So, is it the fact that you have a sister that makes you happier? Is it just talking to a sister? Is it something about the way you treat a sister or the way she treats you?
The usual answer — that girls and women are more likely than boys and men to talk about emotions — is somehow unsatisfying, especially to a researcher like me. Much of my work over the years has developed the premise that women’s styles of friendship and conversation aren’t inherently better than men’s, simply different.
My own recent research about sisters suggests a more subtle dynamic. I interviewed more than 100 women about their sisters, but if they also had brothers, I asked them to compare. Most said they talked to their sisters more often, at greater length and, yes, about more personal topics. This often meant that they felt closer to their sisters, but not always.
One woman, for example, says she talks for hours by phone to her two brothers as well as her two sisters. But the topics differ. She talks to her sisters about their personal lives; with her brothers she discusses history, geography and books. And, she added, one brother calls her at 5 a.m. as a prank.
A prank? Is this communication? Well, yes — it reminds her that he’s thinking of her. And talking for hours creates and reinforces connections with both brothers and sisters, regardless of what they talk about.
A student in my class recounted a situation that shows how this can work. When their family dog died, the siblings (a brother and three sisters) all called one another. The sisters told one another how much they missed the dog and how terrible they felt. The brother expressed concern for everyone in the family but said nothing about what he himself was feeling.
My student didn’t doubt that her brother felt the same as his sisters; he just didn’t say it directly. And I’ll bet that having the phone conversations served exactly the same purpose for him as the sisters’ calls did for them: providing comfort in the face of their shared loss.
So the key to why having sisters makes people happier — men as well as women — may lie not in the kind of talk they exchange but in the fact of talk. If men, like women, talk more often to their sisters than to their brothers, that could explain why sisters make them happier. The interviews I conducted with women reinforced this insight. Many told me that they don’t talk to their sisters about personal problems, either.
The full article is great, and you should definitely check it out.
If sisters are different, it is perhaps that they interact with and/or talk to their siblings more frequently than brothers do, regardless of subject matter. I was really happy to see that Tannen is upfront about her work proving time and again that, actually, the way we communicate isn’t as different as people might think. Nature vs. nurture is still up for grabs in gender studies, but it seems that gender differences aren’t actually the major conversational hurdle we think they are.
I’m disappointed that all the studies cited are oriented toward asking women questions about their interactions, and none directed at men interacting with their brothers. I’m also leery of anything coming out of BYU, but collaborative studies suggest they’re not up to something wacky here.
As an only child, I’m fascinated. How do you interact with your siblings? How do they interact with each other? Does Tannen’s theory sound right to you, or do you think there’s more going on?