While walking home from the post office the other day, I ran into an acquaintance of my mother. She’s the kind of nosy ninny that spots you a mile away and simply has to stop to give you the latest gossip. There is no escaping her. Once she has you in her sights she pounces like a snow leopard on a terrified hare. The woman’s most annoying quality is her disturbing dental hygiene. She’s always got something -- a clove of garlic, kernel of corn, huge hunk of meat -- wedged between her teeth.
This uncomfortable encounter caused me to ask myself, ‘When confronted with a grooming blunder in another individual, what is the socially acceptable course of action? Is it proper to leave the matter unaddressed? Is an attempt to subliminally transmit a helpful message expected in this situation? Or is it common courtesy to alert our fellow human being of their unfortunate, unsavoury plight?
Ignoring a problem can itself become problematic, as has been my experience; my ability to concentrate and process information becomes a daunting task when I do so. A supervisor (whose breath smelled like he’d eaten trash for breakfast) often stopped by my desk. Each time he did, I’d rise to greet him so that he couldn’t breathe down on me. He must have thought I grew up in a military family the way I’d leap to attention at the sight of him. The times he snuck up and leaned over my shoulder to point something out on the computer screen, I’d block off the air to my nostrils and resort to mouth-breathing only. Suddenly very conscious of every inhale and exhale, I’d notice the air around me growing thin very quickly. Things often became fuzzy. In an effort to accelerate the conversation, I’d find myself nodding in agreement with him, with no comprehension of what I was agreeing to. By the time I regained use of my nose, I was dazed and confused as to what had just transpired.
Subliminal messages, offered verbally or gesture-style, can also create confusion. Where snot balls have been in evidence, I’ve offered the offending possessor a tissue, but the response is usually a polite “oh no thank you, I don’t need one.” I’ve tried catchy phrases like “you’ve got a bat in the cave” or “dude, you’ve got a jumper,” but not everyone is familiar with such metaphors. Sadly, I have often been confused for a wannabe surfer chick whose vocabulary is as extensive as that of a chimpanzee.
I once attempted to address the rancid body odour of a colleague. Instead of embarrassing her I applied the tactic of reverse responsibility. I’d pretend the smell was emanating from me and not her in the hope that she would find the moment humorous enough to confess the true source of the stench. Every time her smell wafted in my direction, I’d spray my work station with air freshener and loudly declare, “I shouldn’t have eaten those eggs this morning. I’ve got really bad gas.” I’d also let my colleague know I would spare her tender nostrils from “my foul odour” by spraying her work station as well. I later learned that this particular woman had no sense of smell and likely thought there was a gas leak somewhere. Which, ironically, there was.
Perhaps it depends on the level of intimacy or comfort we feel with the person we are engaged with as to how we handle certain situations. It would, after all, be far easier to tell your girlfriend that her ruby red lipstick has spread from her plump lips to her pearly whites than to tell your boss he has a stringy gob of mucous dangling from his nose hair … again! But no matter the situation and no matter the offender, it’s much less painful to simply look them in the eye and politely say, “Good God, Gretchen. You stink.”