Carrying a Hanky Is a Gesture of Active Kindness

Don’t leave home without one

A white handkerchief on a white background

There will be blood. There may also be cheese.

The first time I ever offered someone a handkerchief, I was at a party, on a first date with my now-wife, and she bit into some sort of fried cheese hors-d’oeuvre. The molten cheese exploded down her chin.

“Hanky! I have a hanky!” I yelled, actively undermining what otherwise would have been a cool act of chivalry.

When you carry a hanky, it’s not for you. It’s not for your nose, your fingers, your brow. I mean, in an emergency, sure. Wipe your nose, your fingers, and your brow (not in that order). But primarily, the hanky is a service you can provide for others in an emergency. It’s the defibrillator of clothing accessories.

I’ve used my handkerchief as a makeshift tablecloth for lunch on a hike. I’ve offered it to people with various sticky substances on their hands. I’ve wiped off dirty park benches with it. I’ve used it (and the childless may want to skip to the next sentence) in lieu of toilet paper for my kids at a park. A few days ago, before a wedding, I bought some shoe polish and shined my scuffed-up shoes with it in a 7-Eleven parking lot. As I dropped my soiled hanky in the trash, I counted it as a wedding gift to the happy couple.

Because that’s the thing with a hanky: You can give it away. Or, after it has done its job, you can throw it away. This is not an argument for a spiffy gentleman’s pocket square as a fashion statement. It’s for a plain, utilitarian hanky to tuck into your back pocket or handbag. It costs like $3. You can buy them in bulk.

For men, carrying a hanky functions as both a suave throwback to politer times, and a subversion of the gendered expectation that women do the mess-cleaning in our society. Lisa Miller recently laid bare that expectation in the Cut, recounting a subway coffee spill that prompted a slew of women passengers to open bags stuffed with wads of tissues and paper towels, while all the men in the carriage looked on unhelpfully. The incident “called to my attention the number of men who ride the New York City subway carrying absolutely nothing,” Miller wrote. “I still am struck at that assertion of power, the arrogant nonchalance of someone who travels to work with nothing on his person but his phone, his wallet, and his keys.”

I hope you’re reading this, Lisa. And I wish I had been there.

Speaking of the subway, I was recently underground myself, walking toward the A train at the 59th Street-Columbus Circle stop in New York City. As I approached the turnstiles, I became vaguely aware of some commotion.

It was a kind of clomping sound, mixed with yelling and gasping and then, there it was: a mass of humanity, coming through the turnstiles, fast. Maybe 10 to 15 people ran past me. I didn’t know why they were running — whether it was away from something or toward something, whether they were victims or bystanders or perpetrators. I still don’t know. (New York City is like that.)

Then I saw a man in front of the turnstiles, maybe 25. He was down on one knee with a hand over his mouth, his messenger bag limp at his feet. I don’t think he’d been attacked. Maybe he had been run over by the crowd? He seemed stunned more than hurt. Then, from behind his cupped hand, came a thin stream of blood.

I walked over to him and kneeled. I didn’t ask, “Are you okay?” Instead, I said, “I have a hanky.” And I reached into my back left pocket and pulled out a crisply folded Brooks Brothers Pure Cotton Handkerchief in white, and held it out to him.

He didn’t immediately take it. So I put it in his hand, and said, “It’s clean. You can have it. It’s for you.”

The handkerchief is a gift to society. It doesn’t solve everything, but it’s a gesture of caring. Carry one for those who don’t. And then hope to god you don’t put your hand in something weird before you get home.

Author, Works Well With Others: Crucial Skills in Business No One Ever Teaches You // writing weekly about creativity, work, and human behavior, in a useful way

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