My sister is one of the great gifts in my life. We are different in many ways but it doesn’t matter. The bond we share from having grown up in the same home (where we shared a bedroom), been influenced by the same parents, neighbors and teachers, exposed to the same loving, enriched (and sometimes quirky) environment and shouldering the same responsibilities and concerns as our mother got sick and our dad ages has provided me (and hopefully her) with a bedrock of strength and support.
Yet, even when loving, the sisterhood connection is knotty and complex, a topic Deborah Tannen explores in her most recent book, “You Were Always Mom’s Favorite! Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives.” During our interview, Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, said she grew up in Brooklyn with dreams of foreign travel and living abroad. While her two older sisters married by age 20, after college she flew off to Europe with a one-way ticket — and lived for two years in Greece, where she learned Greek and became interested in language. Though it was her international experience that sparked her professional interest, most of Tannen’s career has been devoted to exploring the language of everyday relationships. Her bestsellers include “You’re Wearing THAT? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation” and “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.”
While every family relationship is potentially intense and volatile, the sister dynamic is particularly emotionally charged, says Tannen. In fact, she notes that many more women cried while being interviewed for this book than when mothers and daughters discussed their feelings for her previous work. It’s not just that sisters are jockeying for parental attention and love, (“almost everyone I interviewed felt there was a favorite,” she says), but age differences create a built-in power struggle. There is both a unique connection and unavoidable competition.
Cervantes may have written “all comparisons are odious,” but when it comes to sisters, comparisons are inevitable, according to Tannen. “They can hardly think about who they are without thinking about how they are like or unlike their sisters,” she writes in the book’s preface. She points out that even in biblical texts sisters are assigned labels — “Rachel, the younger sister, is ‘beautiful and well favoured.’” Feelings that come from being the younger or older run deep — and long. Bessie Delany was 101 when she told Tannen, “You know Sadie doesn’t approve of me sometimes. She frowns at me in her big-sister sort of way.” At 103, Sadie still expresses protective instincts toward her (younger) centenarian sister, “I told Bessie that if she lives to 120, then I’ll just have to live to 122 so I can take care of her. The reason I am living is to keep her living.”
The richness and rewards of the sister bond are clear as Tannen explores “sisterspeak” — the special language with which sisters relate, but so are the more tumultuous and touchy sensitivities evoked. Younger sisters often perceive older ones as critical and judgmental, while younger ones are seen as not doing their part. Even in adulthood, younger sisters still give a lot of weight to comments made by their older siblings.
Talking it out isn’t always the solution to resolving sisterly tensions, insists Tannen. In fact, it can be “disastrous.”
“It all depends on the individuals. There were those who told me, ‘I wish my sister were more open.’ Others would say, ‘I wish my sister would stop talking about it,’” she explains. “In every relationship, whether it’s between men and women, mothers and daughters, or sisters, each person is convinced her style is right.”
Tannen is frequently approached by parents who ask how they can get their young daughters to stop quarreling. Though shying away from giving advice, she points to reassuring research findings that show that women who have sisters are happier, and having had conflict when they were younger did not have a lasting
effect. “Relationships evolve and change in different directions. I frequently heard, ‘We fought as kids and now we’re close.’” Much of what influences whether sisters will be close as adults depends “on life stage, whether sisters live in the same city or both have kids who are out of the house. As parents age, sisters may find they band together as they negotiate eldercare arrangements or they may become resentful, as did one younger sister who resented her older sister ‘taking over’ arrangements for their parents,” she notes.
When growing up, Tannen says her eldest sister Naomi, who is eight years her senior, was “the responsible one,” Mimi, who is two years older, was “the comedienne,” and she was “the rebellious one.” Though she always considered herself very close to her sisters, she confesses that researching this book, “gave me a lot more compassion for my older sister. I don’t think I really had a clue. I never really thought about it. Naomi was given a lot of responsibility. In a sense she was robbed of her childhood. My mother would say, ‘I can’t handle them (Tannen and the middle sister). You take care of them.’”
Just as her sisters influenced her “way of being in the world,” Tannen notes that her New York Jewish background has had a big impact on her professional life. Her dissertation and first book, “Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk Among Friends,” compared the “high-involvement” speech style (fast-paced with frequent interruptions) of New York Jews with the “high-considerateness” style (polite pauses and no overlapping voices) of non-New Yorkers. Tannen frequently speaks to Jewish groups and particularly enjoys their dynamic engagement. “Jews tend to show their enthusiasm more effusively,” she says. As part of a talk on “You’re Wearing THAT?” (about mothers and daughters), she cited the time her mother asked “Do you like your hair that long?” — which, of course, “meant that she thought it was too long. Only at a Jewish community center did someone say to me, ‘And your hair IS too long!” she recalls. “I love the outspokenness of these Jewish women. It’s a high-involvement style in that you show friendliness by talking to someone you just met the same way you would talk to a member of the family or old friend.” (Her hair is shorter now.)
Tannen attributes her sensitivity and acute awareness of language to her Jewish roots. “My love of words and their subtle meanings comes from my father, who was raised in a chasidic family in Warsaw until age 12,” she explains. “When my first article was published, he read it and was telling me on the phone that he admired it. As he continued, he started comparing it to the hours he spent as a child in cheder, forced to pick apart words in the Talmud, until he blurted out, ‘I don’t know how you can stand it!’”
While her father may not have shared her passion for dissecting language, Tannen knows that when it comes to family, it’s not seeing eye to eye that’s needed for a harmonious relationship but rather an acceptance of each other and each other’s style that makes all the difference. For women eager to make peace with their siblings, Tannen says keep in mind, “There is more than one right way to be a sister."
Miriam Arond is the former editor in chief of Child magazine and American Health magazine and co-author of “The First Year of Marriage: What to Expect, What to Accept and What You Can Change.” She is currently director of the Good Housekeeping Research Institute.