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I have a work colleague who is one of my favourite people to chat to... but he seriously smells. Some mornings I'll walk in and it has permeated the whole office. Is there a way to address someone's personal hygiene or am I being a big jerk? Summer is looming and I need your help!
Sick of the Stink
Every six months or so there’s a spectacular social media meltdown about personal hygiene. On Twitter this May, an enormous multi-day spat emerged when one person revealed she didn’t wash her legs in the shower, and roughly 500,000 people lost their minds. Then the woman who originally said she didn’t wash her legs (which, if you ask me, seems…. Fine? Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m trying to delete it) doubled down in a weird way by calling people’s obsession with hygiene “weird classist bullshit” and then approximately 500,000 MORE people lost it because it seemed like she was saying… poor people don’t care about being clean???? Which makes her sound snobbier than if she’d just said she didn’t think her legs got that dirty on a day-to-day basis (relatedly, the overuse of “classist” by middle-class people to criticise something they don’t like in a way they think will show how progressive they are, usually just results in a massive self-own by revealing weird ideas the critic has about working-class people).
My personal fave in the “online hygiene argument” genre relates to a similarly bad political analysis of cleanliness I saw on Tumblr in 2013 in which a blogger replied to someone saying she refused to wear deodorant “just because some men in the 1880’s decided bodily odour was no longer acceptable” and then the original poster reblogged it back to their Tumblr replying “bitch you stink” and tagged it “BITCH YOU STINK” and it went viral. I think about that at least once a week, whether prompted by someone stinky or just because it’s still funny to me.
This is all to say that differing ideas about acceptable levels of hygiene are quite polarising, because it’s so deeply personal. No one wants to be the bitch who stinks, but equally, smelling someone’s rank BO is quite possibly one of the worst ways to spend even the shortest of conversations.
It would be easy in a lazy way to make this about gender, and I do wonder if women are on the whole more conditioned to be better aware of how socially pleasing they are, which would include smelling nice. But to be fair I used to work with a woman who only used vegan deodorant and let me tell you it did NOT work and she didn’t seem to notice, so I won’t go down the whole “own this man child by telling him to grow up and do his laundry and wash himself properly” path, because that’s mean and you like him and he’s probably just oblivious rather than totally useless and besides, shaming people is a spectacularly inefficient way to get them to do what you want.
Instead, I’ll give you an easy out - kick it up the line. Take his manager aside and tell them basically what you told me - that this person is great and you don’t want to be rude, but their personal hygiene is questionable to the point of actually distracting you from your work. It’s going to be an awkward and shitty convo, and that’s why managers are paid more than you! In short, you're not a jerk to want this fixed, but don’t bitch about it with your co-workers and generally just try to be discreet and professional about the issue.
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