Reader question #29: You smell.

Dear Captain Awkward:

I have a part-time job that is, at its core, a retail job.  The gist of it is that our paying customers come in once a week and sit and talk with each other. One of our customers has, there is no way to mince words here, the Worst Body Odor I Have Ever Smelled.  I can easily be 10 feet away and still smell him.

Two of our other customers have noticed this and mentioned it to me.  What I don’t want to have happen is that this problem gets to the point where my customers don’t return because it’s just not worth the hassle.

I’ve spoken to my supervisor about this (she is not on site with me when I work) and she admitted to me that she was stumped.  We each agreed to ask around and see if there are others who have been in our situation, and what they have done.  My supervisor said she’d know what to do if this were an EMPLOYEE, but when it’s a paying customer, it’s a slightly different dynamic.

I am the worst at confrontation and uncomfortably honest discussions, so this chills me to the core.  Supervisor has said that if we decide a frank discussion is needed, she can be there to do it and/or support me in it, so that’s good.  But we are, at this point, wondering how to handle this.  Help us, Captain Awkward!


Temporary Mouth Breather

I do not envy you.  Either the customer does not know he smells and has to be told, or he does know and it’s because of some health issue that he can’t help (in which case you’re in disability/civil rights territory).

You’re going to have to rip the bandaid off and address it with him.  And you’re going to have to talk about the smell that you have personally noticed and not hide behind “other customers have noticed” or “There have been complaints…” First, it’s a coward’s refuge, and second, it makes the whole thing that much more horrible to tell him, “Yeah, we all got together and talked about you behind your back. ENJOY RELIVING JUNIOR HIGH, CHUMP!”

Also, you have to do it face-to-face or on the phone, not through email.  And you can’t have your supervisor do it for you or with you – it’s completely insulting to him.  It has to be you and him, human to human.


Next time he comes in, after you all do what you do, pull him aside for a private chat.  And then what you say can be some variation of this:

Hey, _____, I need to bring up something very awkward with you.

The past few times you’ve been in, I’ve noticed a strong and distinct body odor.  If that’s something you are aware of and can control, I need to ask you to take a shower and generally freshen up before you come here.  If it’s not something that you were aware of, I need to say that extreme body odor can be the sign of a serious medical condition (like diabetes) and that you should get a health checkup if you haven’t had one recently.

I’m really sorry to have to have this talk, I’ve been enjoying your contributions to our meetings and really want you to feel comfortable here. Please know that I would not bring it up if it was not a serious issue.”

He might run screaming from the room and never be seen again, too embarrassed, which would be a shame, but that’s probably the most classy, least awkward way that you can handle a really awkward thing.  Sometimes smooth corporatespeak and the passive voice is your friend.

Good luck, I don’t envy you that talk.  Let us know how it went?

P.S. I tried looking for a witty image, but it was too insulting/depressing.


5 thoughts on “Reader question #29: You smell.

  1. Wow. SUCH a hard topic to broach.

    A rehearsal pianist friend told me about a singer who was egregiously stinky after his daily walks in the outside heat to rehearsal. The conductor eventually took him aside, said, “I have something for you,” gave him a stick of deodorant and added, “I think you know how to use this.”

    Of course, that’s a case of having the work superior say something to the employee, whereas when it’s a customer at a shop that you work at, awkward.

    I really, really like the idea of tying it in to concern for health. Less judgemental.

      1. It really was. Yikes.

        Another stinky singer story: A singer friend told me about a colleague who, by the time they had their big duet at the end of the opera, had sweated in her synthetic dress so much that there was a noticeable odor. So noticeable that she actually apologized and said it wouldn’t happen again. But then it did, and he didn’t know how to tell her.

        His friend recommended he talk to his dresser about it, and have the dresser talk to her dresser, which I thought was a good plan. Very often, gross as it is, they don’t wash the costumes till the end of the run, just washing the armpit pads. This can result in some serious stank, and worse- I know someone who got scabies from a nasty housing situation and kept getting re-infected by the costume the company refused to wash.

        And don’t get me started about the Europeans and their perfume.

  2. Questioner, here’s the best way to handle this: turn it around.

    Imagine you’ve been going somewhere for a few weeks, and someone approaches to talk about the fact you have body odor. How would you want them to approach you? What would you want them to say? How would you react?

    And, also, how would you NOT react?

    If you customer freaks out and screams and yells and bursts into tears, well, then, your customer is not a stable or healthy person, and that is unfortunate but not your fault. A lot of people have this lurking fear that pointing out someone else’s flaws will result in awful confrontation…yet when faced with our flaws, we do not respond that way.

    So, tell him, kindly and directly, as Captain Awkward has suggested. And invest in some odor-killing spray that you can fluff around as necessary.

  3. Also, something to consider- you did not make this person smell. You did not roll them in funk. You are not responsible for their reaction to your conversation.

    Good luck- this is not an easy conversation, but good for you for having it- better this than tiptoeing around the deal.

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