TO UNDERSTAND men's confusion about the boundary between proper behavior and sexual harassment, one only has to step outside and listen.
"My boss is a woman and calls me 'hon' all the time," said Sidney Fleischer, 23, a legal assistant in New York City. "I'm too young to call her 'hon,' but so what if I did? What harm would there be in that?"
At a Wall Street investment house, the personnel director -- who insisted on anonymity -- said he is usually uncertain about how to proceed when he gets a complaint of sexual harassment that falls far short of attempted sexual or physical abuse.
"Sometimes it's so vague and subtle that it seems to me more a problem of semantics than of any actual wrongdoing," he said. "Do we punish men just for being jerks? Do we fire them because they're insensitive?"
Kenneth Pangborn, president of Men International of Tampa, Fla., one of the country's few men's rights organizations, said the problem comes down to a small but significant minority of men who behave like "cretins" toward women. Most men do not fit into this category, he said, and are instead, victims of semantics.
At the heart of it is a fundamental difference in the way men and women respond to the subject of sex when it is brought up at work.
Most women find the very reference to sex by a male colleague or boss disquieting and intimidating when it is not welcomed, said Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University sociolinguist and author of the recently published book "You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation."
But if a woman suddenly brings up the subject of sex to a man, she said, the man may feel embarrassed, but he is not likely to feel compromised in any way.
The dichotomy extends to investigations of sexual harassment complaints as well, where men are likely to put more emphasis on actions than words.
"If you haven't been fired or attacked, men feel, then there is nothing to worry about," she said.
It is often not what is said that is generally at issue, but what meaning was implied by the words and how the hearer understood them.
This phenomenon has been analyzed by Timothy Jay, a North Adams State College professor in Massachusetts who has studied verbal sexual harassment and called it the "grayest area" of abuse.
Words like "lady" and "girl" and greetings like "Hi, sweetie" can be demeaning when spoken by men, he said, but the key test to whether they become sexual harassment is the intent behind them.
"Is it just insensitivity, or is it seduction?" he said. "Whatever it is, it is elusive, it is temporary, and it vanishes once it is spoken."
During the course of his research, he gave men and women a list of 100 sentences to read and asked them to rate them if they found them to be offensive. While women found many of the words to be demeaning, he said, men found many of the same words to be flattering.
The way people interpret the language, he said, is based on their upbringing.
"To change that, you're asking to undermine, to dismantle stereotypes that have been around for hundreds of years," he said.
All of those interviewed see the Clarence Thomas hearings as a beginning for a re-evaluation of men's behavior at work.