Deborah Tannen knows all about sisterhood, sister-speak, and the pitfalls and perplexities of sibling rivalry. She should. The youngest of three daughters, she is an expert on the nuances of communication, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, and the author of a new book on the emotionally charged issue, You Were Always Mom’s Favorite: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives.
“When you have a sister, especially one close in age... it’s almost like you can’t answer who you are without answering who she is.”
Celebrated for her two previous bestsellers, You Just Don’t Understand, “which probed the complexities of dialogue between men and women,” and You’re Wearing That?, an examination of the ongoing conflict between mother and daughters, the soft-spoken scholar spent four years interviewing more than 100 women of every ethnic stripe for her current treatise. Part academic study, part journalistic enterprise, it is dedicated to her sisters, Mimi and Naomi, about whom she relates affectionate anecdotes, and consists of eight chapters with a variety of humorous sub-headings: “I can’t believe I said that,” “She got the looks, I got the brains,” and “You did it on purpose.”
If you have a sister, you will probably recognize every detail and laugh or cry; if not, it will fill you in on everything you suspected about these potent and thorny relationships.
Two things popped out from her recent research. One, the constant refrain, “My sister and I are very different.” And two, that comparisons are inevitable. “When you have a sister, especially one close in age, your sense of self is inseparable from who she is. It's almost like you can’t answer who you are without answering who she is,” she says.
A native of Brooklyn, Tannen was 30 and bored with teaching English and remedial reading when she decided to study linguistics at Michigan in 1973. The class was called Language in Context, and she learned to look behind the words to interpret what people were actually saying. “It's unusual to do what I do and come at it from that angle. Rather than being the formal stuff, it was about people who analyze everyday conversation and I got hooked, I just loved it.”
She went on to write a number of highly technical books on the subject, but when You Just Don’t Understand exploded onto the bestseller list in 1986 and stayed there for four years, she learned to play down the nitty-gritty of conversational style and to concentrate on the subtleties of relationships. “I realized that’s what caught people’s interest so I ended up refocusing on it.”
Tannen’s deeply personal new work deals with what she considers life’s most influential bond and the often unyielding competition always lurking just below the surface. “Sisters are a shadow. You know you’re looking in a mirror, but there's a shadow behind you," she observes. "Sometimes you feel overshadowed, sometimes you're overshadowing." To defuse any type of contest, she is a believer in the power of positive speaking. “Remind yourself to actually put into words the positive things—I'm proud of you, I think what you do at your job is amazing, you're kids are so great, I know you've done a great job raising them—because we so much want each other’s approval.”
Tannen maintains that the keys to communication are flexibility and awareness of style difference. “Awareness of how yours may not be the only way, understanding what the other ways are and how they might work. Watch your conversational style and everybody else you're talking to so that you can measure and judge whether things are working or not.”
Technology, she says, has only added to the confusion, amplifying the good and the bad. “Many sisters stay in touch by email, they might email every day or several times a day. We are more likely in email to free associate and say what comes to our mind, and not realize how the person is going to react. If the person is in front of you, you see how they react, and if it doesn't go over well, you know it and you stop. With email you don't know it and you keep on the same track.” Her advice: If you've got a problem, it's probably not the best medium for working it out.
What does she want her readers come away with after reading this book? “That sisterhood is powerful—'sister' is almost code for everything's wonderful. So when individual women are having struggles with their sisters they think, there's something wrong with me, there's something wrong with my sister, there's something wrong with us. They feel deprived, they think everyone else has no problems, they're the only ones," she says. "It's not that there's something wrong with you or her, but it's part of being sisters.
"I would hope too that people would come away with more a sense of indulgence toward themselves and toward their sisters. The idea that there isn't only one way to be a sister.”
As for her most intriguing discovery? The intimacy sisters crave. “Closeness is the holy grail,” she states, “and it fascinates me.”
Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Currently she writes for The Washington Post, Time and Forbes.