Afternoon InquisitionRandom Asides

AI: Foul Peeps Shall Smell Above the Earth

You stink!

We all stink. If you need proof, just watch a little television every once in a while. Every ad re-enforces the fact that we have horrible odor problems.

We have to get the right soaps, shampoos, and gels, otherwise, our skin and hair will smell like the dumpster behind a Cap’n Pete’s Crab Kitchen. We have to get scented foot powder because walking around in sox and shoes makes our feet stink like a teenage boy’s bedroom. We have to get the right antiperspirant, otherwise we’ll be able to grow rice in our armpits, and the smell coming from our underarms could clear out an Al Qaeda cave. We have to get the right toothpaste, mouthwash, or chewing gum, because that Godzilla breath of ours could strip the barnacles off a battleship.

And I don’t even need to mention our dookie/pee pee regions, and all the fucky-nooky accoutrements that are nearby. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, there’s a sewer system right in the middle of an amusement park down there, and by Jimmy Durante’s ghost, it will smell like one on a hot summer day if we don’t keep that shit douched, wiped, and powdered properly.

Now, of course in general, we’re not that bad. Most of us take steps to keep from getting overly ripe. We bathe regularly, we keep our clothes clean, and we’re conscious of it when we fail to do those things. But there are those — and we all know someone like this — who can’t or won’t take steps toward socially acceptable hygiene.

No big deal, right? They’re easy to ignore . . . In most circumstances.

But, what if Stinky McGee shows up at a dinner party, or at a game night, or at a baby shower? What if it’s a situation where Smelly Smellerton can have an adverse effect on an event; namely scaring people away. 

At what point do you take action? And what action would you take? When do you say something? What do you say? How are your diplomacy skills in situations like this?

“Good night, Mrs. Calabash . . . wherever you are!”

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. I’m a wanna be rock star and ex deadhead so…well you know. Years ago a dermatologist suggested I stop using soap and deodorants because of allergic reactions. She said, “I don’t stink and I don’t use those products.” It is natural to have odor, that is actually cool. To be ripe is not cool. This post reminds me of Buffy who said, “Stinky stinkman from stinkonia.” I think direct is the best for both parties. For example, “Dude, you stink.” will probably be most effective, unless dude is a rock star, then they are exempt.

  2. I was in a bagpipe band where one member had serious BO issues. Bagpiping requires a lot of exertion, so some sweatiness is bound to occur, but most of us had the decency to show up appropriately deodorized. Not wanting to point out the person directly, I brought it up at a meeting and decided to remind all people that it is not considerate to show up to a 2 hour bagpipe practice without taking some measures against body odor.

  3. I’m sorry, but we need to talk about French people. Frenchies? Are you listening? You stink. Bad.

    I work on a large nuclear fusion reactor and we have visitors from all over the world come to use our facility. British, French, German, eastern european countries, Japan, China, Russia, everywhere. I ALWAYS know when a team from le commissariat à l’énergie atomique is in town. If I accidentally put my cleanroom suit next to one of theirs, forget it. I can never use it again and have to get a new one. If I do use it, it’s sometimes so bad that it makes ME smell like a turd for the rest of the day. I notice that this does not happen with visitors from any other country. Ever.

    Usually, if they aren’t doing anything physically strenuous in the facility and are just in a meeting or whatever for the day, it isn’t too bad (although they do still stink of extremely strong perfume and cologne). But whenever they’re doing anything physically demanding, holy shit, stand back. So I think they actually are bathing, they just aren’t using antiperspirant / deodorant. I can’t really say anything because they’re our guests and they’re paying (dearly) to use time on our reactor.

    I thought maybe it was just these particular visiting scientists that stank and maybe French people as a whole didn’t deserve their noisome reputation. And then, I went to Paris on vacation….in August. UGghghhhh. France, you are a first world, technologically advanced nation. We love you, you’re great, but please, please, invest in some fucking Speed Stick.

  4. Why not just hold your event at a bath house? When you’re in a bath house, there is absolutely nothing inappropriate about saying, “Hey, you smell really bad! You should jump in this shower with me, handsome!”

    Or so I’ve heard.

    But if your guests are averse to bathing, they won’t show up. If they’re not averse, but just don’t have the knowledge or means to bathe, now they get to do it!

    Also, don’t douche. It’s pretty much the worst thing you can do to your vagina besides let Sam have sex with it.* And if you don’t have a vagina… I don’t even want to know what the douche is for.

    *Only because his penis is so monstrous!

  5. I have to say that over-use of very scented products is just as bad as lack of hygiene in some cases. I have a co-worker that I have had to speak to twice now about using REALLY strong perfume before coming to work. I feel nauseated around it, but the worst part is what it does to my co-workers when somebody gets pregnant (most of my coworkers are 25-35 year old women, there is always someone pregnant around).

    Of course, speaking to someone about an issue like this doesn’t always work. Even being very direct has not worked in this case.

  6. There was a guy on my Cross Country team in undergrad who had serious B.O. issues, along with a flair for sleeveless tees. Once spring came sophomore year and we were looking forward to a long humid summer with lots of shirtless running in a tight pack we decided it was either do something about it or be forced to continually increase the pace and keep him perpetually in the pack. A decision was made that one person should take him aside and stage an “intervention”. Unfortunately that somehow managed to become me. It was kind of an uncomfortable conversation, but he appreciated the honesty. You can convince a perpetually horny college student to try just about anything if you convince him it will help with the ladies. Long story short, he got a little more pro-active about getting in a morning shower and switched to a different brand of antiperspirant which he was fairly liberal with and the odor thing was not an issue for the next two years.

    A lot of lives got better that day.

  7. @devianttouch:

    Refusing to stop doing something that makes other people sick sounds like it would warrant at least a verbal warning from a supervisor, if not a written one.

    A reasonable person would respond the words “Please stop doing that. It’s making me nauseous and is causing others to actually become sick.” If they don’t, perhaps throw in the “barfing interferes with productivity” thing.

    If I were the boss, I’d fire them. I have no patience for people who give me migraines with their perfume after I’ve politely informed them of how it affects me.

  8. Fragrance now is a bit like smoking way in the bad old days. Some people feel it is their right to spread their scent wherever they go and become quite indignant when asked not to. My wife gets very ill when exposed to some fragrances and we have had no end of trouble protecting her from them. In a workplace, if all else fails invoke the Americans with Disabilities Act. Or maybe a flame thrower…

  9. The overly scented is a real problem for me as I can end up with something akin to an asthma attack. I have developed bronchial pneumonia due to prolonged exposure to someone’s body marinade. I used to take off every Valentines Day to avoid all the roses. Those things nearly killed me once.

  10. @devianttouch: Gah, yes, overly perfumed people are as bad as the unwashed, and sometimes there’s overlap.

    Attention perfume/cologne users: the point should be to entice someone to want to come closer to you to smell more of the nice smell, not to wear so much that you can be detected across the room.

    I’ve had people pass me in restaurants so overdone with cologne/perfume that suddenly my food tastes like it. Ick.

    Also, it drove me crazy working in a liberal non-profit office where I was expected to endure the stink of incense because that was someone’s “right to a spiritual life” but those same people would have joined me in flipping out if someone smoked in the office. Nope, sorry, nobody gets to pollute someone else’s air. The right to breathe trumps all hobbies.

    That being said, I haven’t gone after anyone for BO, but I do avoid such people and have found that the perpetually stinky often have other odious personal habits that end up with them not sticking around in any given job/club for long anyway.

  11. I worked with a guy who stank so badly that management actually amended the employee manual/handbook to include standards of personal hygiene, specifically for him because he’d outright refused to change his habits when confronted. When he still stunk after this policy was put into effect and we said something about it, he indignantly argued that he’d showered… eventually we figured out that he was bathing, but wasn’t washing his clothes. They’d neglected to include anything about wearing clean clothes in the new policy…

  12. I have no idea if this is true but, we had guy in high school who smelled something fierce. There was a story going around that a teacher literally dumped cologne on him. Seems extreme but, hey take a bath will ya!

  13. I have a situation where a couple share the same hygiene challenges. Nice folk but I’ve nearly stopped going to the regular social gathering they attend. I expect I may end up saying something or have a coin toss with the group organizer.

    @Sam Ogden: Mine smells like apple pie.

  14. I was thinking about this very topic recently when a mother and children entered my airspace at a public event. It was difficult to discern who among them was emitting the foul stench, but I suspect it was a combination of unwashed mother, her unwashed clothes, and unkempt kiddos. Sad. Sad. Especially when you consider the barriers to inclusion her kids face.

  15. @elyse You are completely right that a supervisor should be responding in a situation like this. That’s what I told my supervisor. And her supervisor. 6 months ago. I gave up at that point.

    This discussion reminded me of another situation I encountered once. I went to high school with a kid who always had a really funky smell about her. She was teased about it a lot, but nothing seemed to be done. A few years later I made the mistake of leaving clothes wet in the washer for about 2 days – and they came out smelling exactly like that. I had not been able to previously identify the smell, but now I wish I’d known – I could have told her that the problem was her laundry, and maybe saved her a lot of heartache.

  16. I used to work with a guy who always smelled like poo. Rotten, week-old, hippo-esque poo. It was always tinged with a slight cheap cologne to cover up. As his manager I was supposed to say something to him, but I never did.

    He had physical problems, and it wasn’t a cleanliness issue. We all just learned to live with it.

    I don’t like telling people they stink because with my sense of smell, just about everybody stinks.

  17. I used to work at a math and science camp for middle schoolers, and during the boys’ weeks there were always some funky smells around. The male counselors once physically placed a boy in the shower (being a girl, I of course did not participate). It’s amazing how different the hallways smelled during boys’ camp as opposed to girls’ camp…sadly, the girls usually had to live there after the boys.

  18. I used to work with a guy with really bad breath. We sat opposite each other. Another colleague was also quite close and the two of us needed a solution. We ended up buying a scent emitter that could sit between him and us. It worked a treat and he never said anything. Win-win.

  19. Having been cursed/blessed with bad sinuses, a particular smell has to be extremely intense for me to notice it, and being aware that I don’t notice smells easily has made me very fastidious about my own hygiene.

    This has resulted in over the course of the jobs I’ve held, my being able to work around two people who ended up being fired for having BO on par with rancid goats, the guy who never showered/bathed because he swam daily and figured that counted, the ‘au naturale’ girl who insisted the chemicals in soaps and all were inherently poisonous and would be absorbed through skin, and the other girl who in an attempt for water conservation only showered once a week and slathered herself with perfume the rest of the time, even in the hottest summers.

    I think at this point management wherever I work knows I’m not one to pull aside to discreetly ask if I’ve noticed a problem since my reply is ‘I can’t breathe to notice’.

  20. Sam, please.. we live in Houston… it’s always hot, humid, and stinky here. It has to rub off on us. No matter what we do to make it better.

    and… luckily.. my sinuses (olfactories) don’t work either…. so the only time i smell STANK is if it’s really, really, really BAD.

  21. on another note… i used to work for a doctor in an out of the way town.. about 70 miles from Houston.

    we had people come in, people that did not have running water in their house.

    we would make them take a shower before exam…. there is a particular smell that ppl have (whom have not had a bath in a year or so). this is a scent you do not forget.

  22. I have a much higher tolerance for BO than for perfume and such.

    Partly this is because I work with people who don’t have homes to shower or get clean in. I remind myself of this and it makes it easier to deal with than the perfume + smug that I deal with the other part of the time.

    Another thing is people only talk about BO in situations like this. Some people actually don’t know what is “normal”. One day at the doctor my doc said oh you are allergic to your deodorant you should switch to a hypoallergenic one. If that doesn’t work we can put you on a prescription that you only use once a week and that should help the swelling redness and itching. I looked at her like she was an alien and said it isn’t supposed to hurt and make me want to rip my armpits off with razors? Nope apparently not. SLEEVELESS SHIRTS HERE I COME! But not talking about it just makes situations like you’ve got harder to bring up. Yes we do talk about soaps and blahblahblah a lot but the actuals of it? No clue. The prescription antiperspirant that works for a week that is prescribed to super heavy sweaters (and super sensitive skin people), no tv ads for that (well I don’t watch tv much at all so I might be missing them). And even then. There is definitely something to be said for making conversations easier.

    I’d likely bring up my story about switching to hypoallergenic and talk about that and hope that the person would take the hint or feel more ok talking to me about it. If not I don’t know what I’d do….

  23. kimberlychapman: “The right to breathe trumps all hobbies.” COTW.

    My strategy is usually to stay quiet, move away, or hope they leave soon. Working for the last 4 or 5 years (late high school/early university) in the service industry, I have encountered my share of smelly people. I also ride the bus regularly. Lately I’ve taken to wearing long knitted scarves, and if a pungent person sits by me I just bury half my face in the scarf. Being a rather shy person, I tend to avoid confrontation, but these situations are with people I don’t know or have to deal with regularly.

    In my last restaurant job, one of the managers was allergic to marijuana smoke. Even if it was on someone, she couldn’t go near; it would make her throat start to close up. As servers we learn that if a particular table smelled strongly of it, we would give her a heads up so she could avoid it.

    As for personal situations, several years ago I had a boyfriend who would wear deodorant when he remembered. But when he didn’t, I definitely noticed. I tried the positive attention approach of telling him he smelled good when he wore it, but it never caught on. I think now I’ve become more assertive and would probably say something direct.

    What a few people have brought up is talking to the whole group to avoid singling a person out. I remember in high school gym class, one day we all got given a little sample size deodorant with instructions to use it.

    loudlyquiet: thanks for that, I’ll have to check that out. I always itch for days after shaving my armpits, and I’m never sure if it’s my shaving or that combined with the antiperspirant.

  24. There is a guy at my martial arts school who I think rolls out of bed after a night of drinking and who knows what to come to class without taking a shower.

    One day he stunk REALLY badly and the instructor gave us all a lecture on washing our gi. It was pretty transparent who he was speaking to.

  25. So, at work a couple months ago, one of my co-workers brought in a bunch of stuff from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. Being the only single male on staff (we’ve got three grandfathers… and me), I don’t pitch a fit when discussion turn girly, and the strong scents weren’t that bad from across the room.

    Then one of my co-workers nearly shoved a scent up my nose. I had to work very hard NOT to punch her in the face. I’m fairly sensitive to scents, and most perfumes just smell like spiced vomit to me.

  26. @JamieF:
    I concur, it’s the greatest soap ever invented, and aside from the almond-infused one (I’m allergic to nuts), they’re completely harmless. There’s even an unscented baby version, so no one can complain about the need for soap.

    I have sensitivities to certain chemicals, so I use the more “natural” products (of course one learns a lot about what “natural” means when one starts reading labels). Companies like Tom’s of Maine and Dr Bronner’s make great stuff that though it has a scent, it’s quite mild, not at all overpowering and has never bothered anyone I’ve worked with who has scent sensitivities.

    That being said, I work in a gaming store. There is one guy (I just call him Smelly Guy) who smells SO BAD I will do everything I can to avoid being within 5 feet of him. I tend to clean a lot when he’s around, I’d rather the place was “lemon” scented than smell like him. I think he showers, but he certainly doesn’t use deodorant and possibly not soap. We are lucky that most of our regulars are clean, neat people, but every now and then we get special treatment from the stinky ones. Since I’m working, I can’t really say anything, but I’m not ashamed to talk about it if someone needs a good talking-to. Having worked with kids with behavioural issues, hygiene is one of them, and it’s not that hard to talk about.
    Many years ago, it was necessary to speak to and then ask to leave a player in a LARP game we were playing. Not only was she very overweight and did not bathe, but her cat would sometimes pee on her clothes and she wouldn’t wash them. She had some serious emotional problems, so we were very tolerant and kind, but she didn’t/couldn’t change, so we had to ask her leave. Her scent was gag-worthy. I’ve seen her around recently, and she seems to have improved, at least in the area of hygiene.

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