Photo: Courtesy of Deborah Tannen
Deborah Tannen is a best-selling author and world-renowned linguist, but when she was young, Tannen was first and foremost "Naomi and Mimi's kid sister." While researching her latest book, You Were Always Mom's Favorite! Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives , she discovered that in many ways, she'll always feel like Naomi and Mimi's kid sister.
Erin E. White: You are the youngest of three sisters. I'm sure that had something to do with your interest in writing this book.
Deborah Tannen: Yes, and in some ways the book just blew out of the one before, because I had done the previous book You're Wearing THAT? , which is about mothers and daughters. Mothers and daughters and the way they react to each other has to do with them both being women, and the same is true of sisters. That seems to be the second family relationship that can be relatively fraught. Sisters, to me, are fascinating because it is a unique connection of the coming together of connection and competition. The fact that you have these age differences is a built-in power struggle, and the fact that you're all trying to get attention and resources from the same parents creates competition. And the fact that you are always together makes comparison inevitable, so all of those dynamics were, to me, terribly fascinating.
EW: What were the dynamics between you and your sisters growing up?
DT: I have two sisters, one is two years older and one is eight years older. That helped me understand how completely different sister relationships can be. In the book, there are pictures of me and my sisters. You'll see picture of when I was 5 or 6 and my sister was 7. You can see that we are two little girls dressed like twins, because my mother always dressed us like twins. And there is what looks like three adults standing behind us, but it is my mother, my father and my older sister. She is eight years older than I am, so if I was 6, she was 14, and that is a huge difference. She was in many ways was like another mother. My other sister, who is 23 months older, we were inseparable, together all the time. We shared a bedroom, and that has so many interesting dynamics right there.
EW: How does sharing a bedroom as children affect sisters?
DT: First of all, we had more opportunity to talk with each other and whisper after the lights were out, but we also had more opportunity for friction because you have access to each other things. You can borrow them, steal them, break them, hide them! My own sister, the one two years older, once made a proposition, which seemed quite logical to me. She said, "How about I won't go on your side of the room, and you don't come on my side of the room?" And I agreed. I missed the fact that the door was on her side of the room and she made me her prisoner! What is so funny is it never occurred to me that I could just walk out [of the room]. That is the power the older one has over a younger one.
Birth order and sister relationships