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Sisters, A Love Story


Celebrated linguist Deborah Tannen is out with the latest in a series of books on how family members communicate. "You Were Always Mom's Favorite! Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives" explores how sisters talk to each other, from deep affection to bitter rivalry. We'll hear how language shapes our family relationships.

The bond between sisters is both unique and universal. Some sisters are so close they almost have their own special language. Some sisters have a relationship so volatile, they can hardly speak at all. We'll speak to author Deborah Tannen about her new book, "You Were Always Mom's Favorite! Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives." What role does birth order play in a family dynamic? Tell us about your relationship with your sister and whether it tends more toward closeness or competition.


Deborah Tannen, is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author, most recently, of "You Were Always Mom's Favorite! Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives."

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and You're listening to These Days on KPBS. One of the most infuriating and life sustaining experiences two people can have is being sisters. Some sisters are so close they almost have their own special language. Other sisters have a relationship so volatile they can hardly speak at all. Linguist Deborah Tannen has spent years studying how people talk to each other and what the words really mean. She's examined the conversations of mothers and daughters, men and women, and between patients and their adult in which, all of which we'll be hearing very soon around our holiday tables. But lately, Deborah Tannen has taken a good listen to what sisters say to and about each other, in her newest book, you were always mom's favorite: Sisters and conversation throughout their lives. It's a pleasure to welcome Deborah Tannen to These Days. Good morning, Deborah.

DEBORAH TANNEN: Hi, so glad to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now we invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you stay in touch with your sister or sisters? How important is having a conversation with them? What do you talk about? Give us a call with your questions and your comments, 1-888-895-5727. Deborah, are there any general things that you can say about what conversations between sisters are like.

DEBORAH TANNEN: Well, the kinds of things I heard from people were she's the only one who knows exactly what I mean when I say something, we have the same sense of humor, she's the repository of my memories of all we have to do is say one word, we know exactly what the other means. But then also sometimes all I have to do is say one word and she goes into a tantrum. I've heard, several of the people I spoke to use the word sister speak. It meant she'll tell me the truth when nobody else will. But somebody you don't know what kind of sister speak it is. you're losing too much weight, you don't look healthy. Well, maybe it was true, maybe it was that sister speak no one else wanted to tell her the truth. And maybe there was a touch of her not wanting her sister to get too far .

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Which is difficult, which is that truth and which is that little bit of sister rivalry hering up its ugly head once in a while.

DEBORAH TANNEN: Yeah, the rivalry -- I'm sorry. Go ahead.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: No, I was just about to say, did you find out how often sisters talk to each other? Are there any sort of general rules.

DEBORAH TANNEN: The general rule is there's no eligible rule. Yeah, and this is important to sisters, because often, you hear about other people who talk to their sisters more often, and you know well, you know, I wish my sister would talk to me that often or I don't know what's the matter with them. I wish my sister wouldn't call me that often. Any time from self times a day to once a day, once a month, even once every few month, but the important thing is to feel that it's the right amount for you and that really can vary.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of the vignettes that you write about that I thought was so telling, actually so moving, was a pair of sisters who talk to the phone so often and sometimes they run out of things to say and they just leave the phone off the hook and they go about their daily business, but they're still connected by that phone off the hook, even though they don't want have anything left to say to each other.

DEBORAH TANNEN: Yes, and that's such an important example for two reasons issue yes, she described it in a way that was so moving, she said just uponing my sister's there on that open phone line is a custody, it's like hugging a cat. I thought that was so lovely. But then I rap into that same woman a few months later, and I asked, how's your sister, and she said I don't know, I'm not talking to her.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That happened a lot as you were talking with women and their relationships with their sisters they would describe them as life sustaining and she's my life line, and then how is she, oh, we haven't been talking.

DEBORAH TANNEN: That's right. And that was an example that struck me because again women hear how wonderful other people are and they think, oh, I'm so deprivileged and that was actually a confusion at a gathering when one woman was saying, as you put it, she's my life line, we get in the car, we just can't stop holding happeneds and talking, and another one, oh, I always wish I had a sister, and when I interview the same woman in private, the first thing she said was, we just went through a year where we department talk to each other. And it's two sides of the same coin, somebody who has that power over you has the and your lives are intertwined in the case of the woman who said she had gone through a year not speaking, it was something over an inheritance, and that's really very common.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I'm speaking with linguist Deborah Tannen, her newest book is you were always mom's favorite, sisters and conversation throughout their lives. And we're taking your calls if you'd like to join the conversation at 18888955727. Trish is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Trish, and welcome to These Days. Hi, welcome to These Days.



NEW SPEAKER: I have a sister that we can't even be in the same room. And we used to be really close and just have a horrible horrible relationship now. And I, you know, I really try to better the relationship, but it seems like every time we get together, she's always criticizing or just not willing to meet me halfway.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is there something that started this rift between the two of you?

NEW SPEAKER: Umm -- yeah.

DEBORAH TANNEN: Maybe you don't want to tell it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: All right, that's fine, but I'm wondering, Deborah, is the way that these two people are talking to each other only exacerbating whatever's wrong.

DEBORAH TANNEN: Well, of course yeah, and as you yourself said, since we don't know the specifics, it's hard to make a specific recommendation. But I will say that it's not unusual for relationships to go through periods of closeness, and then periods of estrangement. And some gentleman things that people can do perhaps don't want try to talk to each other, go out and do something together. Where maybe whatever conversations are that request lead to try arup likely to come up. another possibility, try e-mailing, I mean, that can be both very good and very bad. You have to be very careful. Sometimes people sigh things on e-mail that they would not say face to face, and that could be in a good way to clear the air, and it could be in a bad way, perhaps if it comes off more belligerent than you planned in the first place. The criticizing is an issue that coming up with family members in all contexts. Often with the sisters I interviewed, it was an older sister that was seen as critical. And with mothers and daughters, it was very common 678 that was the book I wrote before called You're wearing that?


DEBORAH TANNEN: And I was frequently told by daughters, by mother's critical, and by mothers, she takes everything as criticism. And it was important for people to keep in mind that caring and criticism often are expressed in the same word. So one feels criticized, the other says, well, I'm just trying to be helpful. And they really both can be true of it's good to know that for the one that is being helpful. Maybe she'll have to bite her tongue a bit more. Of but if she won't, it sometimes can be helpful just to reframe how you could about it. If I can tell an anecdote about that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Certainly. Go right ahead.

DEBORAH TANNEN: She said, no, for the first time, I visited my sister, and there were no fights and I asked for this specific example and she give me this one. She said he had bought some pairs of socks, one black, one blue, and she had shown them to their parents, her mother, and they said, oh, they're nice, and the next day she was wearing the socks, and her mother said, are you sure you're not wearing one of each other? She said in the past, she would have blown up. You don't think I can match my socks? And sometimes you do confuse Navy and black. And who else is gonna care about the color of my socks? And then she felt almost tender rather than angry.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Deborah Tannen, and I want to thank Trish so much for her call. And we are taking your calls at 18888955727. I do want to ask you one more question about the birth order between sisters and how that might impact the dynamic that is going on between them. You write about the fact that probably older sisters don't realize how much younger sisters are compared to them, and what a burden that might be for them.

DEBORAH TANNEN: Yes, the difference in age is one of the very major factors that affects relationships. I quote Betsy Delaney, this was a book called having our say that was popular some years back, Betsy Delaney is quoted as saying about her sister, she doesn't approve of me sometimes, she looks at me in that big sister sort of way, when she said that, she was 101. And her sister Sady was 103. So those two years difference, and what you're seeing there is that feeling, she's critical. And Sadey is quoted as saying, the only reason I'm still alive is to keep her alive, if she was a hundred and 20, I'd have to- to a Monday and 22 so I could take care of her. So yeah, she's protective. And being protective is a wonderful thing, but it also can feel belittling if you think you don't need protection. And that constant comparison actually goes both ways, it can be an older of a younger or a younger or

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone we're taking your calls about not only sister relationships but after the break, we're going to extend our conversation to talk about how families talk to one another. And how that can rub old wounds the wrong way when families get together or the holidays. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Good morning, rob, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hey, how are you?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Great. Thank you.

NEW SPEAKER: Great, yeah, my request for doctor Tannen, first of all, I loved some of your books in college, they're fantastic, thank you for that. And my question is actually, it's kind of relevant this came up because my cousin was missing yesterday, and my sister and she are extremely close. When they found her, and she's fine, it was just, like, the most -- the biggest sort of sigh of relief I've ever seen from my own sister. And my question is, you know, to what extent do you think these sort of really intense sort of sister relationships can occur between women that around genetically related.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Great question, rob.

DEBORAH TANNEN: Absolutely, it can be cousins, it sometimes can be I mother and daughter pair. It can be best friends. I heard from quite a few women who said they were not all that close to their biological sister is its but they have what they call soul sisters or as one woman put it, my best friend is the sister I was meant to have. Sometimes that can be even better because you may not have the competition you had growing up with an actual sister. So that's a very good point. Yes, it can be -- it can really be any relationship, and it can be a sister and a brother. Just because I'm focusing on sisters doesn't mean that there aren't sisters and brothers who aren't as close. Sometimes it takes a slightly different form but sometimes it's pretty similar.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I don't want to go into the break without asking you, why do you think rivalry is so strong, sometimes, between sisters?

TANNEN: Because they're looking to the same source for approval and for physical goodies too. You've got the same parents and that's one mother, one father, perhaps only one, maybe not even both in the house and there may be 2, 3, 4, 5, any number of kids, ask so the rivalry is -- I think begins with that competition for the parents' approval and attention. And also there's the tendency of the world to compare when they see two next to each other. Yeah, I was really struck how frequently I heard in families that there was the pretty one and the smart one.


DEBORAH TANNEN: I counted three occasions where the pretty one and the smart one were identical twins. So it really said something about our impulse to compare. And to apportion.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's very funny. We have to take a short break, and when we return, I will continue my conversation with linguist and author Deborah Tannen. We're speaking about our new book, you were always mom's favorite, sisters and conversation, we're going to be expanding our conversation to families and conversation. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is Deborah TAnnen, she's examined the conversations between mothers and daughters and between parents and their adult children, and now most recently in her newest book, you were always mom's favorite, sisters and . This Thanksgiving or maybe even thinking of ways to change that family conversation, give us a call with your questions and your comments. The number here is 1-888-895-5727. And let's start with a caller, Matt is on the line from San Diego. Good morning Matt, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. Thank you for taking my call, I listen to your program, I listen to it on the way to class. But my question was if there had been any studies that had discovered generalizations that could be made not only sister to sister but also brother to brother.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay, great, thank you for the call, Matt. And Deborah, you're on the line.

DEBORAH TANNEN: Yes, I am. That's the kind of book that I've written , I talk about it somewhat in a book called I only say this because I love you, which is about adult siblings, adult family relationships including siblings and including brothers. I wouldn't be surprise said that there are books by psychologists on that topic. I could comment briefly on just what I've found in the research over the years that brothers often were more obvious about the competition, whereas girls and sisters were somewhat more under stated. The struggles between brothers were more often physical. So it was not unusual to hear quite astonishing stories of abuse by younger brothers of older ones. And as adults maybe they are more likely to show their affection for each other through activities, even through playful teasing, playful insults, but their affection comes through. But that would some o fmy own observations.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Marcia is calling from San Diego. Welcomd to these days.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you, I'm actually driving this morning and listening to the program, I have one sister who is 23 months older than myself, and the comments that were made this morning so targeted us growing up. We had a period of time that we did not have a relationship at all. We had issues between raising our children, and We had a separation of about ten years which, at this point, we've gotten well past and we're very close. Of because it's about the pretty one and the smart one, that's again with us so much. And the -- but the interesting point is that for so many years we lived in each other's shadows and didn't know why.


NEW SPEAKER: Neither one of us knew what was going on.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Marcia, thank you for the call, do you find in studying the conversations of sisters that many of these relationships emerge in adulthoodute of what was really sort of a mess when the kids were younger?

DEBORAH TANNEN: I do see patterns where sometimes it continues to play out the way it began as when they were kids.


DEBORAH TANNEN: And others where, once they have a little distance, they completely transform. So again, people can develop in different ways. Points of transitions in life off result in transitions in in the relationship as well. So perhaps one has children, the other doesn't, and so they grow apart, perhaps they both have children and this gives them something, a point of connection. Or they both have children and they're too busy to talk to each other, but then when kids are gone, they suddenly become very close again. And of course physical proximity plays and e-mail contact can be a way of keeping that connection .

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: 1-888-895-5727. And lots of people are about to get together with family members for Thanksgiving and the holidays ahead. Sometimes the old problems within a family resurface around those holiday gatherings. And what is it about the way we speak to each other as family members that can trigger old resentments, Deborah.

DEBORAH TANNEN: When you talk to somebody in your family, every conversation takes meaning, not just from the words just spoken, but from all the conversations you had before. Sometime people are frustrated because they feel that their family has pigeonholed them in some way. And they can't get past it. Sometimes there's a lingering feeling of -- is kind of what the title of my book is, one or another was the favorite. And so they're very sensitive to any implication of being put down which may not really be intend indeed that way.


DEFENDANT: And especially for women, but really for anybody. There's also the danger of feeling left out, because the more -- any time that's more than two people, there's a danger that one or more will feel left out. And when it's your family that you feel is leaving you out, even because they're talking about something that didn't know and can feel hurt, how come you told her and you didn't tell me,it could be learning about an event that took place where you were not included. It could just be a feeling that two people are focusing on each other and talking to each other and not including you in the conversation. So there are innumerable ways that that can arise when a family is together as a group.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And are we often more harsh in our tone .

DEBORAH TANNEN: I think that's true. Sometimes the flashes of anger that you wouldn't show, for people in your family. Sometimes we just forget to have the kind of courtesy to family members that we would have to others. It's such a good thing to keep in mind and try to remind yourself to say the positive things. We often take those for granted. You know I love you. Well, maybe just say it. Or I'm so proud of you. I think it's terrific that you've excelled in your work how you've raised your kids. Anything you can think of that's positive, just putting it into words can go very far.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls and let's take a call our number here is 1-888-895-5727. Or if you'd like to post your comment on line, you can go to Days. Of Janis is calling from La Jolla. Good morning, Janice and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, thank you for taking my call. I happen to be very blessed with a large family. There are seven of us. Of the first six are sisters, are girls, and the seventh one who is 20 years younger than the first sibling is a boy.


NEW SPEAKER: And our parents made us so conscious of being very, very close that we made an effort to even have the cousins develop this close relationship. We sent all the kids to the same camp in Michigan, and my sisters live around the world. We had an Internet group that we constantly are in touch with one another. We see -- all seven of us will be together for Thanksgiving, and the cousins are as close as the sisters are close. And I think it's -- it enriches your life and people -- it hurts me when I hear that people can't have a close relationship with their sisters.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, Janice, thank you so much for that call. I appreciate you sharing that with us. And Deborah, it does -- the a testament to keeping in touch, and what that can do for you.

DEBORAH TANNEN: And I'm thinking the caller is so lucky having that many sisters, I have two, and I cooperate imagine life without either one of them. But yeah, I've talked to families as much as 6, 7, 8, 9, my grandmother was one of 16, that was back in Poland.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Oh, yeah, wow. What did your sisters think of this book? You were always mom's favorite. Did they identify with it?

DEBORAH TANNEN: Well, I have quite a few stories of my own sisters in the book, and of course, every example in the book that I took from a person I interviewed, I had the the person see exactly how I was using it to make sure that it was okay with them and that I got it right. So I did the same thing with my sisters.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, did you -- how many women did you speak with for this book to get the sampling that you needed in order to write knowledgeably about sisters' conversations?

DEBORAH TANNEN: I spoke to over a hundred women. And that was focused interviews where I didn't have a particular list of questions, but I sat down and asked them, tell me about your sisters. Sometimes it was a one woman alone about her sister. But sometimes it was 2, 3, or 4 together who were sisters and sometimes it was that many in a family that I spoke to separately.


DEBORAH TANNEN: So I had all those conversations, but it was over a hundred.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call and speak with Diane in San Diego. Good morning, Diane and welcome to These Days. Crystal is calling us. I'm sorry, on the line from El Cajon. Good morning, crystal welcome to These Days. Oh, okay, well, we're having a little problem with our phones right now. So element ask you a question that I've been dying to ask us, because you are a linguist and you concentrate so much on what people say. But half the process is listening. Is there any way that we can change .

DEBORAH TANNEN: That's a good way it put it, and I think often the problem is in the hearing. And this goes back metamessage is what we think it says about the relationship that these words are spoken in this way at that time. And often the problem is in the metamessage rather than the message. In order, we heard the words okay, but the way we're reacting to them may have les to do with the actual words, either the way it's said or assumptions we had. But then when we argue about it and talk about it, we tend to focus on the message, on the words. SeI'm not sure that I would actually call this listening better, but I would say being aware that the way we interpret the metamessage might not be the way it was intended.


DEBORAH TANNEN: For example, hear criticism from somebody who thinks they're showing caring. I'm not saying the criticism wasn't there, I'm not saying the they're caring wasn't there, but just realizing that both can be there, you might refer to it as a way of listening with more understanding of how language actually works, but that can be helpful.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah, that would be helpful. Jane is calling us from La Jolla. Let's see if our phones are working. Jane, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, I'm glad you made the point about the metamembers of the jury. I'm the oldest of ten kids, there are five girls and five boys and it's actually sort of a blended family. My parents -- anyway, the problem that I'm facing right now is both my stepmother and my mother have passed away, and my mother passed away in February, and I'm having difficulty specifically with my sisters, and I really think this point you just made about the message (REPEAT LAST PHRASE) the metamessage is sort of the key here. Our ability to communicate with each other is almost 0 at this point. We have conversations, we exchange words, but the underlying issues that are not really articulated are never addressed. I think one of the problems is we had to bring my mom home on hospice, and one sister in particular that I had a wonderfully close relationship with our entire lives cannot communicate, really, you know, it can be pleasant, but there's -- I mean the -- it's not hostility, I don't know to say it's hostility or just pent up anger. But we know there's something happening there. And it's a problem that's across all of the girls in the family. At this point.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Jane, let's address some of of the issues that you've brought up. And thank you so much for the call. Is this what you were saying Deborah about these transitional times in a person's life that can either bring you closer together or at least temporarily break you parity.

DEBORAH TANNEN: Absolutely, and I want to say first to Jane, how sorry I am that you lost your mother. That is a time that is so dramatically painful, and it can often create resentments in families that are out of proportion to the specifics. So I heard of sisters having screaming nights over an ash tray. That it takes on meaning in terms of the love of the parents. So one person put it this way, it's like your last chance to get that love from your parents, and you want to fight for it. I think it's a particular burden on an oldest sister. It's almost an injustice in that role of the family, and I'm the youngest of the three, so I didn't really understand this myself until I did this research. The oldest is often put in the position of being like a mother, then she may be resented for it, you know, you're not my mother. So sometimes that's what's going on, and the protectiveness that comes with that role can often come across as a kind of not thinking the younger one has the ability or the competence when you were always expected to do that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Deborah, let me ask you, we only have about a minute left. If you could give us just a couple of brief tips advice for people who are preparing check check.

DEBORAH TANNEN: Well, sometimes just changing the way you speak to someone can change how they will speak to you. So if you're not getting the reaction you like, just don't do more of it, do something different.


DEBORAH TANNEN: If they're telling you you're criticizing, and you think you're caring, you can say I didn't mean it that way but I can see how you would have taken it that way, and then don't give anymore advice. Sometimes just going out and doing stuff together can take away some of that tension.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. If talking's a problem, just do something.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have to end it there, Deborah Tannen, thanks so much.

DEBORAH TANNEN: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It has been a pleasure, deb deb is author of the new book, you were always mom's favorite. OnThese Days. Coming up, the days when Tijuana was called Satan's playground. It's next as These Days continues here on KPBS were.

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