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

Talking to the experts about how fighting varies by gender
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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.

Clearly, there is no correct answer to Kobe vs. LeBron, which may frustrate men more than women. "Many women view arguments as something you can keep working on," says Tannen. "Men don't like extended ones."

On the plus side for men, they don't seem to hold grudges as much. I watched two male friends slam doors on one another over how much money to spend on a dinner. By contrast, two of the 'nice girls' in my high school, who remained friends for 30 years, got into a serious standoff when one claimed the other did not send her an invitation to a reunion. While the men eventually ate and moved on, my high school girlfriends haven't spoken since. "Women often take arguing more personally," says Dr. Fels, "so it's harder to let go."

As for intersex-arguing, some couples claim that making war can lead to great making up. The divorce rate remains high, however, and differences in arguing styles and perceptions may be difficult to overcome. A survey by Discovery.com found that "women often try to get their point across by asking many types of questions, either designed to present an opposition or gather data. Men's contributions to arguments are often simple and direct. They might not even be aware a conflict is occurring."

One reason men may not be prepared for the eruption, is that women often wait too long to get to the point. "I do think women can be more passive-aggressive," notes author Sally Koslow, (Slouching Toward Adulthood) "and it gets us into big trouble. "By the time we 'argue,' we are pissed, seething in silence, complaining about a situation to everyone except the person who has displeased us. I think men are more conditioned to reacting in the moment." One also wonders if women distrust that their partner will be able to productively handle a confrontation.

Even without a definite resolution, HE seems to be able to sleep on it. SHE may have a harder time going to bed, knowing it's not over. Deborah Tannen claims a couple's arguments can become less frequent with an old-school solution: "Women place a far greater value on a simple apology," she says. "Men feel by demanding one, women are trying to put them in a weaker position." So it turns out love really may mean having to say you're sorry.

Perhaps what sociologists call The Sleeper Curve (see Woody Allen) will one day prove that arguing is good for us, making us smarter, stronger, more self-aware. (I suppose slimmer is too much to ask) A recent post I wrote on friendship brought a response that speaks to the point: "I have grown the most from the hard fought, sometimes contentious, even mean, relationships that caused me to see my own sharp edges for what they are."

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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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