STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The best-selling author Deborah Tannen writes about the passionate relationships between sisters. In her new book, Tannen explores various aspects of what she calls sisterness. The book is called "You Were Always Mom's Favorite." NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg, who can be objective about this subject because she is an only child, examines this book about caring, competition, comparison and closeness.
SUSAN STAMBERG: "You Were Always Mom's Favorite" - Deborah Tannen, I'm not going to ask you whether that was true about you, but you are the youngest of three sisters. Do all siblings feel this way?
Ms. DEBORAH TANNEN (Author, "You Were Always Mom's Favorite"): I think yes. Whenever I talk to women about the sisters, they would tell me who was the favorite. Now they didn't always agree.
Ms. TANNEN: So, you know, our perceptions aren't always right, but yeah, we think in those terms.
STAMBERG: Yeah. And you say that nobody really shares your life the way sister-to-sister can, that you're closer in age than you are with your parents. That's an extremely important relationship too, of course, but nothing like the sister relationship. And you're moving through history pretty much at the same time, and you're the same gender, so that's different - in most cases - from your relationship to your husband.
Ms. TANNEN: Yeah. You know, in some ways, the siblings, and especially sisters, are more influential in your childhood than your parents, 'cause you're together more. Sometimes it's a very positive affect, you're oldest sister was always protective of you; but you also hear from people whose entire lives they feel inadequate because of something the sister teased them about -her ear stuck out, she looked funny when she smiled, she uses words wrong. A woman in her 70s told me if anyone corrects her use of a word, she really reacts to that because her sister always told her that she used words wrong and it made her feel stupid.
STAMBERG: Well, you write that it is a relationship about competition and also definition. And those are very interrelated. One is the pretty one. One is the smart one. One's the athletic one. One's the…
Ms. TANNEN: The bookworm.
STAMBERG: The bookworm, and on and on.
Ms. TANNEN: That comparison can be frustrating because you feel you're pigeonholed. You know, I can't draw. I couldn't even think of drawing because my sister was the one who was supposed to have that talent. And sometimes it gives you a starting point from which to decide who you're going to be.
So one woman's sister - they were adults - she said, did you ever wonder why I played the bagpipes? And she said, well, why did you? Because you didn't. A chance to define yourself in comparison, but also sometimes, in opposition.
STAMBERG: Well, you keep talking about sisterness, but you're also talking so much about birth order. Ad that's central to it too, isn't it, 'cause the oldest is always mother-like in some way.
Ms. TANNEN: Right. There's another story I heard that was so moving. A woman recalls she was about 7 and her sister about 14 when their mother died. And the older sister was trying to take care of her, was buttering bread and the bread tore. You know, the butter was hard and the bread was that white bread and the bread tore. And she was so angry. She thought, a real mother wouldn't tear the bread. And her sister was angry because her real mother wouldn't have died. It is such a moving story.
Ms. TANNEN: And how touching that a 14-year-old is trying to be a mother to the 7-year-old…
STAMBERG: And who's mothering her?
Ms. TANNEN: But who is mothering her?
STABMERG: Yeah, yeah.
Ms. TANNEN: I can't tell you how many times I heard from younger sisters, that their older sisters were bossy and judgmental. So you ask why. Think of the older one who always knows better, has a right and maybe is assigned the task of telling the younger ones what to do, and maybe it becomes a habit.
STAMBERG: But that bossiness and the judgmentalness, in a way - I hope this doesn't sound too Pollyanna-ish because I'm an only child - is the flip side of caring, isn't it?
Ms. TANNEN: Yes. It's the double meaning of the word bond. There's the bond of a connection, and there's the bond of bondage. You have a close bond. That's the positive thing. That's the connection. But when you're connected to somebody, everything each one does affects the other, and it's a kind of bondage. You're not as free as you would be if that person wasn't in your life.
STAMBERG: The older one also has every burden, really, as well as so many pleasures, but is always expected not only to be the perpetual care taker and teacher, but also the problem solver. That's the one everybody else goes to.
Ms. TANNEN: Yes, many older sisters or older siblings find the younger ones are always calling, asking for help, asking - and one older sister told me something very interesting. She was starting to get annoyed at that role. And it struck her, she is taking the role of problem solver and she never tells them her problems. So no wonder they think of her as having none. So she just made a concerted effort that she would tell them her problems the same way she does with her friends. And it felt funny at first, but she got used to it, and it did make the relationship more adult and more equal.
STAMBERG: And that's something you can't do right away. You can't do that as - when you're very young. You have to have a certain age.
Ms. TANNEN: And sometimes it has to be a concerted effort, because our ways of relating to each other become like habits and then we also relate to the whole world that way.
STAMBERG: Um-hum, um-hum. Deborah Tannen, we've been talking about sisters, I think it's time to meet yours. We have them on the line. Naomi Tannen, eight years older, you with us?
Ms. NAOMI TANNEN: Yes, I am.
Ms. TANNEN: Hi Nae.
Ms. NAOMI TANNEN: Hello, Deb.
STAMBERG: And Mimi Tannen, two years older than Deborah.
Ms. MIMI TANNEN: Yes, I'm here, too.
STAMBERG: Oh good.
Ms. TANNEN: Hi Mim.
Ms. MIMI TANNEN: Hi Deb, hi Nae.
STAMBERG: So ladies, which of you was your mother's favorite?
Ms. NAOMI TANNEN: Oh, that's a good first question.
Ms. MIMI TANNEN: Obviously, clearly me, no question
STAMBERG: Oh, and Naomi, it was clearly you, wasn't it?
Ms. NAOMI TANNEN: Well, I don't know about that.
STAMBERG: Deborah, what do you think?
Ms. TANNEN: I think at times in my life, I thought it was Mimi and at other times, I thought it was Naomi.
Ms. NAOMI TANNEN: And never you?
Ms. TANNEN: Are you kidding? Mom's favorite? No chance anyone's going to say me, right?
Ms. NAOMI TANNEN: She was more involved with you than any of the three of us.
Ms. TANNEN: Maybe after I was on Oprah, but not before.
STAMBERG: Oh golly. Ladies, I hate to interrupt this little family reunion, but I'm so glad we had it. Thank you so much. Deborah Tannen, author of "You Were Always Mom's Favorite," joined by Naomi Tannen and Mimi Tannen, proving their younger sibling's subtitle, "Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives." This is the third book that Deborah Tannen has dedicated to her sisters.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
Ms. NAOMI TANNEN: Mimi?
Ms. MIMI TANNEN: Yes?
Ms. NAOMI TANNEN: You didn't get a chance to talk.
Ms. MIMI TANNEN: No, I didn't.
Ms. TANNEN: Typical middle.
Ms. NAOMI TANNEN: This is going to cause problems.
Ms. MIMI TANNEN: That's right. You're always talking over me, Naomi.
Ms. TANNEN: Guys, if Mommy was alive, she would have…
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: You'll find an excerpt from "You Were Always Mom's Favorite," along with loads of book recommendations, at npr.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
She borrows your clothes. She knows your secrets. She drives you crazy. You can't live without her. Linguist Deborah Tannen interviewed 100 women (including her own big sisters) for her new book, You Were Always Mom's Favorite.
Sisters Speak In 'You Were Always Mom's Favorite'
George Marks / Retrofile/Getty Images
Linguist Deborah Tannen interviewed more than 100 women for her new book on sister relationships, but as the youngest of three sisters, she was able to draw on plenty of experience of her own.
You Were Always Mom's Favorite is the latest in her relationship canon; Tannen has covered everything from conversations between mothers and daughters (You're Wearing THAT?) conversations between coworkers (Talking From 9 to 5) and, of course, conversations between men and women ... twice (You Just Don't Understand and That's Not What I Meant!)
"In some ways, siblings and especially sisters are more influential in your childhood than your parents," Tannen tells Susan Stamberg (who is an only child).
Sister relationships are about competition and definition: the pretty one and the smart one, the athletic one and the bookworm.
"That comparison can be frustrating because you feel you're pigeonholed," Tannen explains. "It gives you a starting point to decide who you are going to be."
Birth order plays a key role in sister relationships — the oldest frequently takes the role of the mother, the teacher, the problem solver.
"I can't tell you how many times I heard from younger sisters that their older sisters were bossy and judgmental," Tannen says.
Yet as Stamberg points out, being bossy or judgmental can also be seen as the flip side of caring. Tannen agrees.
"It's the double meaning of the word bond," Tannen says. "There's the bond of a connection and the bond of bondage ... When you are connected to somebody, everything each one does affects the other, and it's a kind of bondage. You're not as free as you would be if that person wasn't in your life."
Tannen says sisters fall into patterns of interaction, and these patterns shape personalities.
"Our ways of relating to each other become like habits," she says.
As for Deobrah Tannen's own sisters — Naomi (the eldest) and Mimi (the middle) — there's no clear consensus on who was the favorite.
"Maybe after I was on Oprah," Deborah Tannen says, "but not before."
No hard feelings, though. You Were Always Mom's Favorite is the third book Tannen has dedicated to her two big sisters.