This morning as I breakfasted alone at Denny's, my ears picked up contrasting conversations. In back of me sat three men in business suits discussing how recent national economic events affected local businesses.
To the other side of my table sat two women, also in business suits, commenting on the weight problem of a third woman, who was not present.
A variety of reactions soared through me -- a chuckle at the vast difference between these topics, a scolding of myself for eavesdropping (I might better have read my newspaper), and some thoughts on women's self-imprisonment in conversation.
In the margin of the newspaper I made a list of all the subjects I could remember having heard working groups discuss during leisure time over the past few days. The men generally talked about facts and ideas -- economics, mechanics , politics, business, and aviation. Sports was also a major topic. The women's list mostly included personal problems, people, diet difficulties, and high-calorie food temptations (which canceled out earlier parts of some of the same conversations concerning dieting). On both lists the category of recent personal events appeared.
Because women tend to be more people-oriented, many of us (and some men) feel there is rudeness in ''showing off what you know.'' However admirable this concern and modesty may be, is it worth the price? If we intend to smile at customers and serve powerful supervisors all day, we can wallow in the mire of masochistic conversation; but if women are going to be supervisors and presidents of companies, we must frequent fields of knowledge necessarily tilled by leaders.
I wish I had a 10-cent-an-hour raise for every time I've heard something like: ''It's silly to talk about politics or economics. They don't concern me.'' Those and other cosmopolitan topics do affect leaders -- and anyone who wants to be promoted to leadership.
The president of a company ought to know pertinent national, state, and local laws. She should have met the politicians who vote on matters touching the company. She should be aware of secondary issues on which those representatives vote. How to get the most mileage from a campaign contribution must be ingrained in her. She needs to be able to discuss a variety of public issues, to exchange ideas without offending.
Lunchtime at work could be the most valuable part of the entire day. Besides taking a relaxing break, a working woman may learn a lot. Employees might discuss the major news of the day, applying it to the industry of their employer. We can also discuss our work routines with co-workers. Or we can get a better general idea of how the company works by knowing what others are doing in their jobs.
This all may seem obvious. But one place I know of -- employing 20 women with college degrees -- banned by majority decision any discussion of work-related topics during lunch and breaks. Another working group voted to end announcements of professional awards because nonwinners may have felt bad by comparison!
With almost all jobs, male and female, there is room for improvement. Any employees who meet with others at lunch or over breakfast at Denny's might turn periods of conversation into learning situations in order to move up.