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The word "sister" evokes an ideal of connection and support, like the friendships that made Rebecca Wells's Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Ann Brashares's The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants into bestselling novels and successful films. The friendships referred to in these titles are called "sisterhood" because the friends stuck together through thick and thin, understood each other when no one else did, and supported one another while marching arm in arm to the same music. Part of the reason these books and movies were so popular is that we all yearn to belong to a group with a bond like that. As one woman put it, "Friends are the sisters we were meant to have." Many women told me they have friends who are "sister surrogates" or "sister equivalents." They used the word "sister" to characterize what they prize in those friends.

Even the sound of the word "sister" is comforting, with its soothing s's. (The b of "brother" sounds more abrupt.) We have sister cities, sister universities, and, in biology, sister cells. Sister cities and universities establish mutually enriching associations based on shared characteristics like similar size. Sister cells are identical because they have split from the same "mother" cell. Sister cities are not at each other's throats; sister universities are not so named because they know exactly how to get the other's goat; sister cells don't fight over who gets the slice of cake with the buttercream rose. But these less-appealing traits can also be aspects of real-life sisterhood.

At a group gathered to talk with me, a woman said she and her sister use the term "sisterspeak" for the kind of talk they treasure and trust from each other: talk that sets the other straight. Another woman who was present chimed in: "Yeah yeah! Your sister will tell you in a way a friend can't and even a mother can't." The first continued: A sister can ask, "What were you thinking?" and force you to answer, to yourself as well as to her, "I wasn't!"

But in another setting I heard a different view: A woman commented that sisters should be called "the liars' club" because they tell each other only a version of the truth. She explained why she can't tell her sister the whole truth: "I have to be cautious about sharing my feelings, hopes, and dreams because they invariably get translated into something that will come back to hurt me. When I have met people who know about me through my sister, they are often surprised and tell me that I'm nothing like the person she described."

These two views—someone who sets you straight or someone who twists your words so they boomerang back and hurt you—represent the potential best and worst of sister conversations. And it's not always clear which type of sisterspeak your sister is speaking.
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Excerpted from You Were Always Mom's Favorite! Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives by Deborah Tannen. Copyright © 2009 by Deborah Tannen. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. Random House, a division of Random House, Inc.

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