Men and Women Tend to Argue About Different Things, in Different Ways

Talking to the experts about how fighting varies by gender

Everyone is trying to matter above the chatter. Talk shows have become shout fests, online venting grows increasingly opinionated, and our chosen paths seem to be judged at every turn. I was at a recent dinner party that was ruined by a debate over gluten!

Our fuses may be shorter, and what sets them off ever-changing. But how men and women respond—and what they expect—goes back a long way. "Men have grown up in a world in which a conversation is often a contest," says Georgetown linguistics professor Deborah Tannen. "For women, even a healthy debate—if there is such a thing—is about exchanging information and support." This piece is not, let me say up front, an argument for one sex doing it better than the other.

Obviously, it's hard to find statistics on how many times a day people disagree, or whether we do it more with our own, or the opposite, gender. We do know that in a survey for a Baltimore radio station that asked men and women, "What can't you stand about each other?" the number-one reply from males was "argument techniques." (Women didn't like men's lack of cleanliness.) Specifically, they claimed that women say, "I'm fine" when they are not, and "win fights by crying."

Well, maybe they cry more in Baltimore, (probably because they took The Wire off the air) but I am not seeing a lot of female tears. What I am seeing is a just-under-the-surface, self-critical anxiety that is easily triggered.

The good news is that there is more room and space now for women to be contrarian. "Men have historically had much more latitude, particularly in the workplace, for expressing anger and aggression," says psychiatrist and author of Necessary Ambition Dr. Anna Fels. "Women were stuck between a rock and a hard place, being passive or a bitch." The bad news is that in an increasingly competitive and cluttered culture, certain subjects strike a nerve, and same-sex squabbling is bound to break out.

Over dinner with a close friend one night, for example, I stated my antipathy toward Girls. She basically accused me of 'genius envy' and it has led to a barrage of pro and con critiques of the HBO series ever since. I would probably have to dig deep to decipher why I am opting for the fight not flight (I could change the channel) response. Does Lena Dunham represent the inadequacies of those of us who dreamed of speaking for a generation?

Then there is the shouting out that has come with the leaning in over Sheryl Sandberg's book. "I can only speculate that many women are so stressed out about all the conflicting pressures on them—to have a successful career, to raise perfect children, to maintain the perfect marriage—that they feel very defensive and lash out at anyone who offers a different viewpoint, " says Leslie Bennetts, author of The Feminine Mistake.

Whatever such hot-button issues reveal, it is clear that women—particularly midlife and beyond—often argue about the personal stuff, including work vs. home, relationships, and child-rearing. I recently found myself in a heated discussion over whether we should ever clean up our teenagers' rooms Public arguments among males, on the other hand, are often focused on things outside themselves. I also recently witnessed two grown men debate whether Kobe Bryant or LeBron James would be remembered as the better NBA player. It quickly escalated and created such cacophony that we finally asked them to take it outside.

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Michele Willens is a journalist, playwright, and the editor of Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change.

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