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What the World Needs Now--Ears That Listen Up : Relationships: The problem is not so much a failure to talk to one another as it is a hesitancy to hear what the other person or side is saying.

December 16, 1990|Kay Mills | Kay Mills, an editor in the Opinion section, is the author of "A Place in the News: From the Women's Pages to the Front Page" (Columbia University Press)

Affairs of the world today bear an eerie resemblance to everyone's affairs of the heart. One side is not listening to the other.

The pattern is clear, and it's pervasive. It is not so much a failure to talk to one another as it is a hesitancy to hear what the other person or side is really saying.

Deborah Tannen offers this thesis in her best-selling book, "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation." Tannen argues that couples talk past each other because language functions differently for men and for women.

Men use language to assert independence in large groups, she says; women talk to try to achieve intimacy and support. Gender-based as Tannen's thesis is, it can also be a lens through which to view the world in conversation. Consider:

--The polls, people across the country, influential senators and two retired generals have been telling George Bush that many Americans not only fear war, they also don't want armed conflict in the Middle East unless the objectives are more clearly drawn--if then. One minute Bush appears to be listening, makes an appropriate gesture, and American hostages go free.

The next minute, Bush and his whole Administration talk tough. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney says that the only way to bring peace to the Persian Gulf is for Saddam Hussein to "go back to Baghdad with his tail between his legs." We may ultimately find out this bobbing and weaving was Administration strategy, but, meantime, the American people will have endured incredible stress.

--The presidential candidates in Poland paid little heed to those who reminded them that dislike of politicians was as national a tradition as eating kielbasa. One front-runner was arrogant, the other exhausted and colorless. So out of the West came Stanislaw Tyminski, a curious amalgam of capitalism and mysticism, who forced Lech Walesa into a runoff.

Walesa's Solidarity allies heard the danger signals and last Sunday gave Walesa the whopping majority he had predicted all along. The question: Has Walesa listened to those who still worry about his anti-democratic tendencies, or will he play the strongman?

--Cable News Network tangled with a federal judge over airing government tapes of telephone calls made by jailed Panamanian dictator Manuel A. Noriega. CNN especially wanted to show that the government had violated Noriega's right to private conversations with his lawyer.

But Noriega wouldn't have been taped in the first place if he'd listened to his lawyer, Frank A. Rubino, who warned him about blabbing eight hours a day on the phone from his Miami jail cell. There's even a sign, in Spanish and in English, near the prison phones warning that calls are routinely monitored, unless they are conversations with lawyers.

--The New England Patriots heard complaints that reporter Lisa Olson was a "looker" in the locker room, that she was ogling the nude players. They checked, decided she only was doing her job and did nothing to stop the rumors--until Olson was harassed by some nude players. Now the National Football League commissioner has completed an investigation and fined three players. Wouldn't it have been easier to listen earlier?

--Simon & Schuster went on its merry way with Bret Easton Ellis' book "American Psycho," even though female employees strongly criticized the novel's graphic descriptions of violence against women. Only when the public-relations flak got too heavy did company boss Richard Snyder decide that publication would be in bad taste.

--Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory points out that staffers of two of the Keating Five--Laurie Sedlmayr and Gwendolyn van Paasschen--tried to tell their bosses, Arizona's Democrat Dennis DeConcini and Republican John McCain, that savings-and-loan magnate Charles H. Keating Jr. could be bad medicine for them. Did the senators listen?

--In Parker Brothers' new game, "Careers for Girls," the categories are supermom, teacher, college graduate, animal doctor, fashion designer and rock star. Will someone please help these people? They have been holed up in one of their Monopoly hotels for too long. Said Susan Engeleiter, head of the Small Business Administration: "If Parker Brothers had been Parker Sisters, this game would never have passed 'Go.' "

--For years, Californians have been warning Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and Co. that their arrogance, their perpetual interest in preserving their own jobs rather than passing legislation benefiting people instead of special interests would smack them in the face some day. They didn't listen. Their terms end in a few years, thanks to Proposition 140.

--Then there's Margaret Thatcher. She bullied those who wanted more integration with Europe--until Europe finally threatened to leave her island, her England, behind forever. But she finally did listen to the signals in a leadership vote and got out in timely fashion, flags flying.

The daily news is full of other examples. They provide a message: Talk to each other, and listen up. You might hear something that will solve your problem.

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