Being called on in small or large U.S. global corporations to provide cultural training to foreign workers on working with Americans is nothing new to me, with so much emphasis on intercultural communication education these days.
But what happened to me a couple of weeks ago was not common.
Upon reviewing my presentation plan, the company vice president of human resources approved it, and then insisted that I called her to discuss another objective that she “did not want to put in writing.”
I called her.
“Can you please help with educating them about body odor?” she asked. “Some people are having serious difficulties staying in the same room with them.”
Her statement reminded me of one night when I chaperoned high school football players in a school bus after a hard-fought game. With all their gears and shoes off, and all the bus windows closed, I had serious problems breathing in that bus.
There is little one can do to shield against others’ scents. In general, U.S. noses tend to be particularly susceptible, but they are certainly not unique, based on my experience in other places around the world.
But Americans may be more sensitive to odors than other noses -- or they could simply be intolerant of the odors that they do not like. The result is that they tend to discriminate against any odors that do not match their smell expectations.
Americans verbally decry their displeasure about the odors that they despise.
Body odors exist in every culture; maybe in every person. More often than not, there is little we can do to change cultural odor habits.
It does not make a difference what the source of the odor is. A few years ago, I was called in a school to discuss a food odor situation: a high school student from another country, for religious reasons, could not eat the cafeteria food. Every morning she boarded the school bus with her warm food that the other students qualified as smelling terrible.
It could be her favorite food in her culture! It takes a lot of cultural skills to change someone’s diet habits.
I personally cannot stand smokers’ breath; but it is their right to smoke. As a foreigner myself, working and living with other foreigners, for years I have seen many approaches to odor issues.
When I worked for the U.S. Peace Corps in Africa as a cultural trainer, U.S. volunteers in training and local teachers all lived at the training site, a Catholic boarding high school that the Peace Corps rented during the summer while students were gone.
The sleeping place was two large dormitories, one for men and the other for women. I could not believe it when in the morning volunteers would wake up, brush their teeth, and roll deodorant under their armpits then dress without taking a shower. Their excuse for skipping the shower was that there was no hot water. Really?!
Teaching about the issue of body odor is a thorny task that requires considerable delicacy. Nobody thinks that they smell “bad” or that they have a “strong” smell.
To the contrary! But, definitely it is essential to discuss the cultural perspectives on body odor and cleanliness in many settings where people from different cultural backgrounds live and work.
It is a necessary discussion in the U.S., but not to place Americans as the standard on cleanliness or of “good odor.” I have not being everywhere in the world, but I am yet to smell a universal odor praised in all cultures, or to meet an odorless population.
There is a new value being established in some organizations. In San Francisco, there was a policy at the organization where I was consulting, forbidding the wearing of fragrances.
I also saw a sign at a medical clinic in Minneapolis suggesting that patients should avoid strong fragrance at appointments.
The Somali population thought that it was written to discriminate against their traditional perfume. People can get upset and find it offensive when others are wearing perfume; they assert a more justifiable claim: allergy.
Time and room in this column do not allow us to suggest more than a few strategies to deal with sensitive cultural issues.
Some work well with young people.
A good friend of mine teaches English as a second language to students from 17 countries in her class. She simply goes to dollar stores and purchases bags of deodorants, toothbrushes and soap for all her students.
This method of teaching has proven to be more effective in schools and churches than preaching to newly arrived immigrants.
With professionals, I start with the U.S. proverb: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” to show the value of being clean.