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Deborah Tannen on Why It’s So Much Harder To Be Sisters Than Friends

The paperback version of Deborah Tannen’s latest book “You Were Always Mom’s Favorite: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives”, is just out from Ballantine Books. In this interview, conducted over email, Tannen — a Georgetown linguistics professor, who has studied the quirks and patterns of the “New York Jewish conversational style”— explains why women feel competitive with their female siblings, and what they can do about it.

Hinda Mandell: It seems like Jewish mothers represent such an iconic symbol in both Jewish and broader American culture. Yet when I think of sisters in Jewish culture, the only thing that comes to mind is the biblical story of Rachel and Leah, and Jacob’s love for the younger sister. I know that the Ten Commandments instruct us to “Honor thy mother and thy father,” but why is it sometimes hard for two sisters to treat each other with respect?

It’s an interesting point about sisters not getting the same attention as parents and children, and even brothers. I suspect it’s just because women didn’t count that much and weren’t the ones writing the accounts. However, there are lots of examples of solidarity among Jewish women, sisters who kept each other alive in the camps. There are also examples of Jewish sisters who did not get along.

I wouldn’t say that it’s hard for sisters to treat each other respect. Many do. This relationship is heir to the same conflicts as all close relationships. There is competition built-in because siblings look to the same source for approval, love, monetary and emotional support — and in some ways, it is true that attention given to one means less for another. Comparison is also built in, and that can lead to resentment. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t also wonderful benefits of shared memories — and conversational style! How comforting for Jewish sisters, for example, to let their hair down and speak all at once, overlapping and finishing each other’s sentences, without fear of being misheard as interrupting.

My younger sister — the baby of the family — says there are far fewer childhood pictures of her than there are of me and our older brother. Is that a common trend in families? Does it happen that at a certain point parents get tired of photo-documenting their children’s lives after the second or third kid?

Ah, I have quite a lot to say about this in the book, too. Of all the examples and observations I include, and included in earlier essays, this is the one that gets the most universal response. It seems unavoidable and ubiquitous. I like to quote Harriet Beecher Stowe: “The first child is pure poetry; the rest are prose.” There is more excitement, more amazement when a first is born. No subsequent babies can have that impact. But maybe most important of all, the parents have less. time! Now they’ve got not only a new baby to look after, but a toddler or other older kids too.

My sister and I are not competitive with each other, but there are definitely some things that I unintentionally do that set her off. I’m thinking of a particular incident when I borrowed her sports bra without asking her first. Why is it that sometimes a sister’s reaction to what seems like a small incident (such as borrowing a sports bra) can turn into a full-blown fight and family “crisis?”

I think it comes down to the feeling of being infringed upon, so you don’t know where you end and your sister begins. (Often the world doesn’t know either.) I gather she is more likely to go ballistic than you. Sometimes that’s because an older sister is huge in the mind of a younger, whereas a younger has less power in the eyes of the older … though she does have the power to get parents’ attention and protection just by crying!

What is the main difference in how two sisters speak to each other versus how two good girlfriends speak to each other?

Of course it depends on the particular sisters and girlfriends, but in general, sisters have more shared history going back to childhood. Everything you say in a family carries meaning from all that was said before. So with friends, there is less likelihood of a few words triggering associations from childhood, where our deepest emotions often are rooted. On the other hand, many women have told me their girlfriends are the sisters they were meant to have — more shared interests, less competition.

This Q&A has been shortened for clarity.

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