Dear Uncommon Courtesy,
How do you tell a friend or acquaintance that they smell terrible? I was standing next to a friend the other day, and I thought I was going to suffocate from holding my breath so long. But I didn’t want to say anything lest I offend them. How do you (gently? harshly?) let a person know they smell terrible (this is as much for their sake as your own, too) and they need to learn how to bathe better (or more often, or twice a day, or thrice a day)?
Dealing With Smells
Most etiquette experts agree that the direct approach is best. Someone close to the person should gently mention that they’ve noticed a smell and would want to be told if it was them. Too much perfume/cologne is a common complaint and is easier to bring up than body odor, but they are handled the same way.
Victoria: So Jaya, how would you like for me to tell you that you smell?
Jaya: I always like that scene in Wet Hot American Summer where Michael Ian Black just tells that kid that he stinks and needs to take a shower. But then again, you know me well, so we can say things like “Omg please find deodorant” to each other. I know you’re not trying to make fun of me.
Victoria: Yes, I think considering the relationship is super important. I am going to approach things much differently with you than with an acquaintance or a boss. I don’t think you can tell your boss they smell?
Jaya: Probably not! Though if it’s a repeated, awful thing that makes it hard to work, you may want to tell your HR person. Get someone else to deal with it! Always a solution.
Victoria: Yeah, but verrrry discreetly. I also think that with kids or people you are “mentoring” you need to be very straightforward–for their own good. I remember my 6th grade teacher telling the whole class to wear deodorant because we collectively stank.
Jaya: Aww! And that is just at that weird age where you are starting to stink. You’ve gone your whole life just stinking of dirt and food, and now the stink is coming from inside your body.
Victoria: And you just forget to put deodorant on in the morning! Someone shamed me publicly around that age and I haven’t missed a day of deodorant since!
Jaya: Oh no! So maybe sometimes a little public shaming is good?
Victoria: Kids are cruel, but they are also kind of enforcing social expectations.
Jaya: As adults, I think the shaming can be even more soul crushing. Which brings up the idea of telling someone if it’s a one-time thing versus repeated offenses.
Victoria: Yes! I think if it’s clearly a one time thing, you just need to breathe through your mouth and deal.
Jaya: Yeah, people forget deodorant all the time. Or they play sports or step in dog poop or fall in a bog. I forgot deodorant just last week, and who knows, maybe my whole office was trying to find a way to tell me. However, if someone is always stinking, either because they haven’t washed their clothes or they sweat a lot or whatever, they need to know.
Jaya: Though now we come to the hard part: how do you tell them? Being frank with your friends is ok, but what about someone who is just…around? Someone you aren’t close enough with to be like “Yo, you smell”?
Victoria: I think what you want to do in that situation is find someone who is close to them and kind of suss out whether this is just you, or something everyone is noticing and then figure out who is the best person to break the news. Verrrry discreetly, again.
Jaya: Yeah. And then maybe try to blame it on something else? Even saying “Your shirt smells” can come off better than just “You smell.”
Victoria: Yes! Or something like “I’ve been noticing that you sometimes smell, maybe your deodorant brand isn’t strong enough?”
Jaya: Also, bring it up at a time when the person can actually do something about it.
Victoria: Yes! Not on the subway, or when you get to a bar, etc.
Jaya: Exactly. Because then you stink and you’re self-conscious about it.
Victoria: If you’re getting ready together or something, though, that’s the perfect opportunity to say “Oh did you forget your deodorant? Here, borrow mine!”
Jaya: What about medical issues? Is smelling something that can be cause for a doctor?
Victoria: Absolutely. So maybe, if you notice someone, or yourself, smelling a lot, go to a doctor. Depression can also make people less likely to bathe- that’s why I like the idea of saying, “I’ve been noticing that you smell strongly lately, is everything okay?”
Victoria: And then, they can just mention if it’s a medical issue. And you can just deal with it until it gets better.
Jaya: Also, I would like to take a moment to mention that if someone tells you you stink, don’t freak out! It’s no big deal! People stink all the time.
Victoria: Yes! It happens.
Jaya: And then if you deal with it well, you set a good example to the other stinkers of the world for how to take the news. It’s the circle of etiquette.