So, I’ve been attending a salsa dance class the last few months. The class is structured so that you are welcome to come as a single person, and the participants shuffle through partners throughout the class. It’s a lot of fun and the men are generally pretty respectful and appropriate.
My problem is that a young man has been attending the last two weeks, and while he is very polite, his body odor is HORRENDOUS. I really cannot overstate how bad it is. By the middle of class he is sweating profusely, such that there is perspiration dripping off of his nose, and yes, onto his dancing partners (or at least *this* dancing partner, which is my main concern).
I really don’t want dance with him, but I don’t know how to refuse or what to do about it without being rude. I can totally see his attendance in this class as a suggested “assignment” from a therapist or other advice giver (such as yourself!) to get out there and be around people, even if it’s something he’s not comfortable doing.
Do you have any scripts that I can use? I do want to be kind.
~Dreading Dance Class
Dear Dreading Dance Class,
I’ve gotten a lot of “how do I tell someone they smell” and a lot of “how do I deal with this awkward dance partner” questions that I haven’t answered yet – thanks for this question that lets me combine both!
You don’t have to dance with him (or with anyone that you don’t want to) and if his turn as your partner gets a “No thank you/Not this time/Oh, sorry, I need to use the rest room/catch my breath/make a quick phone call” for now while you work up to talking to him about it, that’s okay. This is as true for The Dance Partner Who Never Stops Talking, Too Much Perfume Lady, and The Brotherhood of the Traveling Hands as it is for Febreezio The Fragrant.
Ideally dance teachers and studios should communicate ground rules for class and issue periodic reminders, for example:
- Dancing means getting really close to people, so we expect that you’ll wear clean clothes and freshen up before class. Don’t forget to brush your teeth/use breath mints, too.
- Everyone sweats when they dance so please remember to blot/mop yourself up occasionally – handkerchiefs or bandanas are useful for this!
- Please avoid strong cologne or perfume due to allergies.
- We like everyone to dance with everyone else and feel welcome, but you can refuse to dance with anyone or sit a dance out for any reason. If someone doesn’t want to dance with you, or sits out a dance, don’t take it personally – in 5 minutes you’ll have a new partner.
- If you feel like someone is dancing too close here is how you signal that!/Here is how you signal or ask for permission to dance closer.
Of course, posting general “for everyone” rules definitely don’t magically solve the issue. We all know that Sylvia-in-your-office-who-cuts-a-sliver-out-of-each-of-the-free-cookies-in-the-break-room definitely doesn’t think she is the problem when the office manager sends out the “Please can everyone just take the whole cookie from now on? You don’t have to eat the whole thing, but it’s gross when they’ve all been handled and look like there are bites out of them” email. The office manager needs to send the email and have a “Sylvia, could you please stop doing that” talk.
When you join a scene or a hobby or a workplace or any social enterprise, certain expectations come with that (There is no talking in the Diogenes Club). If Febreezio doesn’t already know that “It’s okay if you are a naturally sweaty person but dancing close to people means doing what you can to manage your sweat”/”Your usual hygiene game is not cutting it for this level of close contact and physical activity” someone in that scene – you, or the teacher, or another old hand – is doing a kindness if they tell him directly as soon as possible. Communicating those expectations is not persecution.
He will definitely not enjoy the conversation and not feel good! Nobody likes to get told that they stink! It’s embarrassing! But it will also be wicked embarrassing if everyone suddenly needs to take an urgent phone call when it’s their turn to dance with him.
If you want to have the conversation, pull him aside privately (not on the dance floor) and try this script:
“Hey, X, can I talk to you real quick about something awkward? Great.
I’d love to dance with you sometime, but I’ve noticed you don’t smell so great today and you don’t mop up when you get sweaty. Can you make sure to freshen up before next class, and bring a handkerchief or bandana with you to mop up sweat?“
Casting it as a thing you’ve had to deal with personally can help:
“When I first started coming to dance classes I definitely underestimated how sweaty I’d get. I needed to raise my deodorant game for one thing, and I also realized I needed to bring a clean shirt with me to change into between work and coming here. I’ve noticed you having some of the same issues. Can you make sure to freshen up before next class, and bring a handkerchief or bandana with you to mop up sweat?”
Whatever you do, keep it short and treat it like a normal, reasonable request that you think he will want to follow in order to make you more comfortable as a dance partner.
If you talk to the teacher about it, try:
“X is new here, and I’ve noticed that he doesn’t smell so good or mop up when he sweats, so I don’t want to dance with him. I don’t want to hurt his feelings and I want him to have fun and be included here. Can you speak to him about it or do you have suggestions for how to approach it with him?“
The teacher should take him aside and say something like:
“We’re very glad you’re here, but I’ve noticed* some issues with body odor and sweat today. Please take a shower, use deodorant, and please make sure you’re wearing clean clothes before you come to dance lessons next week, it’s part of being a good dance partner. Also, bring a handkerchief or bandana with you to mop up if you get sweaty.”
Notice the list: Clean clothes, shower, deodorant, bandana to mop sweat. Now is not the time for vague euphemisms like “be more aware of hygiene.” Either the guy doesn’t know he smells, or he does know but he doesn’t have a good practice to make it stop. You’ve come this far into Awkwardtown, might as well be specific and tell him what exactly you’d like him to do.
As for your worries about driving him away from dance class forever, let’s get some perspective: What if a therapist did recommend for him to come here? What if he is really really really nervous about dancing? What if he comes straight from working a really physical job and doesn’t have time to shower and this is his only outlet for exploring the pleasure of dance? What if it’s a medical issue? What if these are his only clothes what if the closest washing machine and shower are 10 miles away from his house and uphill both ways?
Is that really your baggage to take on?
Isn’t it also patronizing to project all of those possible explanations, excuses, and reasons onto other people? After all, he is an adult man who signed up for and attends a dance class, so isn’t it likely that he can:
a) Take steps to clean himself up before doing a social activity (See Jimmy’s trunk full of wet wipes on this week’s Better Call Saul)?
b) Experiment with and adjust his hygiene strategies if it is in fact a medical issue?
c) Handle 5 minutes of awkward conversation about it?
d) Make choices about how he deals with uncomfortable feelings, whether that’s “Clean up a little better so I can enjoy dancing” or “flee forever…too mortifying…ack?”
When someone is doing something that makes you uncomfortable, it’s very easy to get lost in diagnosing all the reasons they might do it. Compassionate people try to walk in the other person’s shoes, and it’s even more pronounced when you factor in how relentlessly women are socialized to protect men’s feelings. But if you avoid a difficult conversation with someone who is making you uncomfortable because you can’t stop worrying about the reasons or stop generating possible excuses for them, it won’t help the person or solve the problem. It will just put you through a lot of emotional labor without making a single thing better for anyone.
*Important: If you are ever a peer or an authority figure who has to deliver embarrassing news to someone, and if it can possibly be avoided, don’t start with “We’ve had complaints” or “Everyone talked about this and we think ____” or “Some people have suggested that you…” I understand the temptation to displace the awkwardness onto the anonymous authority of the group, but it just makes it worse for the person and also risks derailing the conversation with “Who complained?” “What exactly did they say?” The first time you have the conversation with someone, let them save a little face by not making it them vs. the whole group or the whole world. You’re already here delivering the awkward news, so use your “I” statements and own the problem.
Appendix: I’m not a dancer but as a teacher and a manager and a dater and a person with a body, this has been my approach Private Conversations About Smells (And Other Body Awkwardnesses).
Case Studies #1-???: Conversations With Stinky College Students
Odor/hygiene problems are almost always co-morbid with the student falling behind academically, so that’s usually my angle.:
Me: “You’ve been missing a lot of class/You didn’t turn in your last assignment. What’s going on?”
If The Stink has crossed to a Truly Problematic place, then I add: “Also, is really awkward and I hate to put you on the spot like this, but I’ve noticed that you don’t seem like your usual self in class lately – you don’t smell good/your clothes aren’t clean – is everything all right?”
As you can imagine I find out all kinds of stuff, from “I live in a homeless shelter” to “I don’t know how to do laundry and I’m too embarrassed to ask” to “Showering wastes crucial earth resources and deodorant is just a conspiracy from Big Pharma to make us CONFORM!” … to depression, grief, sexual assault, and other really hard stuff, so I never, never assume what the problem is.
- Obviously, deadline re-negotiation and referrals to many campus resources for the hard stuff.
- For the “Oh, Buddy” Freshmen: “Have you Googled ‘how do I do laundry?’ “No” “Maybe try that? Oh look, here’s a couple of tutorials” “Ok!” “Cool, I don’t want to smell you next week.” “LOL, you got it.”
- For the “I’m stinky FOR THE EARTH, DEAL WITH MY RIGHTEOUS STENCH” student I’ve had luck with “I get that but if I can smell you from here it’s gotten out of hand for what’s okay in a small classroom or working on a film crew in close quarters. Can you research some environmentally-friendly solutions or schedule the weekly bath for right before my class? I’d sure appreciate it.”
Case Studies: SexyTimes Stink! 2000-present day
Brevity and directness are kindness:
- “I’d very much like to put my _____ on your _____ or your _____ in my _____ but I think you/I/we both need a shower first.“
- “Oof, it’s a little funky down here. Can we pick this up after a shower? Awesome.“
If you’re close enough to someone that you’re going to put your ______ on their ______, then you’re close enough to say “Bodies are gross sometimes, let’s agree to take mitigating measures.”
Case Studies In Which I Was A Manager Of Someone With Awkward Hygiene Stuff
“Hey, this is awkward and I hate to put you on the spot, but [you don’t smell good][you aren’t wearing clean clothes to work][you’re probably not aware but when you lean over in that top your whole chest area and bra can be seen (true story!)][that white shirt is see-through please wear an undershirt][there is some other specific thing about your hygiene or physical aspect that is giving me cause for concern].”
“Have you noticed that, too? That’s not like you at all, so…[Is there anything going on we should know about][Have you had a medical checkup lately][Visited a dentist to talk about that?][Do you need a couple of days off to catch up on Life Stuff like laundry?][Need to make a Target run for something that doesn’t have holes in it before our client meeting?]”
As with students, people who had difficult life reasons got referred to whatever resources could be had, and everyone got a “Hey, this is informal right now – I just wanted to check in with you and talk about it before it becomes a real issue. Please [do the stuff we talked about][take a few days to get it together][take another look at the dress code and let me know if something is unclear or seems impossible] and it will go back to being a non-issue.”
By way of contrast, here’s a story about what not to do about The Stinky Guy:
Case Study: The Saga of The Smelly Hippie Guy I Shared An Office With For A Year In The Late 1990s Before I Had Therapy/When I Was Still Terrified Of Conflict
Me: :Agonizes for months about whether to say anything:
Him: :continues to stink:
Me: :Complains about him to everyone who would listen…except him.:
Him: :keeps it funky:
Me: :Tries to get my office moved: :Have a choice of sticking with stinky-but-quiet guy or sharing with a lady I hate who never stops talking:
Me: :polls my work friends at length re: The Noise or the Funk?:
Me: (sigh) :inertia + Funk:
Him: :wavy stink lines come off him sometimes:
Me: :executes a complex series of trades with everyone in the office until I am his Secret Santa:
Me: :gives THE GIFT OF TINY FANCY MAN-SOAP & DEODORANT: (We travel a lot for our work so this can be played off as “I got you some awesome travel supplies!”)
Him: “Sweet! Thanks! Hahaha! Are you saying I stink?”
Me: “Hahahaha no. No. Hahahaha. No. Why would you think that?
Him: “Right on!” :gift disappears into desk drawer:
Also Him: :rocks on with his funky self:
Me: :Periodically checks his desk drawer to see if the soap package has been opened or moved:
(It hasn’t moved)
(It never moves)
Him: “I’m going to start biking to work, is it cool with you if I have my bike in here?”
Me: :buys a scented candle and moves it slowly closer to him each day when I burn it:
Office Manager: All Staff Email: “Reminder: No candles or open flames in the office.”
Me: :buys a carved wooden incense burner and some incense from a street vendor down the block. For some reason tell him that I got it on an international trip:
Him: “I like this incense you brought back!”
Office Manager: All Staff Email: “No incense, either! No fire at all!”
Me: :sprays Glade:
Him: “Ugh, could you not spray that stuff? It’s full of chemicals.”
Him: “Yeah, and also I just can’t stand the way it smells.”
Another month goes by. It’s my turn to take over our department’s “Word of the Week” email. It’s a fun game so I’ll describe it for any office workers reading: Junior staff would secretly take turns picking an unusual word and gaining bragging points by using the word as much as possible in meetings and office communications throughout the week. Points were awarded based on sophistication and correctness of usage, frequency of use (more points for being the seventh person who says “I think we’ve crossed…the Rubicon… here” in the same meeting than for being the first), whether we could say it without laughing, whether we could make the one Cool Boss who has caught on to the game laugh or (better yet!) use it, and (best of all) whether we could make the expression catch on widely among senior staff.
My words that month: noisome, malodorous, putrescent, fetid.
Him: :adopts some kind of all-rotten egg, all-compost lunch routine:
Also him: :keeps on reekin’ on:
Another month goes by. It’s almost a year to the day that we started sharing an office. In summer. In Washington, D.C. aka SWAMPY MCHUMIDPLACE.
Me: :Walks into our office and gags because it smelled like old socks have been dipped in ball sweat, wrapped around road kill, and slow-roasted over a dung fire:
Me: “DUDE, it’scoolthatyoulikebikingtoworkandeverything but it is getting RANK in here. THERE ARE SHOWERS ON THE TOP FLOOR OF THE BUILDING, PLEASE USE THEM!!!! Or bring a change of clothes with you. OR SOMETHING.”
Me: (small voice) “I’msorryIdidn’tmeantoyell”
Me: (small voice) “But you stink.”
Him: :smells his own pits: “Wow yeah I am kinda stinky today. Sorry.”
Me: (almost a whisper) “Not just today.”
Him: “There are showers?”
Me: “Yeah! Top floor.”
Him: “Is there a code or a lock or anything I need to know about?”
Him: “Sweet! I’ll bring a towel with me tomorrow.”
Me: “And…every day?”
Him: “And every day.”
Him: “No worries! I hope this wasn’t bothering you all this time?!?”
Me: “Hahahaha…no, of course not. All good. Just…clean yourself.”
Him: “Got it.”
(I had checked 2 days ago)
Him: “GOT it.”
Me: “OkI’mgoingtolunchnow…bye…can I bring you anything back…”
Him: “All good…”
Him: “Seriously, Jen, it’s all good.
Me: :goes to lunch, brings him back a cookie and a brownie and a coffee:
And lo, he did take regular showers, and behold, a bike makes a pretty good good rack for holding a damp towel, and indeed, when his towel started to get funky I said “Hey time to wash that towel, yeah?” and he smelled it and said “Good grief, yes, I’m sorry!” and we never spoke of it again.
Letter Writer, your conversation with this dancing guy is going to be easier than that, right? Right.