Growing up in a family of seven children, I was used to people making a big deal out of the size of my family. I didn’t mind that. I didn’t really even mind when people were shocked to discover that there were two sets of identical twins in the family. What did bother me was when people assumed that the fact that I had a twin sister was a core part of my identity. It’s true that my twin sister and I have a lot in common, and that, since we’re the same age, we did a lot of things together that didn’t involve our younger siblings. But both of us are individual people, and neither one of us appreciated the way we were always linked together, whether we liked it or not. We could never get away from it and people would never let us ignore it.
Now that I’m older, the fact that I’m a twin doesn’t play as large a role in my day-to-day interactions. Most of the people that I meet don’t know that I have a twin, and I don’t go out of my way to volunteer that information unless I’m specifically talking about my family to someone I know relatively well. But I still have to put up with the fact that, once someone knows I have a twin, they assume that my twin and I are essentially the same person, or at the very least, that our relationship is almost supernaturally close. It’s somewhat deliberate that I virtually always say “my sister” instead of “my twin sister” or “my twin”.
Especially when I was a child, but even now, my sisters and I frequently get asked what being twins is like. That’s a hard question to answer, since we’ve been twins from the beginning and I don’t know exactly what it’s like to not have a twin. But I imagine that it’s actually pretty similar to not having a twin. This blog post touches on some of the misconceptions I’ve heard most frequently and why they’re not true.
Just for the record, I want to make clear that I am speaking for myself and not for my twin sister, or my younger sisters who are also twins, or for any other twins. I do intend to send my sisters a copy of this post before I actually put it online, and I will change anything that they vehemently disagree with, but this post is not meant to speak on anyone else’s behalf. Which brings me to point number one…
Twins are not interchangeable
If I say something, that doesn’t mean that my twin sister agrees with it. If she is upset about something or excited about something, that doesn’t mean that I feel the same way. If one of us has a skill or specialized knowledge, especially if it’s something that we worked hard to acquire, that doesn’t mean that the other one has it. I think everyone technically understands this, but it’s amazing how often people react to something one of us has said as if we said it together, or how often people joke about one of us taking the other’s place.
Aside from being untrue, it’s very hurtful. There are times when we were children that my sister and I both got in trouble for something that just one of us said. When we were in our teens and finally got to split ways by taking different kinds of dance, people could never remember which of us was an Irish dancer and which of us was a ballet dancer, which upset us both because our own respective dance forms were very important to us both. And all throughout my life, I have had to put up with people occasionally making comments that my sister could fill in for me if I had to take time off from school or dance or work. Even if such remarks are made humorously, it undermines my identity as a human being and the work I’ve put into establishing my own identity and skills to suggest that another person, even my twin, could successfully “be” me.
Even identical twins don’t have everything in common
Not only are my sister and I not interchangeable, we aren’t really identical, either. The term “identical twins” refers to twins who developed out of the same fertilized egg, and yes, that means that at one time very, very early in our existence, we shared the same tiny little undeveloped body before we split into two separate bodies. Therefore, we have identical or nearly-identical DNA, (fun fact: identical twins don’t necessarily have the exact same DNA) but not everything is genetic. Scientists and doctors may debate about the respective roles of nature and nurture, but everyone agrees that at least some aspects of personality, opinions and preferences, and even physical appearance, are not genetic. Even very young twins will have some differences, and by the time they’re teens or adults, identical twins will have each developed their own identities in a large number of ways.
My twin sister and I do not have exactly the same personality. We do not dress the same way or do our makeup the same way. Last I knew, we do wear our hair in similar ways, but she has dyed her hair and I haven’t, with the result that we don’t actually look the same in terms of hair. We have slightly different tastes in books, music, movies, and TV shows. There are some differences between our political opinions. We have never liked the same foods, not since we first started eating solid food, which is something that often took people by surprise when we were kids. In college, we studied different things. Although we have some shared hobbies and interests, there are also a lot of differences in the things we like to do, and now that we’re adults, even our day-to-day lives are completely different.
On the flip side, some people like to pick up on the differences between twins and act as if they’re exact opposite. For example, twins often find themselves labelled “the quiet twin” and “the loud twin” or “the nice twin” and “the mean twin” or “the silly twin” and “the serious twin.” My twin sister and I don’t get this as often as our younger sisters who are twins, but it’s annoying to hear even on occasion. And it’s always hurtful to get stuck with an unflattering label.
Lots of twins don’t like being twins
I don’t have statistics available for this one, but most of the twins I’ve known, including me and my twin sister, really didn’t like it. Just like any other sibling, a twin sibling will sometimes be your worst enemy and sometimes be your best friend and rarely be anywhere in between, at least not as long as you live under the same roof. My twin sister and I had lots of good times together, but we hated having to share everything, even our friends and our reputations. We fought with each other even more than with our younger siblings, which was probably because we shared a room for our entire childhood. But what really made it rough was other people’s reactions. People assumed so many stereotypes, asked so many questions, made so many jokes, and couldn’t tell us apart even when we helpfully pointed out differences between us. I remember one time when we still took dance together when our teacher addressed us as “Twin X and Twin O,” as if we didn’t even have real names. Our parents thought they were being helpful by not referring to us as “the twins”, but we got called “the girls” all the time at home, which was almost as bad and even more confusing, since there are six girls in my family. So, long story short, in case you’re wondering, no, being twins isn’t fun.
Granted, there are some twins out there who do like it, usually because they get along better overall with their twins than I did with mine. I had roommates in college who were twins, and they did everything together by choice and never gave me any reason to believe that they wanted anything different. I haven’t really stayed in touch with them, but they frequently post highly affectionate things about each other on Facebook. That’s great for them and for other pairs of twins who feel the same way, but I’d like the record to show that it doesn’t always work that way.
Twins do not have ESP
I think most people are aware that twins don’t actually have some sort of supernatural means of communication, but it’s amazing how many people still assume that one twin is supposed to know everything that happens to the other twin. It’s been a while since people have asked me if I can feel my sister’s pain or sense when something happens to her, but I used to hear those kinds of questions a lot. Sometimes, people will ask me what she thinks about something, which is something that I obviously only know if she tells me. And sometimes, even family members think they can check in on one of us by asking the other, as if we somehow have closer communication with each other than with other family members. By the way, in our case, that’s not true. We do keep in contact through social media and occasional texts and emails, but we don’t communicate with each other any more than with our other siblings.
Some twins do develop their own forms of communication, more often as babies or toddlers than later in life. Researchers say that about forty percent of pairs of twins have their own language, called autonomous language because they make them up by themselves. The term cryptophasia has also been used. That is actually significantly higher than I would have guessed, but the important things to note is that it’s a lot less than one hundred percent and that it’s a phenomenon not limited to twins. It can occur between any two very young children who spend enough time together to use each other as a model for learning language, and there is nothing extrasensory about it.
All those stories you’ve heard about amazing coincidences involving twins are just that: coincidences. Even if you believe in some sort of supernatural link between twins, I can tell you from personal experience that it certainly doesn’t always work that way. I have never instinctively known what’s going on in my sister’s life, or in her mind, unless you count situations in which I had enough background information to make an informed guess. I can’t think of any instances where we have had the exact same experience, unless we had that experience together or there was some other perfectly normal link between the two events or situations. And yes, twins do sometimes finish each other’s sentences, but so do non-twin siblings and friends who spend a lot of time together.
Twin jokes can be hurtful
Yes, it’s true that some people have a hard time telling us apart. No, that’s not funny. It’s actually kind of sad, and downright insulting if it’s someone who knows us well. Yes, if we tried hard enough, we could probably do a reasonable job of pretending to be each other for a short period of time, as long as we weren’t trying to fool people who know either of us very well. No, we don’t switch places all the time just to play a joke on people. And no, we couldn’t successfully switch places just for one of us to get out of doing things, and if we did, that wouldn’t be very funny, either. It would be immoral and unfair and kind of creepy. Yes, we sometimes argue, and we sometimes say things that sound mean even when we aren’t actually fighting. No, it’s not hilarious that it’s even possible for twins to fight or disagree. Yes, having an identical twin is essentially the same thing as having a clone. No, that’s not particularly funny. Maybe it’s an interesting science fact, but it’s not actually humorous. Yes, we’re twins, and maybe that is fascinating, but there’s nothing intrinsically funny about it and I have always found it confusing that other people, even family members, are so quick to poke fun at the situation.
The rule of thumb is really the same as it is for any other situation. If you make a joke about another person and they are upset, or inform you that they find it hurtful, then don’t make that joke again. The person who bears the brunt of the joke is the person who gets to decide whether that joke is hurtful, not the person who makes the joke about other people. If you hurt someone’s feelings by joking about something that makes them different than you, the correct thing to do is to be apologetic and avoid hurting their feelings again, not to insist that they’re being overly sensitive.
In the spirit of internet articles, I probably ought to finish this post by writing a paragraph about how having a twin is actually amazing after all because of all the wonderful things about my relationship with my twin sister. And it is true that there are some positive things about our relationship. It’s true that when we were little, we were built-in playmates, and that we still have a lot of shared memories, inside jokes, and similar experiences. But all that would be the case even if we were a year or two apart. In fact, those are all things that are true to a large extent of my relationship with my younger sisters, too, and they’re nearly five years younger than me. (Not to mention my brother who is in between the two sets of twins in age.) So in the grand scheme of things, being a twin hasn’t made my life better than it would have been otherwise. It’s just the way things are, and it’s not any more of a defining trait of mine than my relationship with any of my other family members.