Some things stick with you.

Last fall I heard this piece on NPR  about breakthroughs in sibling research.  It has been with me ever since—rumbling around in my brain.

This is the quote that got me:

Physically, siblings tended to differ somewhat, but they were a lot more similar on average when compared to children picked at random from the population. That’s also true of cognitive abilities.
“The surprise,” . . . “is when you turn to personality.”

Turns out that on tests that measure personality — stuff like how extroverted you are, how conscientious — siblings are practically like strangers.

“Practically like strangers” yet raised together.  I’ve certainly had moments when I’ve thought how can my sister and I have had such a different experience of the same childhood or how could we have played the same games (together), walked to the same school (together) and heard the same family stories and yet turned out so very differently? If you have a sibling chances are you’ve had such thoughts as well.  At the heart of my questions lay the idea that nurture shapes people, and since my sister and I were raised in the same environment that should have made us similar.

Turns out that’s just dead wrong when it comes to siblings.  Being raised in the same environment helps to make us different.  The three theories posited in the radio report sounded eerily familiar—though, as an author not a scientific researcher, I’d given them different names while writing The Sister Queens.

Number one:  Sometimes we try to NOT be like our sisters.  We want to distinguish ourselves.  The article calls this theory (advanced by a Darwin scholar no less) Divergence.  I call it “pushing back.”  It may apply more to some sibling relationships than others, but who hasn’t decided to do (or not to do something) based on what her sister was already doing?  It is in the nature of the sister relationship to push back against our sister—her actions, her personality traits, her talents—at certain points in our life.

Sometimes we do this consciously—the radio piece gives the example of a boy who decided not to play tennis because he would never measure up to his brother who excelled in the sport—but I think this motivation works subconsciously as well.  In my novel (a story of 13th century sister queens Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence), both Marguerite and Eleanor certainly have moments where they moderate their behavior while thinking, “no that’s how my sister would act.”  In other instances, however, we the reader look into the sisters’ story and see that one or the other is behaving as she is in reaction to her sibling’s personality without knowing it.  Bottom line, part of how these 13th century sisters defined who they were was in opposition to who they perceived their sister to be.  Not so different today, that is for sure.

Number two:  Individuals may share surroundings but that doesn’t mean they share identical experiences of those surroundings.  To quote the story, “though from the outside it appears that we are growing up in the same family as our siblings, in very important ways we really aren’t. We are not experiencing the same thing.”  This seems like common sense once you think about it.  Many factors—our birth order, how our parents treat us, our inborn character traits—have the potential to change both our perception and our actual experience of particular situations.

In the case of my sisters, Eleanor is naturally stubborn (and anyone who thinks stubbornness can’t be inborn should have met my eldest as a child – she came out of the womb ready to stake a position and hold it against all comers), while Marguerite is a born “pleaser.”  Surely these personality characteristics affected how their nurses, their tutors, their remaining sisters, their influential uncles, and their parents related to them while they were growing up—a point I try to illustrate in the opening chapter of my novel while the girls are still together in Provence interacting with their extended family.

Number three: “families are essentially comparison machines that greatly exaggerate even minor differences between siblings.” So says the NPR piece.  I call this the pigeonholing effect.  We are viewed by our parents and fellow siblings through the filter of the family dynamic.  You may sing pretty well, but if your sister has the voice of an angel than she is “the musical one.”  Our families live with us every day as we are growing up.  They think they know us and (despite our teen years when cries of “you don’t understand me” abound) we are likely to believe this to be true.  So, when family members tell us who we are, we listen—sometimes too well.  If we are told we are stubborn it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (except in the case of my child who would have been stubborn had we told her that she was little-miss-compliance).  If we are told we are the “artistic one” we may seek artsy friends and chose to pursue arts related activities.  Next time you think of telling your sister who she is, remember that your words have consequences.

While I suspect that all three theories explain in part why I am different from my sister and why Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence had such distinct and sometimes opposite personalities, I am interested in what you think.

Do any of these theories resonate with you?  When you consider the ways that you are different from your own siblings do you think these differences are the result of pushing back?  Of differing experiences of a shared childhood?  Of pigeonholing?  Some combination of the three?

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8 Responses to “Why Our Sisters are NOT Ourselves”

  1. Lit, did you write this article for me? All three of those theories resonate entirely!

    In high school, I picked and chose what activities I did based on whether I wanted to do them – but before anything else they were always either “things my sister did” or “things my sister didn’t do”. Following in the footsteps of someone so peppy and optimistic naturally inspired me to be sarcastic and cynical, especially in classes where my teacher knew me as “X’s sister”. (Boy, do I hate those classes.)

    The way I’ve experienced this small town has been completely different from the way my sister did. I’m experiencing it in her footsteps. I always wonder what it’d be like if I were just me.

    Re: pigeonholing? Spot-on. As “the preppy, popular one”, Dear Sister did scandalous things, went to parties, etc., etc. I’m hardly a social butterfly, and my friends and I would rather drive out to the countryside and look at the stars than play beer pong. Also, I sing, write, act, play piano, etc. – I’m totally “the artsy one”. She’s into politics, economics, business. She’s the extrovert, I’m the introvert. And, just to complete the split, she’s blonde and blue-eyed and tan, and I’m pale and look totally Asian (we’re multiracial).

    Sometimes I wonder if I’m more similar to my sister than I think, or more different.

    • “Sometimes I wonder if I’m more similar to my sister than I think”

      I always found it fascinating that while I see every difference between my own sister and me, when we were roommates back in college others constantly asked if we were twins (believe me, we look nothing a like). I think the casual observer has a completely different take on inter-familial relationships than the people living within them do.

  2. During my Psychological Concepts in Education class in college, the instructor remarked that sisters who were less than two years apart usually had completely different personalities, because the characteristics that defined the older child were already “taken,” so the younger one had to (largely subconsciously) choose completely different traits in order to see herself as a psychologically separate person.

    My next-younger sister and I are only nineteen months apart, and it is true for us. We were also extremely competitive with each other, which I suspect was another aspect of trying to create contrast. Our mother dressing us in identical clothing until we were in our teens (even though we also look completely different) didn’t help much. 😮

  3. Great post Sophie! My sister and I are great examples of this. She’s a little older and I did the tag-along thing a lot – but I also eventually got the confidence to stretch out and do my own thing. My mom always said we were as much alike as chalk and cheese… not much at all. Surprisingly we’re still best friends though!

    • Jemi — Not surprising at all about the best friends. My sister and I are dissimilar in many ways but close as sisters can be :) I love the phrase “as much alike as chalk and cheese” and plan to start working it into casual conversations immediately.

  4. I didn’t realize how different my sister and I are until I reached adulthood. I always tried to connect with her but I needed to accept that we are very different, and though we grew up together, we ended up growing apart. I can relate to the idea of not doing something because my sister did it. I tried to avoid a lot of things because of her success!

    • You know I do think as children we assume that our siblings think as we do about many things. It’s only as we mature we stop taking for granted that if we feel X about Y they must too — at least that’s how it was for me. My sister and are are exceptionally close but even so I did not realize until we were both grown women how many of her impressions of events and people from our childhood were entirely different than my own.

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