It used to be that men carried a clean handkerchief with them for those rare occasions when they needed to blow their nose, or as Robert DeNiro’s character Ben Whitaker suggests in “The Intern,” hand it to a woman in distress. “Women cry,” he explains to a young male co-worker at About The Fit, a clothing e-commerce business where they work. “You need to be ready to give them your handkerchief. That’s the only reason we carry it.”
In a later scene, when the object of the young co-worker’s affection cries, fretting about her future with the company, he rushes to her side and hands her a handkerchief (conveniently provided by Whitaker who happens to be standing by).
In today’s fast-paced business environment where Twitter and texting are today’s communications tools of choice, sharing a handkerchief seems quaint. But perhaps DeNiro’s character knows something many of his younger co-workers haven’t learned. You can communicate a lot more with a simple gesture – a hug, a smile, a hand on a shoulder or passing along a clean handkerchief – than you can with any mobile device or social media message. The fact is, exchanging words in an email or text message might be the standard of the day, but they are only tools of the trade. What do they really communicate? What we might have gained in efficiency in our communications via our mobile devices, in the process, have we lost the personal connection and compassion that our relationships need to thrive?
Whitaker was a master at observance. He learned more about his workmates just by watching their behavior and listening to their conversations. Whitaker’s calm and cheerful outlook did not go unnoticed by his boss, Jules Ostin (played by Anne Hathaway), who wanted to transfer him to another department because she was uncomfortable with him around and didn’t believe she needed his services. He was, in Jules words, “too observant.”
How much more can we learn from our colleagues and clients if, like Ben Whitaker, we simply kept our mouths shut and observed what is happening around us. Whitaker may not have been Facebook-savvy, but he understood more about how to communicate with compassion and maturity. He noticed when Jules was struggling in her marriage without interfering, though he might have been tempted. And he refused to judge others for their behavioral indiscretions and refrained from expressing his opinion, allowing others to learn from their own mistakes. He was adept at reading people’s emotions, and that’s a lost art.
What I appreciated most about this film, though not a movie classic by any means, was that the younger co-workers eventually accepted Whitaker and all his apparent eccentricities. They learned more from him than they were willing to admit, including the co-worker who was so intrigued by Whitaker’s old battered briefcase that he bought one for himself on Ebay.
These are communications lessons we all can learn, no matter how old or young we are.