You Were Always Mom’s Favorite!

By DEBORAH TANNEN

“For girls and women, talk is the glue that holds a relationship together,” Deborah Tannen writes. Yet few people have the ability to really listen — to themselves or others. Tannen, the bestselling author of You’re Wearing THAT? and You Just Don’t Understand, is a linguist who studies conversations to decipher the metamessages beneath the messages — “meanings we glean from the way things are said, the fact that they’re said, or what is not said. Every word has meaning on both levels.” In You Were Always Mom’s Favorite! Tannen analyzes hundreds of conversations with women talking to or about their sisters — including her own — and discusses the balance between rivalry and connection, the importance of birth order, the trickiness of family alignments and secrets, the responsibilities and privileges of older sisters, and the double meaning of the word “bond.” She cites literary works ranging from Shakespeare’s King Lear to Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, about Anne’s older sister Mary, with whom Henry VIII dallied first. “We’re close but we’re different,” many women tell her. “When I’m around my sister I feel like a child again,” others say. “My sister thinks I’m judgmental,” one says, “but I’m just giving advice.” In one of the more moving anecdotes–which recalls the poem from Grace Paley’s posthumous collection, Fidelity, that begins, “I needed to talk to my sister” — an 80-year-old speaks of dialing her late sister’s phone number a year after her death to make sure it wasn’t a bad dream. As in much conversation, repetition trumps revelations in Tannen’s book. But women are sure to recognize themselves in her examples, and perhaps think a bit differently about this central defining relationship in their lives.