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Listening for What Sisters Say About Each Other, What They Really Mean

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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: We're joined by Deborah Tannen, the Georgetown University linguist and author of best-selling books on how we communicate. Her early work focused on the different conversation styles of men and women. Later came mothers and daughters.

Deborah Tannen's most recent book, now in paperback, is called "You Were Always Mom's Favorite! Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives."

DEBORAH TANNEN: "For this book I interviewed over one hundred women. It was not a formal interview; I didn't have a set of questions or anything like that. I just started with people I knew. They recommended people they knew. And I wasn't looking to say anything general about particular groups, but I included people from many groups: Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Italian-Americans, European-Americans. But I was just listening to hear anecdotes and see patterns in the anecdotes that I heard.

"And I got such a range. Everything from 'My sister is myself, I can't imagine life without her,' and then I also heard 'I don't want anyone to kill my sister because I want that pleasure myself.'" [Laughter]

RS: "Quite a range."

AA: "Which is interesting, because you are a linguist, after all, and so you're hearing, but then maybe you're hearing also at a deeper level. And, in fact, there's one line in your book here, you say 'Separating messages from metamessages in conversation can help dispel unnecessary hurts.' What do you mean by that?"

Listening for What Sisters Say About Each Other, What They Really Mean
Listening for What Sisters Say About Each Other, What They Really Mean

DEBORAH TANNEN: "This is a theme that runs through every book I've written. Message and metamessage are present in everything we say. Message would be the meaning of the words. The metamessage is what we think it says about the relationship and about your intentions that you say something in this way at this time.

"Often when there were conflicts, again, in any family relationship or any relationship at all, people agreed on the message if we spoke the same language. But they disagreed on the metamessage: What did it mean that you said that? Now, frequently, this happened especially between oldest and younger ones, but could happen in any close relationship.

"So the older sister, I was frequently told, is judgmental. Where did that come from? She was being helpful, from her point of view, telling you how you could improve. And we frequently see how other people could improve their lives -- things they should be doing they're not doing, things they could do better -- "

AA: "That we think they could be doing better."

DEBORAH TANNEN: "We think they could be doing better. Normally we don't say anything, but if it's someone close to you that you love, many people feel they have a right, maybe an obligation to say it."

RS: "And what patterns emerged?"

DEBORAH TANNEN: "The most striking thing was almost everybody started by telling me they're different. And it might be 'We've always been close even though we're very different.' Or it might be 'We were never very close. We're very different.' And that made me wonder, why is being different the starting point? And so the pattern was that people seem to think of their lives in comparison to their sister's life.

"A woman told me she graduated number ten in a graduating class, high school class, of two hundred, but she still thought she was not smart because her sister had graduated number one. So in many cases it's not always, are we tall or short [but] are we taller or shorter than our sisters? So that was one pattern that emerged quickly."

RS: "And competition would follow right on that."

DEBORAH TANNEN: "One of the reasons that sisters fascinated me, everything that we do and every conversation we have, we're balancing two dynamics: how close or distant do we want to be and the competition. Who has more power?

"We often think, and I have written myself, that women tend to focus more on the connection level. But sisters are always competitive as well. So they're very connected and the competition and the hierarchy is always there because of the order by age. So that was fascinating.

"Competition -- sometimes it was good-natured. A woman said she had a conversation with her sister. Her sister said 'I spoke to Mom twice yesterday.' She said 'Well, I spoke to her once, but we had a better conversation.'"

AA: We'll be back next week with linguist Deborah Tannen, author of "You Were Always Mom's Favorite! Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives." In case you're wondering, she has two older sisters and says they have always been a cherished part of her life.

And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.