Hill-Thomas Hearings Offer Lessons for All Old White Males

Article excerpt

In "Interstate Commerce: Regional Styles of Doing Business,"

adman Clyde Burleson tells of a Chicago businessman who was furious at a new Dallas business partner.

During their deal-making, the Texan said to the Chicagoan, "After we get this deal over, let's get together for dinner."

The Chicagoan took the Texan at his word, and was enraged at the latter's evasion when he tried to set a date. The Chicagoan called a pal in Houston to vent his spleen. His Houston friend assured him that he'd misread the exchange: "Why don't we do so and so" is only a vague pleasantry, best translated (in Texan) as, "How are you?" The Houstonian advised the Chicagoan that his new Dallas partner was probably angry at him for pressing the issue!

I thought of Burleson's saga of bumbles and bobbles while watching the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas confrontation. In this instance, the stories told are in stark contrast; and if she's being truthful, no nuance of meaning could get Thomas off the hook.

Nonetheless, the hearings are a critically important reminder of perceptual differences. And an especially stark reminder to men, who still dominate leadership roles in the workplace, to listen up.

Even a "mild" sexual advance, far short of the sort described in the Hill-Thomas imbroglio, can be intimidating, painful, threatening and destructive.

I was disgusted, frankly, at the failure of many of the Senate's OWMs (Old White Males, as I call them) to get the point. In particular, they couldn't fathom why Hill had followed Thomas from the Department of Education to the EEOC. They just didn't comprehend her powerlessness in this all too typical context.

To stay behind would have derailed her career _ which men ought to understand. And to confront Thomas would have earned Hill precisely the sort of derision Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch heaped upon her during the hearings.

Part of the issue is perceptual. Deborah Tannen's book, "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation," brilliantly illuminates the gap between male and female ways of viewing things, which makes the Grand Canyon look like a finger-drawn line in wet sand by comparison.

For example, when women ask for "advice," Tannen observes, they usually want empathy and further discussion. Yet men, genetically or socially groomed as "decision makers," tend to respond to such a request with crisp, close- the-door-to-further-discussion "answers."

Then both are hurt. She doesn't understand why he won't talk about things. He doesn't understand why she rejects his "obviously helpful"

answer out of hand. …