frameworks for the interpretation of meaning. At the same time, each facet of context is ‘controlled’ by the ways in which residents actively take on the ‘role’ of others, and project ‘self’ and a ‘label’.