Think Age Makes No Difference for Twins? Just Listen to Them Talk

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: We're back with linguist and author Deborah Tannen, discussing communication between sisters, the topic of her most recent book "You Were Always Mom's Favorite!"

RS: "Did you talk to twins?"

DEBORAH TANNEN: "I talked to quite a number of twins. One of the things that really amused me, every set of twins that I talked to, they knew who was older and they talked about it."

RS: "Like 'You're a minute older.'"

DEBORAH TANNEN: "It might be three minutes older. It might be five minutes older. Now, in cultures where the hierarchy by age is taken very seriously, even more so than in American culture, that was very important.

Deborah Tannen

"So, for example, I spoke to a Korean woman who was an identical twin. She had an older sister and a younger sister, and here were these identical twins in the middle. But because it was a Korean family, everything was ordered according to age.

"So her mother called, every week, called her four daughters starting with the oldest, going down, so she had to know which of the twins was older in order to call those kids."

RS: "So it still made a difference."

DEBORAH TANNEN: "It made a difference. And I was also amused -- I'm the youngest of three sisters, and I think there's a lot of ways that the oldest gets privileged as well as gets a lot more responsibility, and again I saw that especially in more traditional cultures. But as the youngest I was very aware of some privileges that come with the oldest. I love this quote from [author and anti-slavery activist] Harriet Beecher Stowe: "The first child is pure poetry, the rest are prose.'"

AA: "Well, I mean the title of your book 'You Were Always Mom's Favorite!' how often did you hear that?"

DEBORAH TANNEN: "I heard it very often. And when I spoke to more than one sibling in the same family, they didn't always agree on who was the favorite but they all had an idea about who was. There were very few cases, I'm thinking of two where the women said 'My mother was so great, she convinced each one of us we were her favorite.'"

RS: "Let me ask you a question about siblings. Now, where does it depart -- your book is about sisters. Well, where do the sisters depart from siblings?"

DEBORAH TANNEN: "Yes, if the women I talked to had brothers as well as sisters, I always asked them to compare, and the pattern that emerged was that they tended to talk to their sisters more often, at greater length, about more personal topics.

"In some cases they were very close to the brothers as well. And I think of one woman who said 'I can talk to my brother about practically anything, but I can talk to my sister about absolutely everything.' In other cases, they felt that they were not as close to the brother, because that constant talk is what often creates a feeling of closeness."

AA: "You say in your book here, you say 'Several people told me they had sent conciliatory e-mails to their sisters following an argument and were surprised to receive belligerent responses.'"

DEBORAH TANNEN: "People often found e-mail to be problematic, and I believe you have to be very careful with e-mail. But several people told me that 'Yeah, you know, I tried to make up with her, I sent this nice e-mail.' I would say 'Well, show me the e-mail.'

"And very often what they thought was conciliatory really had metamessage, to use that term that we raised before, and that's m-e-t-a, meta, the metamessage was still blaming. So it might be something like 'I understand why you said what you did and I feel sorry for you.' Well, if you said to somebody 'I feel sorry for you,' that's not conciliatory, they take it as a put-down."

AA: "Are you working on anything currently?"

DEBORAH TANNEN: "I'm moving toward the area of how we use these new media in our relationships. I feel like the students I teach at Georgetown University are living in an entirely different world than any world I understand. And I would like to understand how their use of these texting and e-mail and instant messaging and cell phones and -- "

RS: " Facebook."


RS: "And Twitter."

DEBORAH TANNEN: "And Twitter, how all of this is affecting their relationships. So I think that will be the direction I'll move in."

AA: "Did people ever used to communicate nearly as much as they do now?"

DEBORAH TANNEN: "That's such a great question because older people, like me, we think that young people are not communicating because they're not talking to us. You know, you're in the room with them and they're texting their friends and we think this is destroying communication. But, as you say, from another point of view, they're communicating more, maybe not with the people who are here, so I think it's an interesting combination."

RS: You can find the first part of our interview with linguist and best-selling author Deborah Tannen at our website,

AA: You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.