If you have sisters, you know that they can be the loves of your life but also your worst nightmare. Deborah Tannen’s book “You Were Always Mom’s Favorite! Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives” she describes how sisters’ communication through their lifetime, has a major toll on their relationships. Our speech is influenced by our ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, age, and the people who we are surrounded by. Sisters are influenced by the speech patterns of their own sisters, but also they are affected by the comments that people make around them.
Frequency of conversation and unsaid messages known as ‘metamessages’ are major concepts impacting sister relationships. Compared to brothers and friends, sisters are known for having frequent emotional discussions. We talk about our friends, the annoying thing our boss said, and overheard messages on the subway that make us both eye roll and laugh hysterically. Tannen reveals that women become closer through the sharing of information and secrets. This justifies why sisters speak so regularly and casually — to build emotional bonds. The average person may think that these conversations are silly, but they are the backbone of sister relationships (whereas brothers talk less frequently, but more about “big picture” topics such as the future, politics, and history). The frequent relaxed nature of “sister-talk” can positively influence not only sister relationships but also mental well-being. It is a known fact that talking about your emotions is better for your overall health, but it is good for your sisters’ well-being too! Cassidy and Wright performed a research study which indicated that emotional talks, specifically in sister relationships, can positively affect your overall mental well-being (Cassidy, Noon, & Wright, 2015).
The issue is that these sister conversations can also have underlying implications. Sisters can get highly emotional and read too much into conversations, based on tone and specific words used. For example, my sister always gets angry when I use the word “sure” in text messages, reading into this word as if my response states that I don’t want to do the task she is asking me (which sometimes is valid). These arguments about word choices or tone of voice can often cause tension, but in a sister world, an argument is quickly blown over by a “can I borrow your shirt” request.
Sisters flip between closeness and competition. Because most siblings are raised in the same household, sisters have the right amount of commonalities, with an independent flair. Although they are also challenged when people label them (ex: “the smart one” or “the pretty one”) and their relationship can become a slight competition. Labeling can impact the way sisters perceive themselves, also potentially causing tension in relationships. Another factor is the path they choose to take and comments regarding that path, for example: “wow — your sister went away for university, why did you choose to stay at home?” These comparisons and statements impact self-perception and can have potential implications on a sister relationship. The comparison examples can be exemplified in the older sister relationship as well. The way an older sister can act can impact parents’ perception of success with younger siblings. The idea of “respecting the eldest” can also cause friction, as younger siblings have a personality of their own and don’t always want to be compared to their older sibling.
Communication is much more than what simply is or is not said. Communication also includes tone, body language and even the length of pausing between talking. Depending on the relationship, sisters often can get into fights due to pausing (or lack of) while speaking. The length of a pause depends on the individual speaking, but if someone doesn’t allow a long enough pause, they can be seen as interrupting or cutting the other speaker off. This action can cause arguments with sisters as they may not seem heard. Sisters also “co-converse”, when discussing stories, often interrupting, correcting, repeating and expanding their sisters’ points. This is done by many people but the author notes that it is special by sisters because of how they are expressing the message.
Closeness is affected by age, personality types and the words we use in conversation. We can say “we are different” to signify distance and views that are not aligned, or we can say “we are the same” or “the same thing happened to me” to show signs of closeness. It is interesting to note that we are “creatures of conversation” where we live our lives and make major decisions through a series of conversations. Sometimes we take advice from others and sometimes we give advice. Whether we are close to our sisters or not, it is important to note how exactly our conversation styles can have an impact on our relationships and views.
Cassidy, Noon, & Wright (2015). Sibling constellations and wellbeing in intact and non-intact families. Journal of Adolescent Psychology and Psychiatry.
Tannen, Deborah (2010). You Were Always Mom’s Favorite! Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives. New York: Penguin Random House.