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Sisters Speak In 'You Were Always Mom's Favorite'

Sisters share a secret, circa 1950.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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