Learning to Read Women


October 25, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

LOS ANGELES. — Los Angeles--The man leans across the table and asks the question again, as if I had not heard him the first time. ''Where is the line?''

It is mid-morning and we are sitting over coffee -- the West Coast's drug of choice -- talking ostensibly about national politics. But the subject gravitates naturally toward sexual politics. He wants to know: ''Where is the line?''

Ever since Anita Hill's story exploded all over his office, spewing its uneasy debris, he has been searching for an E-Z marker to separate flirtation from harassment, a threshold between attention that is welcome and unwelcome.

My coffee companion is young, single and sincere. He is not whining about being victimized or misunderstood. He recognizes that the map of the male-female domain is changing and the line he is searching for is a safe path.

You see, the office, he says to me earnestly, is his workaholic generation's version of dating bar and matchmaker. The hours are long, work life and social life intermingle. It has become the primary meeting ground for men and women.

In this world, men are expected to pursue women, he says. Men are supposed to initiate relationships, take the first step, make the opening gambit, risk the first call. But when does the attention a woman may want from one man may become harassment from another less welcome suitor? He wants something to follow as a Triptik through the landmines.

As we talk, I find something refreshing and familiar in his uncertainty. If men are suddenly walking a fine line and searching for a solid one, isn't that what women have always done?

Women who were not born yesterday have had to learn to negotiate tricky territory. How do you turn a boss off without losing your job? How do you end the behavior of the men you work with -- the sex jokes, the too-friendly hand on the shoulder -- without ending the camaraderie. Where is the line between encouraging him and offending him?

If men were expected -- boys will be boys -- to be aggressive, women were expected to be the gatekeepers of male sexuality, even at work. Indeed, women share this expectation of each other, even of Anita Hill.

When the overnight polls, those indications of knee-jerk responses, found that a majority of women were not on her side, I was not all that surprised. The very universality of her experience seemed to work against her as well as for her.

At some level, many women looking at the poised law professor thought that she should have been able to ''handle it.'' After all, they had, everywoman had.

Now, however, in this shift, men are being told to ''handle it.'' They are being given a mirror-image task. To express interest without being seen as a ''lech.'' To ask for a date, once, twice, thrice, without being labeled or even sued. When does one man's claim that he is ''socially awkward'' at this task become a woman's belief that he is sexually harassing her. As my table companion asks: ''Where is the line?''

Of course there are many ways to change this unsettled topography. Some women can become more assertive both about asking men and refusing them. But it seems to me that at last we have raised the expectation that men will read something more important than maps. They will read women.

We are insisting that they learn the clues, the body language, the verbal signs that differ with every human interaction. They will have to receive as well as deliver messages. To know what she heard, not just what he meant. That's not such a bad thing. Not such a bad set of skills to have in the world.

When women first got into the man's world, they were expected to abide by its rules. They were supposed to deal with the world on its own rough-and-tumble terms, to swap stories with the boys and not blush, to handle it rather then fight it. Now women are trying to balance the lopsidedness of this change. They are saying, wait a minute. How about trying it my way?

I tell all this to my young companion as we finish both the coffee and conversation. No, sorry, I have no set of instructions in my pocket to hand him. There is no crib sheet for changing relationships at work, no shortcut for negotiating the delicate landscape of male and female relationships.

Even if I had a magic marker, I would draw a very different line than the one he wants. It would be a time line.

This is going to take a while.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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