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
answer out of hand. …