You Were Always Mom's Favorite!: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives

You Were Always Mom's Favorite!: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives

by Deborah Tannen


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Wednesday, January 23

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345496973
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/07/2010
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 597,797
Product dimensions: 8.28(w) x 11.48(h) x 0.55(d)

About the Author

Deborah Tannen is the acclaimed author of You Just Don’t Understand, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly four years including eight months as #1; the ten-week New York Times bestseller You’re Wearing THAT?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation; I Only Say This Because I Love You: Talking to Your Parents, Partner, Sibs and Kids When You’re All Adults, which won the Books for a Better Life Award; Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work; That’s Not What I Meant!; and many other books. A professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, she has written for and been featured in newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, Time, and Newsweek. She appears frequently on TV and radio, including such shows as 20/20, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Colbert Report, Nightline, Today, Good Morning America, and NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She is university professor and professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, and has been McGraw Distinguished Lecturer at Princeton University. She lives with her husband in the Washington, D.C., area.

From the Hardcover edition.


Washington, D.C. metro area

Date of Birth:

June 7, 1945

Place of Birth:

Brooklyn, New York


B.A., Harpur College, 1966, Wayne State University, 1970; M.A. in Linguistics, UC Berkeley, 1976; Ph.D., 1979

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Sisters in Lifelong Conversation 

“I love her to death. I can’t imagine life without her,” a woman says of her sister. Another says of hers, “I want to be around her all the time. She’s the only one who knows all kinds of stuff from the past. All we have to do is say one word, and we know when the other one will start laughing.” I heard many comments like these from women who told me that their relationships with their sisters are among the most precious aspects of their lives. 

I also heard comments like this one: “I don’t want anyone to kill my sister because I want to have the privilege of doing that myself.” 

Though they sound so different, these remarks have something in common: the intensity of feelings behind them. Sister relationships are among the most passionate of our lives. One woman explained, “My relationship with my sister is more deeply emotional than any other.” Yet another, after telling me ways her sister had hurt her— tales of betrayal that made me wonder why she still talks to the perpetrator at all— said, “No matter how difficult my sister is, she is still part of me, part of my past, my present, and my future.” Then she added, echoing the comment I quoted at the start: “Love her or hate her, I can’t imagine life without her.” Conversations with sisters can spark extremes of anger or extremes of love. Everything said between sisters carries meaning not only from what was just said but from all the conversations that came before— and “before” can span a lifetime. The layers of meaning combine profound connection with equally profound competition. Both the competition and the connection are complicated by inevitable comparison with someone whose life has been so similar to yours and yet so different— and always in your view. 

What’s Ideal, What’s Real? 

I was chatting with four women at a party. As we talked, we gradually sat down, then drew our chairs into a circle. The other party guests looked on with curiosity or envy as our tight little group erupted in laughter or rippled with a wave of knowing nods. I had brought up the topic of sisters. 

Laxmi, a woman visiting from India, was extolling hers. “When we meet we can’t get enough of each other,” she said. “When we ride in a car together, my husband threatens, ‘I’m taking another car! You two never stop talking and laughing!’ She’s my lifeline. I’m her lifeline. If I say one word, she knows what I’m going to say. We’ve made a pact that we’ll take a vacation together at least once a year.” Another woman in our group remarked sadly, “That’s why I always wished I had a sister.” I wanted to learn more about this wonderful sister relationship, so before the party ended I arranged to interview Laxmi one on one. 

The following week, Laxmi and I sat down in private. The first thing she told me was that she had recently gone through a year during which she refused to speak to her sister. When their parents died, she explained, she and her sister had together inherited a building composed of two apartments; each sister owned one. Laxmi wanted to sell her apartment, but she realized that the value of her sister’s would go down if she sold hers separately; they would both get a better price if they put the entire building on the market. But her sister wasn’t ready to sell, so Laxmi tabled the idea and went away for an extended visit to her daughter, who lived abroad. When she returned, she discovered that her sister had changed her mind about selling her apartment— and had gone ahead and sold it. Now it was Laxmi whose apartment had plummeted in value. As difficult as this financial loss was for her, what Laxmi couldn’t forgive was that her sister had robbed Laxmi’s children of part of their inheritance, since the profit from selling Laxmi’s apartment would eventually go to them. Her anger and hurt were so great, she could not bear to speak to her sister. But after a year she decided to let it go. She had only one sister and did not want to lose her. 

Hearing this story, I wished I could go back to the party and tell the woman who longed for a sister that the ideal she’d heard Laxmi describe— someone to talk to and laugh with, who knows exactly what you mean and what you are going to say, a lifeline— was real, but it wasn’t the whole story. A sister is someone who owns part of what you own: a house, perhaps, or a less tangible legacy, like memories of your childhood and the experience of your family. The way she manages that shared inheritance can either raise or lower its value for you— or call its value into question. 


The word “sister” evokes an ideal of connection and support, like the friendships that made Rebecca Wells’s Divine Secrets of the Ya- Ya Sisterhood and Ann Brashares’s The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants into best - selling novels and successful films. The friendships referred to in these titles are called “sisterhood” because the friends stuck together through thick and thin, understood each other when no one else did, and supported one another while marching arm in arm to the same music. Part of the reason these books and movies were so popular is that we all yearn to belong to a group with a bond like that. As one woman put it, “Friends are the sisters we were meant to have.” Many women told me they have friends who are “sister surrogates” or “sister equivalents.” They used the word “sister” to characterize what they prize in those friends. 

Even the sound of the word “sister” is comforting, with its soothing s’s. (The b of “brother” sounds more abrupt.) We have sister cities, sister universities, and, in biology, sister cells. Sister cities and universities establish mutually enriching associations based on shared characteristics like similar size. Sister cells are identical because they have split from the same “mother” cell. Sister cities are not at each other’s throats; sister universities are not so named because they know exactly how to get the other’s goat; sister cells don’t fight over who gets the slice of cake with the buttercream rose. But these less- appealing traits can also be aspects of real- life sisterhood. 

At a group gathered to talk with me, a woman said she and her sister use the term “sisterspeak” for the kind of talk they treasure and trust from each other: talk that sets the other straight. Another woman who was pres ent chimed in: “Yeah yeah! Your sister will tell you in a way a friend can’t and even a mother can’t.” The first continued: A sister can ask, “What were you thinking?” and force you to answer, to yourself as well as to her, “I wasn’t!” But in another setting I heard a different view: A woman commented that sisters should be called “the liars’ club” because they tell each other only a version of the truth. She explained why she can’t tell her sister the whole truth: “I have to be cautious about sharing my feelings, hopes, and dreams because they invariably get translated into something that will come back to hurt me. When I have met people who know about me through my sister, they are often surprised and tell me that I’m nothing like the person she described.” 

These two views— someone who sets you straight or someone who twists your words so they boomerang back and hurt you— represent the potential best and worst of sister conversations. And it’s not always clear which type of sisterspeak your sister is speaking. 

Talking Straight— or Bent? 

Natalie was thrilled; she had joined Weight Watchers and stuck with it. The extra pounds she’d put on were finally falling away. Each week when she weighed in, her spirits soared as the numbers on the scale went down. Everyone told her how great she looked— except her sister Alex. “You’re losing too much weight,” Alex said. “You don’t look healthy. Look at how your collarbones stick out.” Alex’s observation was accurate. When Natalie looked in the mirror, she did see her collarbones clearly defined. It was one of the changes that had given her pleasure. But now she wasn’t sure if she should be pleased or not. Was Alex giving her the gift of sisterspeak: telling her the truth when no one else would? Or was it sisterspeak of another sort: tinged with envy, eager to slow her down when she got too far ahead? A sister is the one person you can brag to— or the one you’ll never tell about your triumphs because she’d be jealous. She’s the one you can call in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep, or the one who doesn’t want to hear about your problems unless you’re ready to do something about them. She’s the one who’s there when you need her, or the one whose absence in a crisis hurts most. A sister is the person who knows exactly what it was like to grow up in the home you grew up in, with the parents you knew as your own. But she can also be the one who tells you that what you recall is all in your head; she was there and she doesn’t remember it that way. 

In telling me how her sister frustrates her, Doris remarked, “She accuses me of having said things I never said.” Later Doris commented, “She denies having said things that I know she said.” Her sister, I surmise, would have the same two complaints about Doris, with the examples reversed. Reality denied for one is false accusation for the other. When memories differ about minor events, small details, it’s no big deal. You may shrug your shoulders or even laugh. But if the differing recollections are facts of your life that cut to the core of who you think you are, a sister’s insistence that you’ve got it wrong can make you feel as if the ground on which you stand is shaking. And when you make a good- natured joke and your sister takes offense, or accuses you of bad intentions when you know you meant well, it hurts more than when a stranger or even a friend misinterprets your meaning. It’s a violation of the very definition of sister; it’s not the way the world— and your family— is supposed to be. 

We’ll Be There 

Every day we face challenges, some large, some tiny. It helps to have someone we can turn to for advice or reassurance— or just to say she understands and cares. Talking to women about their sisters, and reading about sisters, was inspiring, as I heard innumerable accounts of sisters supporting each other in words, in deeds, or just by being there. I read accounts of dire circumstances where sisters literally kept each other alive by their mutual presence. A Dutch woman who was with Anne Frank and her sister Margot in a concentration camp provides two examples, her own and Anne Frank’s, with starkly different endings. Janny Brandes- Brilleslijper became gravely ill with typhus, but she survived because she kept herself going in order to keep her sister, who was even sicker, alive. “Anne was sick, too,” she recalls, “but she stayed on her feet until Margot died; only then did she give in to her illness.” 

Few of us confront circumstances this desperate, but I heard many moving accounts of sisters coming through in times of crisis. Joy, for example, drew courage from her sisters’ presence when she underwent emergency surgery to save her life. It had happened suddenly: One moment Joy was walking down the street, the next thing she knew she was regaining consciousness in a hospital bed. “When I woke up,” Joy recalls, “my three sisters were standing there, side by side, like linebackers.” Joy knew instantly that something serious had happened to her, because none of her sisters lived in the same city she did; one had come from Boston, one from Kansas City, one all the way from Africa. And they stayed with Joy until she was out of danger. Having them there gave her courage to endure grueling medical procedures. “My temperature went up and they couldn’t get it down,” Joy said, “so they put me in an ice cube. It was the most miserable I’ve ever been, a plastic tube that has ice in it; they pump cold water into it. I thought, I can’t go through this. They said, ‘We’ll spend the night with you. If you wake up, we’ll be there.’ And that made me feel, Hey, I can get through this.” 

Joy also described ways that she and her sisters help each other out that are not emergencies. Joy’s field is education. She encouraged her youngest sister, to whom academic work didn’t come naturally, not only to go to college but eventually to get a master’s degree. Joy found the right program and invited her sister to stay with her while pursuing it. For her part, Joy was able to do the research required for her own academic career because her sisters helped care for her children during summers while she did her own work. And here’s a final image I love: Joy has neither time nor talent to shop for clothes, so once each year she travels to Boston and stays with the sister who has an eye for fashion and knows all the outlet stores. Together they spend two days outfitting Joy for the year, while a third sister watches their children. 

When women told me they’d always wished they had a sister, they were thinking of this ideal of mutual encouragement and support. Many of those who have sisters also yearn for this ideal, because their relationships with their sisters don’t always live up to it. Idealized images make it harder to accept— and find ways to address— the frustrations that are as common among sisters as in any close relationship. The ideal is the connection that links Joy and her sisters. But there is another dynamic between sisters that is equally fundamental: competition. 

From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

Preface 3

1 Sisters in Lifelong Conversation 7

2 "We're Close but We're Different": Compare and Contrast 32

3 Looking Up and Talking Down: Competition and the Array of Age 57

4 Whose Side Are You On?: Understanding Alignment 80

5 "I'll Be the Princess, You Be the Frog": Younger Sister: The View from the Frog 105

6 Gateway to the World: Older Sister: The View from the Gate 128

7 It's All Talk: Sisterspeak and Genderlect 156

8 Sisterness: The Good, the Bad, and How to Get More of the Lovely 180

Epilogue 205

Acknowledgements 209

Author's Note 213

Notes 217

References 223

Index 227

Reading Group Guide


Looking back at your childhood, could you have predicted that your relationships with your siblings would evolve as they have?
2. Have you tended to think of yourself and your sister(s) as different, similar, or a combination of both?  In what ways?
3. Did the chapters on oldest and youngest sisters ring true to you?  Did they change the way you think about yourself or your siblings?
4. Did the title “You Were Always Mom’s Favorite!” ring a bell?  Would “You Were Always Dad’s Favorite!” have been equally or more evocative?  If you were to write a book about sisters, what would you call it?
5. If you have brothers as well as sisters, how do your conversations – and relationships -- with them compare?  If you have sisters or brothers who are gay or transgendered, how do your conversations and relationships with them compare?
6. Tannen writes, “There is no equal protection clause in the family constitution.”  Were there changes in your family’s circumstances that resulted in different opportunities or burdens for different children in the family?
7. If you have half siblings or step siblings, how do your relationships with them compare to your relationships with full siblings, and with the book’s descriptions? 
8. Families sometimes categorize siblings in opposing ways: the shy one and the outgoing one, the bookworm and the athlete,  or, most unfortunately, the smart one and the pretty one (as if a woman can’t be both!)  Why do you think this happens?  Have you seen it in your own experience?
9. Many women feel that their sisters have caused them more pain than joy, or have disappointed them in significant ways.  Have you experienced this or observed it in friends or relatives?  Have you ever thought you’d be better off without a sister?  Why?
10. In reading You Were Always Mom’s Favorite! did you sometimes feel that your experience was different because of cultural influences?  In what ways?

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

You Were Always Mom's Favorite: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I gave my copy of this book to my older sister. I don't think she read it. I thought it was very interesting. It articulated very well, what it is to be a sister and to have a sister.
SuzeJones58 More than 1 year ago
I was excited to have the opportunity to pick up this book. Essentially, the book focuses on different areas of conversation, most especially between sisters. Tannen herself admits in "You Were Always Mom's Favorite" that what takes place in conversation among sisters can apply to many other types of conversation, too. Because I had a sister, I related to much of the conversational areas. In fact, I knew most of them anyway--and that is one of the major disappointments of this's not much more than a recounting and nominal off the top of one's head sounding analysis of conversational pieces. In other words, common sense. I learned nothing from this book and I wasn't particularly entertained, either. I would almost like to add something to the book. How about study, dissection and understanding of conversation between sisters where one or more is ill?--either psychically or physically? Much of the book emanates from conversations Tannen has had with her own middle aged sisters. Somehow, this doesn't seem to be fair...a book from someone with Tannen's credentials and it's highly anecdotal? In the end, I found the book becoming tedious and lacking in some serious material.
S_Daniele More than 1 year ago
I have only one sibling a sister who is only a year and three days older then myself. She and I were both home-schooled from around second grad to graduation and spent almost every day together. We have a strong loving relationship, and usually because we know each other so well, even when we do fight we end up laughing it off. But this past year she joined the Navy, at the age of 21. And for the first time in my life I didn't have her with me for every little thing. I had to learn to deal with things on my own and found out that when she isn't around I get to be the outgoing one because I'm the only one here now. I realized that although we have a good relationship it's not perfect and there are cracks in the foundation. Like the fact that our mother does in fact prefer her to me, and my sister can't stand our mom. Anyways, I was reading cosmo and saw something about this book and since I missed my sister immensely and wasn't going to be able to see or talk to her much while she was in boot camp. I thought it was a good way to learn about and strengthen our relationship. I told my sister that we were both going to read it but that I was only buying one book. I had a plan to keep connected with her. I read the book, and as I went through it I put pen to page, literally. I made notes on the stories and statistic right next to them. Sometime I would apologies when I saw that I do some of the less sweet things the book mentions. Other times I would tell her she did that to me, and ask her to work on it. And more often than not I would just make silly little comments, or statements that would only make sense to her. Like. "Remember the time, at the place, after you got your hair cut, and that other girl did that to you, and I almost died laughing at how red you got" or "I hereby Claim all princess we ever meet so that we don't have to fight over them, because that's how much I love you, and never want us to fight over boys! I know I'm the best". She latter challenge me on that one. Hehe. I gave her the book on her first leave, and she promised to read it. Over the next few weeks I got phone calls from her chuckling on the other end or asking if she really did the thing I accused. I was honest with her about everything, and laughed along, happy that she was happy. It was a great experience for us and I think the key was that I made it all about us, it wasn't about random sisters, it was all us, how we saw them and ourselves and how we could stay connected no matter what. I wouldn't necessarily say it strengthened our relationship, because we already had a really good one. But I do think it was good for us, because we are for the first time moving in different directions and I was terrified that we would lose each other in our new separate worlds. This book really helped me see that although we will always be changing, and moving in deferent directions, we will always stand by each other. I recommend getting, and personalizing this book, then giving it to your sister, or sisters. Make it part of your story instead of just another sister book, And I think you'll like it. :D
marjo More than 1 year ago
Sorry to say, there's nothing new here. As one of three sisters, I was hoping for something I hadn't read before, something useful, or smart humor (as the name and cover implies). Very disappointing. My sisters are also readers, so I considered passing it on to one of them, but sister relationships being what they are, I fear they might interpret the gift as criticism. Might be useful to a young mother of girls, or interesting to pre-teen or teen sisters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought this book had some useful points but would have enjoyed it more if there were less personal/situational stories and maybe more statistics or more actual studies/numerical data.
ffortsa on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Helpful insights into the relationship between sisters, demonstrated for the most part by language, which is Tannen's metier. The style is easy and confidential, like a conversation over dinner, but a little repetitive. Nevertheless, I think it might help my relationship with my sister.
Copperskye on LibraryThing 5 months ago
I tried to read this and was only able to get through the first couple of chapters before getting bored. Then I found the audio version (read by the author) and enjoyed it much more. Not surprisingly, I guess, the author¿s conversational style seemed better suited for listening than for reading. Her tone is witty and the anecdotes insightful. As the youngest of four with two older sisters, I saw myself and my sisters several times, not only in how we communicate verbally, but also in how we relate to each other. Sisters have complicated relationships and I do have a better understanding now of why I am like I am when I¿m with them. If you¿re a woman with a sister or two, you might find this interesting but I recommend the audio.
detailmuse on LibraryThing 5 months ago
I enjoyed You Just Don¿t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation and know of Tannen¿s other books, so was interested to see that she has sliced her studies of conversation yet another way here -- along sisterly lines in You Were Always Mom¿s Favorite!It¿s an interesting slice since, as Tannen writes, ¿A sister is like yourself in a different movie, a movie that stars you in a different life.¿ She posits that these lives revolve around a subset of sibling rivalry where sisters connect and compete in attempts to align themselves for parental love. She supports that not through strictly scientific data but rather social anecdotes -- examples pulled from literature, pop culture, and her own interviews. It¿s notable that I¿ve recently read two other books that incorporate ¿everyman¿ quotes; they were clumsy in insertion and vacuous in content and frankly spoiled the works. But here, Tannen knows expertly when to summarize someone¿s comments, and when instead to roll seamlessly into a spot-on and memorable quote.A couple quibbles. First, contrary to the subtitle (Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives), this book is not much about conversation. Instead, it's primarily about psychology and exploring the underlying family roles and dynamics that sometimes bubble up into verbal and nonverbal communications.Second, Tannen leaves no stone unturned, no shade of gray unexamined. At one point, she refers to the 17 single-spaced pages of research notes she'd accumulated for one topic; I think she included every one of them in this book -- first via a complete, fully formed example, then appended with a summarizing paragraph. The wordiness and repetition grew tedious, and tolerable in doses of at most a chapter at a time. I actually think an audio version would be a better fit for Tannen¿s smooth, conversational (!) style, and where the repetition might feel reinforcing rather than frustrating.
2chances on LibraryThing 5 months ago
I had hoped for more from Deborah Tannen's latest foray into the hidden messages we convey in conversation. While I enjoy Tannen's ideas and writing style, I found this book disorganized; I had to keept rechecking the table of contents to see which section I was reading. Was it about older sisters? Wait, then why does she keep talking about younger sisters? With each new section, I hoped for a new, organized set of insights; instead it seemed like she kept saying the same things over and over. I came away from the book feeling that there really was nothing much to say about sisters in conversation that couldn't be said of practically anyone in conversation.I did like the stories, though. My favorite was the younger sister who heard about her brother-in-law's sudden death and called her sister: "Dad told me about Greg. *pause* Is this a bad time to tell you what's going on in MY life?" Haha, well, YES.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago