Saturday, May 15, 2010

Offensive odour

Someone! Anyone! Help! I was forced to endure a one-hour flight sitting next to a sharp-looking gentleman. He was dressed in crisp, clean clothes and polished shoes. He sported a fashionable watch and he had well-trimmed hair, clean nails, a ready smile, and kind eyes. He also STANK!!!

Someone! Anyone! Please tell me what is going on! I regularly train emerging leaders on how to deliver unpleasant news or give performance feedback to their subordinates in a respectful way. One of the most popular, yet distressing exercises I use in developing this skill is a simulation of being sent by your colleagues to inform a team member that s/he has bad body odour! Very few people want to do it, and even fewer know how to do it well - even with guidance. Sometimes it is hard to tell from the squirming going on, whether it is the person giving the feedback who is most uncomfortable, or the poor person being told that they have been perfuming the air with ‘eau de putrid’ - the strong and lingering aroma of rotten boiled eggs, wet carpet and vomit.

I have had occasion to very kindly and respectfully advise staff, colleagues and service providers to avail themselves of the use of a deodorant that is conveniently at hand in my drawer, in my bag, or in my guest toilet. But what is the protocol when the offence to the nostrils and to one’s comfort is being committed in a public space or when the offender is a complete stranger?

Let’s go back to the aeroplane. Confronted by Mr Odoriferous, I felt supremely sorry for myself, sorrier for my fellow passengers (don’t ask me why), and sorry for the crew whose work space had been infiltrated. You find that, in times of adversity, solidarity forms instantaneously, and it happened here too. Speaking glances, grimaces, and shows of sympathy flew back and forth amongst the newly formed fellowship of suffering passengers. Still, no one said anything.

Shouldn’t there be rules about this sort of thing?

Business etiquette teaches you suitable dress for the workplace. Could there not be etiquette about appropriate personal hygiene in public? Could Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) standards against air pollution be expanded to include odious body odour? Anyone who has been trapped in a lift, a car, or a bus with someone reeking of unwashed flesh knows what I am talking about.

Don’t get me wrong; I doubt if anyone sane would step out of their abode smelling bad. On enough occasions, the offender is not even aware that s/he is smelling. Once they are informed, the majority are mortified and take immediate action to suppress it.

Other times, body odour is simply a function of lifestyle - the combination of humidity, working outdoors in the heat and sun, sweat, and wearing clothes that were not completely dried after washing. Many cannot afford to buy deodorants and powders, and have to rely on their morning baths or rubbing lemon and other native remedies. This is not adequate in our climate if you are physically active or move around a lot outdoors.

Yet, some people simply won’t scrub their bodies, wash their clothes or change their underclothes daily. Others do not shave their underarm hair, wash their hair regularly or clean themselves properly after ‘easing’ themselves. It is pure carelessness.

A friend asked me why the body odour here is so much worse (in her estimation) than in the Western world. Well, for starters, how a person smells when they sweat is affected by what we eat and drink. In the Western world, their food is partially uncooked, like salads, and mostly bland to the taste. Our food is generally boiled or fried, and pungent with spices. Hence ‘pungent’ sweat.

An unfunny joke

Secondly, our odour also has to do with the quality of the air. Our air quality here is poor. We breathe in all kinds of pollutants from vehicles, generators and badly disposed waste. Those toxins find their way out of our bodies in our sweat.

Thirdly, our public transport system is choked with people rubbing up against each other. Workers trek long distances to bus stops, they wait and sweat in the sun, they squash into cars, buses, and onto the backs of trucks. Is it any wonder that they do not arrive at their destinations smelling fresh and fragrant?

Let’s go back to the aeroplane again. In situations where the cabin air quality has been compromised by a reeking passenger, what should the crew do? Should they behave the way up-market restaurants with a strict dress code do? They have a stock of jackets and ties to lend to patrons who arrive without them. Could the crew legitimately invite the ‘oozing’ passenger to make use of their stock of deodorants and fabric fresheners in the cabin toilets, and deny the person service until they co-operate?

I don’t have the answers but, really, we should do something. Anything. This joke is no longer funny. Life is too stressful to have to put up with a corrupting presence in close quarters. Let’s find a way to deal with the offence while respecting the sensibilities of the offender

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