Naomi, Mimi and Deborah
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
Deborah Tannen
Photo: Stephen Voss
EW: Does birth order really have some power over sister relationships?

DT: Birth order is fascinating, and it is forever . I love this quote from the musical by two sisters, Bessie and Sadie Delany, called The Delany Sisters . Bessie said about Sadie, "Sadie doesn't approve of me sometimes; she kind of looks at me in that big sister sort of way." She was 101. Her sister was 103! Isn't that great—101 but still her sister is two years older, and that is always there.

EW: You interviewed so many different women for your book. What were some of the common things you discovered about sister relationships?

DT: I certainly discovered that there is a huge range of sister relationships. I was also quite struck by how almost everybody I spoke to spent a lot of time telling me how she and her sister are different. Sometimes it was, "We never got along; we are very different." And sometimes it was, "We are really different, but we are still really close." That made me wonder what is it about the question "How are we different?" why is that so central?

Thinking about it, I got a lot of perspective on the relationships. For example, you almost don't know who you are without asking who she is. It is like your sister is you and not you. Also, families tend to define each child in terms of the others: the outgoing one and the shy one, the athlete and the bookworm. And, unfortunately, we hear this one a lot: the pretty one and the smart one. Two of the cases where I encountered that, [the sisters] were identical twins, which really makes you see that a lot of it has to do with an impulse to compare and see difference in duality.

When you see things next to each other, you tend to compare. If I put two bottles of soda next to each other in front of you, you would compare them. Are they the same, or are they different? How are they the same, how are they different? I think that happens with siblings. In telling me about themselves and their relationships with their sisters, many women just started by telling me how they are different, and that, to me, was very interesting.

EW: Let's talk about competition. Why is that such a central theme with so many sisters?

DT: Like anything else, there is a range of how prominent [competition is between sisters]. There were sisters for whom the competition seemed overwhelming, and there were sisters for whom told me they had no competition. Again, you are competing for the same approval from the same parents. I think of a pair of sisters—these are women in their 60s—their mother was in her 80s, so one of the sisters said, "I spoke to mom twice yesterday." The other sister said, "I spoke to her once, but we had a better conversation!"

EW: So what you are telling me is sister relationships don't change too much as we age?

DT: They definitely evolve and change, but some of the elements I think are always there.

The difference between good friends and sisters
You Were Always Mom's Favorite

EW: Many women have really dear friends who they consider to be like sisters—they call them sister-friends or sister substitutes. Can those relationships ever really be the same as the relationship you have with a sibling?

DT: No, of course it never is. When women told me they have friends who are like sisters or they chose their sisters, they usually have in mind the positive sides of sisterhood, not the negative. They weren't looking to have a friend who knew exactly how to get your goat! Or a friend who, if you get too far ahead, she's going to want to pull you down—not that all sisters do that, but this can be a side of it. Clearly they don't have the memory of your childhood, the complete understanding of what it was like to grow up in the house you grew up in.

EW: There can be extreme drama between sisters. Extreme anger, extreme love—why is there often so much extreme behavior between sisters?

DT: There can be because you feel so strongly about each other. Another example I like is, a woman I interviewed told me she and her sister talked on the phone and sometimes they ran out of things to say, but they didn't want to get off the phone so they just left the phones off the hook, so they were still keeping each other company even though they had nothing more to say. She said, "It is just comforting to know she there, like hugging a cat." I loved that, and I decided I would use that [in the book] to show how special and wonderful sisters can be. Then, the next time I saw this woman I said, "How's your sister?" and she said, "I don't know, I'm not talking to her!" They didn't talk for a year!

Before the book went to press, she said they were talking again, and again they were taking the phones off the hook. I think it captures [that idea] that because you care about each other so much and you care that much about each other's opinion, it means you can be deeply hurt as well as deeply comforted.

EW: How have women reacted to your book so far?

DT: One of the responses I get, that I appreciate, is, "It is so good to know that I'm not the only one." Because there is so much idealization of sisters out there that the word "sisterhood" in of itself means a perfect relationship. I think it is important to remember that there are so many different ways to be sisters.

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