My husband and I bickered a lot more a decade ago than we do now. Over time, we have learned each other's quirks and have adjusted accordingly. But here is a classic example of the kind of thing that used to occur all the time. In this example, we were driving home after a day out and about:
ME: Do you mind if we stop in the grocery store on the way home?
I get pissed. Fight ensues. Husband is puzzled as to why I even "asked his permission" in the first place. I get even more pissed. (As in: "I did not (&#(*!#*(! ask your #*(!*)! permission!")
Of course, I WASN'T asking his permission. I was doing two things: (a) politely acknowledging that my desire to stop at the grocery store would affect him too; and (b) starting a negotiation in the event that stopping at the grocery store would be inconvenient for him. To me an appropriate response would have been: "I am worried that if we stop at the grocery store, we won't get home in time to watch the football game. Is it okay if we go tomorrow, or is there something you really need to get tonight?" In my view, just saying, "Yes, I mind," was not a negotiation and failed to consider or acknowledge my stated wishes. But in my husband's view, I hadn't stated any wishes; I had merely asked a question, which he had answered.
The problem was that we were both playing by very different rules and interpreting each other's statements according to a very different set of assumptions. To my husband, it would have made more sense if I had just said, "I am stopping at the grocery store." Then he would have known unequivocally my desire and it would have been up to him to state his wishes if he disagreed. He used to think that my communication style was indirect and deferential. I used to think his was abrasive and inconsiderate. But really they are just two different communications styles-- styles that happen to correspond in general to one's gender, styles that clash when used in the same conversation.
While I am generally skeptical of popular books about gender differences, I really loved two books on this topic by Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen:You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation and Talking from 9 to 5: Men and Women at Work. My example above is stikingly similar to some of the examples in her books, and she has numerous other examples of maddening communication gaps between men and women that will surely seem familiar to all of you. Her thesis is that misunderstandings arise most frequently when we speak to people with an opposite communications style, usually someone of the opposite sex.
As you can imagine, women's communication style can have devastating consequences in the male-dominated workplace where it can lead to women being erroneously perceived as less confident, less knowledgeable, less decisive, and more deferential. Tannen insists however that neither style is superior to the other -- it's just a matter of learning the rules by which your conversational partner is operating and adjusting accordingly. Both men and women can benefit by understanding and adopting aspects of the opposite communications style.
Of course, there are political ramifications too (which Tannen doesn't generally address). Many public spheres of society remain male-dominated. Therefore, misunderstandings tend to inure to the detriment of women in the workplace and in public settings. There are also expectations, not always consciously realized, that women should or will act a certain way. If we break out of that mold, our actions may also be construed against us. The classic example is when the men and women in a group talk for an equal amount of time, but people perceive the women as being overly talkative because the expectation is for women to be quiet. That maddening prejudice is touched on in posts here and here, in light of a recent stupid David Brooks column about how gabby women are. There is also the point that women tend to be perceived as more gabby because our words are considered silly or insignificant by definition. (I am reminded of that ghastly "wingman" commercial in which the guy gets to dance with the hot girl because his "wingman" sacrifices himself by listening to the hot girl's friend endlessly gabbing away.)