People & Human Resources

On the nose: How should we handle the touchy subject of body odour

Eve Ash /

On a cold Melbourne morning I stepped outside my front door to be greeted by a friendly taxi driver who had arrived on time with a pleasant smile and a warm greeting.

He took my luggage and put it in the boot while I got in the back and prepared for the drive to the airport. I would be cutting it fine to get there on time, but so far everything was going perfectly.

Until the driver got into the car…

The smell of the man’s body odour hit me with a sudden force that had me in a panic. I didn’t know what to do – this friendly man who was providing a great service for me was releasing this horrendous scent! Clearly he needed a shower. Perhaps he had been working all night, maybe he had a medical condition, but whatever the cause I felt disgusted and nauseous.

Not through rudeness or spite, but through self-preservation I had wound down the window and almost had my head sticking out into the next lane of traffic so I could breathe. The cold air noisily and annoyingly entered the vehicle – I didn’t care.

In terms of his actions, the driver had done everything right, yet he was causing me such discomfort that I couldn’t ignore it. Did I embarrass him? There was no way he could have missed the fact his passenger had her head out of the window on a freezing cold morning. What were my alternatives along the way and at the end of the journey?

I have got out of two cabs in the past at the start of the journey. Just stopped the car and paid $5 and jumped out with no explanation just self-preservation. But this was en route to the airport at very early hours and now on the freeway. So I committed to the half hour journey with my head outside the car.

Planning the various scenarios in my mind, I thought of what would happen if I politely said to him “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your body odour is making it really hard for me to be in this taxi with you. You seem like a lovely man, but this is really unpleasant for me and I think you need to do something about it.” Not ideal – besides which what could he do right now? Maybe wind down all four windows – that actually could have helped!

When people are embarrassed or hurt they can become aggressive. Would confronting the issue have resulted in me being ejected from the taxi, causing me to miss my flight? Would he have been so embarrassed and hurt that he simply said nothing? A taxi driver can’t stop mid-shift to have a shower, so even if I had told him, what could he do about it? Would it help him understand the negative reaction of his next passenger? Maybe his extra-friendly greeting was his way of trying to offset the anticipated response from me once we got in the car because, in fact, he knew from the past passenger with a head out of the window?

The scenario reminded me of a comedy video I had made about broaching the subject of personal hygiene to staff members.

What can I learn from my own video? Here are the key points from that:

Give constructive hygiene feedback
Don’t make jokes
INSTEAD: Use a personal approach
Don’t leave unsubtle gifts
INSTEAD: Be direct
Don’t give nasty feedback
INSTEAD: Be sensitive with words
Don’t alienate the person
INSTEAD: Explain you care

As difficult as that situation is, it’s easier than the taxi scenario because you have a relationship with the people you work with and there is a big motivation to get it right for ongoing workplace relations.

This man was a stranger, and we would most likely never meet each other again.
But he should know. His company should provide guidelines.

I was thinking about all this when he was calling my head back from the outside of the vehicle – “excuse me…excuse me…excuse me – what airline?”… “Virgin, and I am happy to get out on the ramp” (vs. a long wait to get a spot directly outside). He drove off leaving my back window wide open.

In retrospect I probably did the wrong thing – a cowardly thing. I chose not to address the topic because I wanted to protect myself from an awkward and uncomfortable exchange. I was trying to avoid embarrassing the man, but I probably embarrassed him anyway from the way I was acting.

My advice to those who find themselves in the same situation is to actually address the issue, as uncomfortable as it may be. This applies to situations within the office where you come across staff members or colleagues that have issues with hygiene or odour – it is always better to confront an issue.

If you speak to someone about hygiene it is really important to take into account you might be causing great embarrassment. Despite the temptation to use this as a reason not to say anything, you’re actually allowing the person to walk into future encounters with other people and embarrassing themselves further. If you can talk to someone privately and respectfully you will actually be helping them out.

Whenever you confront an issue it is the long-term advantage you need to focus on rather than protecting yourself, or the other person’s immediate, emotional response.

What will I do next time? What would you do?

Eve Ash has a wide range of resources and books that can help people change their thinking and habits in a constructive way.

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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