by Deborah Tannen
This book intrigued me, since I have a sister and our conversations don’t always go very well since we’re very different people. We love each other to death, no doubt, but we clash a lot, and I thought maybe this book would give me some insight.
Yes and no. The author interviewed hundreds of sisters for this book, and explored the different types of sisterly relationships and how they start, grow, and change. She’s a professor of linguistics, so conversational dynamics are her strong point and her main focus in most of her books. Because women are talkers by nature, sister relationships are based in conversation much more than other types of relationships, so she’s really in her element as she details her interviews.
What I found fascinating is the near-universal tendency of sisters worldwide to separate or group themselves by extremes. The pretty one and the smart one. Mom’s girl and Dad’s girl. The athlete and the nerd. Once one sister has taken on a role, it’s almost required for the next sister to take the opposite track since that niche has been filled. Psychologically speaking, it can be a conflict-avoidance technique. So if she’s the pretty one, I’m not going to try and be prettier because it’ll cause friction. I’ll just excel at sports instead. It doesn’t always work that way, but it’s extremely common.
The book explores a lot of other aspects of sisterhood, from birth order to closeness to adoption, and while the author stacks up example after example to prove a point, she then provides enough counterexamples to make you wonder what’s true. I think that’s done on purpose to illustrate that each relationship is different and you can’t make huge sweeping statements about sisters.
More than anything, what I took away from this book is that people use different conversational styles, and if your style clashes with your sister’s, you’re screwed. Directness vs indirectness, and involvement vs independence are the main differences, making one person’s heartfelt offer of advice another person’s insulting allusion to incompetence. One of her other books goes into this topic much more deeply and is a fascinating read for anyone who ever finds themselves misunderstood in conversations. Pick up That’s not What I Meant: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships for more insight on conversational style. Then let’s chat about it.