You need to handle conversations about body odor or bad breath with sensitivity and kindness.
In the long run, letting someone know they smell, and helping them overcome their odor, can benefit them. But that doesn’t mean it might not be an awkward conversation.
Use these 4 steps to help you navigate the conversation with compassion.
Why Should You Tell Someone They Smell?
You should tell someone they smell if you genuinely believe it is in their best interest. In many professional and personal settings, smelling bad can negatively impact someone’s opportunities for building relationships or networking.
The person may not realize they are struggling with smell or may be aware of it and not know how to improve their scent.
People respond differently to scents based on the memories they associate with them. Research shows that odor learning begins even before birth. Certain scents may not affect some people as much as they do others.
Follow These 4 Steps to Tell Someone They Smell
If you have a coworker, friend, or classmate struggling with body odor, use these steps to tell them directly and kindly.
#1 Find a private space
Scent can be a sensitive topic. Others may have also noticed this person’s smell. However, this conversation doesn’t need to be a group discussion. Find a quiet and private space to talk with them.
This will minimize the potential embarrassment of the person while emphasizing that you’re approaching them with their best interest in mind.
If you’re a team leader, you may ask them to come to your office. If you’re colleagues or friends, look for an opportunity when the two of you have some privacy.
Then, ask permission to share something. Here are some examples of what you could say:
- “Do you have a quick second to chat? I would love to talk to you about something a little uncomfortable.”
- “I’ve been hoping we’d get a private moment. May I share something with you that might be difficult?”
#2 Be direct and compassionate
Some people get anxious when someone asks them to talk. If you see them looking nervous, it’s important to let them know you’re not upset. Instead, you’re looking out for them and want to help them.
You can do this in your next sentence: “I really care about our working relationship and your success, and I’ve noticed that you have [an odor or bad breath].”
Or, if you’re telling a friend, you could tell them, “I care about you a lot and enjoy spending time with you. I have noticed that you recently had [an odor or bad breath] and wanted to take this chance to chat with you about it.”
While being this direct may feel nerve-wracking, it’s one of the best ways to show that it isn’t that big of a deal. Spending an extra 5 minutes beating around the bush may communicate that you think it’s embarrassing.
Pro Tip: Some people will feel uncomfortable being addressed directly, especially about a sensitive topic like smell. If you know the person well and think they would not like this approach, try sending them an email instead.
#3 Give a why
After telling your colleague they smell, let them know why you’re bringing it up. Affirm that it’s because you care about them.
“We work so closely together, and I don’t want this to impact you negatively or affect people wanting to work with you. I know this is awkward, but I wanted to let you know privately.”
If speaking with a friend, try saying, “I don’t want that to hinder you from making friends, dating, or finding your dream job. I want what’s best for you.”
Pro Tip: Our brains love compliments! Science shows that receiving a compliment activates the same part of the brain as getting a reward.
When possible, incorporate a genuine compliment as part of your why. For example, “I don’t want your bad breath to get in the way of your professional opportunities. I enjoy working with you and know others do as well.”
#4 Optional: Ask if they’d like help finding a solution
Shari Harley, a corporate speaker, has had this candid conversation about scent many times. She said that, surprisingly, most people suspect they have a bad odor problem but don’t know how to fix it.
If you feel comfortable, consider offering a suggestion. Before doing this, ask if it’s alright with them before giving advice.
Try asking, “I know there can be many reasons for [body odor or bad breath]. Do you know what might be going on, and are there any ways I can come alongside you and help you out?”
Only offer to help if you truly plan to do everything you can to help them. It could damage the relationship if you offer help but aren’t willing to follow through when they give a request.
If they don’t know what to do about their smell, here are a few questions to ask and possible solutions based on their answer:
How often do you wash your clothes?
- You can use my washing machine!
- We can research and find a laundromat near your place.
- Can I recommend my favorite laundry products?
What is your personal hygiene routine?
- Can I get you started with a basket of my favorite personal care items?
- I find taking a daily shower helps me stay smell fresh.
- I sweat a lot and find this deodorant works best for me.
How often do you brush your teeth?
- I have some gum in my desk drawer. Would you like a piece?
- Do you have a dentist you like? I like mine and would be happy to refer you.
- I like having a mint after a meal. My favorite is Altoids, but I know many people prefer Tic Tacs.
Remember: Wait to offer a solution until the person has told you what they think is the problem. For example, if they say, “I shower twice a week,” you could respond with, “I find taking a daily shower helps me stay smelling fresh.”
Also, some of these solutions, like offering your washing machine, may only be appropriate if you’re close to them.
3 Things Not To Do When Someone You Know Smells
Now that you have a general guideline for handling an awkward conversation about an odor with tact, here are a few things to avoid.
#1 Assume why
There are so many reasons someone may be struggling with smelling bad. There can be medical reasons, financial struggles, physical changes such as puberty, weight gain, or other reasons.
Regardless of the source of the problem, steer clear of assumptions. This can lead to being very hurtful and lead the person to be unwilling to listen to you.
#2 Engage in gossip
Gossip is when you talk negatively about someone without them knowing. If you gossip about the person, chances are, they’ll find out. At that point, it will be hard to convince them that you sincerely care for them.
If you hear other people gossiping about them and have the opportunity to, let them know in a direct but kind manner that you don’t think it’s appropriate. Try saying, “I don’t feel like this is a constructive or helpful conversation, and I don’t think we need to speak about our colleague behind their back.”
Don’t mention the gossipers when addressing your concerns. The individual you’re talking with will likely feel embarrassed about their scent already. They don’t need to feel like everyone is talking about them behind their back.
Pro Tip: In some workplace dynamics, it may be best to talk with your team leader before conversing with the smelly individual.
Find a time to speak with your boss in private. Mention your concerns and ask them how they would like to move forward.
#3 Avoid the individual
Although this conversation may feel quite daunting, it’s likely worth it in the long run. If you passively avoid the individual, they’ll probably notice. It could be hurtful if they think you’re avoiding them because you’re upset or dislike them.
It’s better to tackle the conversation head-on.
How to Tell Someone They Smell
Putting it all together, here is the script for exactly what to say if you want to tell someone they smell:
“Do you have a quick second to chat? I would love to talk to you about something a little uncomfortable. May I share something with you that might be a little difficult? I really care about our working relationship and your success, and I’ve noticed that you have an odor / bad breath. Since we work so closely together and are in person, I do not want this to impact you negatively or affect people wanting to work with you. I know this is really awkward, but I wanted to let you know privately.”
Here’s a workplace example to help you piece the steps together and have a constructive and kind conversation!
Charlie and Jake work together, but after lunch, Charlie has a hard time talking to Jake because his breath smells so bad. Charlie noticed other people avoid Jake and don’t want Jake’s workplace opportunities to be hindered. He decides to chat with Jake about it.
One morning, he finds a private moment on their way in from the parking lot. As they’re walking, Charlie says, “Hey Jake, I was hoping I’d get the chance to speak with you alone. Is it alright if I mention something to you? It’s a bit of an awkward topic.”
Jake looks confused (and a little stressed) but responds with, “Of course. What’s on your mind?”
“Well, I’ve noticed that after lunch, your breath often smells pretty strong. I wouldn’t bring it up, except that I consider you a friend, and figured I’d want to know if my breath was bad. I just don’t want it to hinder you from making friends in the office. I know you’re still relatively new here.”
Jake looks a bit embarrassed but replies, “Oh, thanks for letting me know. I appreciate you looking out for me. It must be what I’m eating for lunch. Maybe I can get into the habit of carrying gum or a mint.”
Charlie says, “Well, you’re more than welcome to have some of mine. I keep gum in one of my desk drawers at work. My wife tells me I have a strong morning breath.”
Notice how, from the beginning, Charlie’s goal is to be a good friend and let Jake know about his bad breath.
He doesn’t make it a bigger deal than it is by getting straight to the point. Instead, he’s able to have a conversation that shows he cares.
Bonus Tip: Do you somehow relate to the person you’re speaking with? Mention that! We’ve all had bad breath or smelled bad at some point. By relating to them, you normalize smell and can offer help from a place of shared experience.
Conversation Roadmap Recap
When you’re letting someone know they smell, remember to be direct while also being kind and compassionate. As hard as a conversation about odor or bad breath may be, you’re helping them out in the long run.
Keep these steps in mind to tell someone they’re struggling with odor:
- Talk one-on-one. Find a time to talk to the person alone. This will minimize the chances of them feeling embarrassed. Before jumping straight into it, mention that what you want to talk about may be difficult to hear or awkward.
- Get to the point. Once you’ve set the stage, be direct and tell them they’re struggling with body odor. In some instances, the person may have no idea, while in others, they may already know.
- Share that you care. This conversation is likely challenging for both of you. Clearly, you’re only bringing it up because you want the best for them.
- Offer to help. Remember, this step may not be appropriate in every instance. But if you have a strong relationship with the person, ask if they know why they are struggling with body odor and offer to help them.
If you need a boost of confidence as you head into this conversation, check out our article How to Believe in Yourself (and Succeed in Life!).