It's not you, it's your... er, B.O.
April 29, 2015 7:00 AM   Subscribe

My friend has a problem that might be impeding his social life. I'd like to know how to speak to him about it.

My good friend of 9 years is a really great guy. He's kind, funny and generally a very likeable person. But he also has really, really bad body odour. To my memory, he's had this problem ever since I knew him. Personally, it doesn't bother me because he's a great friend and I enjoy hanging out with him. But other people have mentioned it to me and I think it is also the reason why he can't get a serious girlfriend. He's 28 and has never been in a serious relationship. He has been on dates but they never developed into anything. He has an online dating profile and goes on dates with people he meets on there, but again, they don't progress.

We were good friends in uni and back then I thought his inability to get a girlfriend was because he wan't serious in finding one. He recently moved to my city so I have been bringing him to social events among my group of friends for him to meet new people. They seem to hit it off, but when he's not around, my friends have said things like "He's a great guy, but man does he stink!" or "Oh, that guy with the stench" (exact term, no kidding). I feel uncomfortable being spoken to that way about my friend so I always shut these conversations down.

But my heart goes out for him, especially when he tells me about how yet again these dates that he goes on led to nothing. He tries to remain positive and optimistic about it, but I know how it must be eating at him from inside, facing one rejection after another.

Problem is, I'm not sure he knows about his BO problem. He has never indicated as such. Maybe it's like bad breath? I know I don't realise it when I have bad breath till someone mentions it to me (usually my boyfriend). I know he showers daily but I'm not sure if he uses a deodorant. He doesn't smoke. While this issue doesn't bother me personally, I think it could be impacting his social and love life (or lack thereof). So I wanna bring it up with him in the nicest way possible.

How do I do that? I'd appreciate a script where I can say it in the least offending and embarrassing way possible. I've thought about gifting him a shower set including a deodorant, but I'd like a more direct approach for fear of him not taking the hint. Or should I even bring it up at all? I want to, for his sake.

If it's worth knowing, I'm female of around the same age.

Thank you for any and all suggestions.
posted by milque to Human Relations (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Has he asked for your advice about this? I don't think it's necessarily your place to tell him things that he could "improve" about himself (if he even can...smells can be caused by all sorts of things beyond lack of deodorant) unless he's seeking your opinion.
posted by xingcat at 7:02 AM on April 29, 2015

Oooh difficult one! I would vote for telling him and go in with something direct but loving (definitely don't give him a shower set gift!!!)

"You know Good Friend, I need to have a quick discussion with you about something. It's going to be an uncomfortable conversation for both of us, but before I start, I want you to know that this comes from a place of deep love and I hope you'll agree I'm saying this for your own sake and if you don't want to discuss it further, that's absolutely fine too and we can forget I even brought it up......."

And then go on to be completely honest with him... although, don't mention the word "stench" obviously. Use compassion and empathy - take cues from him, offer to help figure things out - the good news is there are ways of combatting this...

Good luck - despite some people saying this might not be your place to tell him, I disagree and think whatever choice you make is for his own good!
posted by JenThePro at 7:09 AM on April 29, 2015 [7 favorites]

This is almost an exact scene from Freaks and Geeks.

I disagree with xingcat. You're his good friend of nine years, I think it's ok to make it "your place" to care about him.

In my experience, stinky people fall into two classes:
1) People who are glandularly stinky, who drew a short stick in the stink department genetically, and are going to stink no matter what.
2) People who stink because they don't know how to not stink. This runs the gamut from people who simply don't wear deodorant, to people who don't bathe regularly, to people who bathe every day but don't use soap or scrub themselves (i.e. just stand under the water for a bit).

If your friend is a class 1 stinky person, then he knows he smells and he knows that you've been his friend for 9 years despite it and don't care, personally, that he smells. Bringing it up will be a small moment of extreme awkwardness, but it will pass.

If your friend is a class 2 stinky person, bringing it up will be doing his life a huge, tremendous favor. Socially, professionally, everything. If he smells bad because of a fundamental ignorance of some basic hygiene skills, changing a few things in his daily routine could really improve his life.

People talk about him behind his back. He's differentiated in groups as the guy with the stench. He's your friend. If you can help him not be the stinky guy, please do.
posted by phunniemee at 7:11 AM on April 29, 2015 [60 favorites]

If it's bad enough that everyone's talking about it, and he's never mentioned it himself (like one might if it were a symptom of a disease that nothing could be done about), I think you really do have to tell him.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 7:16 AM on April 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think phunniemee has it... if he already knows he stinks and hasn't been able to do anything about it, this will be an awkward conversation, but if you guys are good friends hopefully you can get past it.

If he doesn't know he stinks, one big thing to encourage him to do is to wash his clothes regularly. I have noticed that with many stinky people, it's actually that their clothes are stinky. They might only be a little bit stinkier than average, but they don't launder their clothes enough and the clothes get full of stink.

Also! If you can determine that his clothes are a big part of the stink (get a sniff at his hoodie while he's not in it?), you can approach it as a laundry problem rather than a personal hygiene problem, which is at least a little less awkward, I think.
posted by mskyle at 7:16 AM on April 29, 2015 [10 favorites]

You said he showers daily, but does he launder his clothing regularly?
posted by mdrew at 7:23 AM on April 29, 2015 [11 favorites]

Ask him if he wants dating/relationship advice from a female's perspective. If he says yes, explain to him that women have a better sense of smell than men, and he may be off putting. Offer to help him find the solution. If it is something simple like not wearing deodorant or unclean clothes, suggest that he sees and allergist or a chiropractor to help with his own sense of smell (I once dated a man who couldn't smell a thing until after his first trip to the chiropractor), and take the man shopping for products.

It could be caused by his diet or something else so he may need to see a doctor. My ex-husband had a really nasty smell all the time. His skin reacted to the black dye in the cheap socks and pants that he preferred to wear. That, combined with an untreated foot fungus and a diet rich in yeast, well, let's just say I don't miss him a bit.
posted by myselfasme at 7:37 AM on April 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yes to phunniemee's advice.

Also, seconding the laundry thing. My brother had a smelly friend in high school. It was his clothes. Pretty sure it was one of those clothes got washed and left in the machine for way too long before drying things. Funky, musty smell.
posted by carrioncomfort at 7:46 AM on April 29, 2015

Recently, I worked with a young man who was adorable from 10 feet away, but became less attractive with each step closer. All the young crew members liked him, but giggled among themselves about him. One day, I walked to the store for lunch with him and told him that something was off--he smelled funky. He was mortified, but then, we went into the CVS and he bought shower stuff, deodorant, toothpaste ( he'd been using baking soda) and soap. It was a bit awkward, but he smelled better after that.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:14 AM on April 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Nthing tell him, no matter how awkward that may be. Be straight up and say what you mean. Gifting him deodorant or soap might not get the message across.

Seriously, my mom took me aside when I was probably 12 or 13 and said "You smell like BO. You need deodorant. I will get you some." I had no idea and was kinda mortified but I would have been a lot more mortified if she had said nothing and let me be the smelly kid.
posted by futureisunwritten at 8:33 AM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

I would just do it, start the conversation and hope for the best.
"Hey, I know that a lot of times it's a medical thing, so I hesitate to bring it up, you can tell me to get lost, but did you know that you smell kind of funky?" Then he'll either be all "yeah, doctor says there's nothing I can do" or he'll say "gosh really? what do I do?" or he'll get all defensive. Be prepared to try to distinguish between clothes, body, and mouth. Be prepared to suggest products (i.e. "but aluminum-based antiperspirants aren't safe and healthy!" --> do you at least use one of those salt rocks that barely works but is better than nothing?). Contemplate the question of whether cologne+BO smells better than BO alone, and whether the obvious use of product indicating that he's at least trying sends a better message.
posted by aimedwander at 8:39 AM on April 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

Absolutely, tell him. You can bring it up next time he mentions his problem with finding a girlfriend.

Getting rid of mildew smells will not happen by washing them normally, if that is a problem.
posted by jeather at 8:41 AM on April 29, 2015

I think it'd actually be better to avoid making it sound like this is a huge thing you've hesitated to bring up for nine years - apologizing for the awkwardness in advance, telling him how much you love him, explaining that this might be the reason he can't get into a relationship, etc.

The next time you see him, just be friendly and kinda jokey and be all, "Hey, friend, you smell a little ripe. You going to do something about that?" And see how he responds. Maybe he'll rush off to put on deodorant and change his shirt; maybe he'll act shocked and embarrassed and say, "Seriously, I didn't notice. Is it that bad?" And you can say, "Yeah, actually, it's pretty striking. You might want to change deoderants or something." Then, the next time you see him, if he's still smelly, you can be all, "Listen, I hate to keep harping on it, but that smell is still kind of clinging to you - maybe it's a laundry thing?" And then, if he still smells after that, go with God because you have done your best. The end.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:49 AM on April 29, 2015 [9 favorites]

I think when it is a long-time friend, you can say, "Can I talk to you about something you didn't ask for me to butt in to and is going to make you feel bad temporarily, but my goal is to ultimately make you feel better?" If one of my friends came to me that way, I'd be horrified in advance but I could at least brace for it.

On either side of that situation, I'd rather that than "why didn't you ever help me, if you knew this?"

And I would avoid saying "you have BO" because you don't know that that's the case. There's a smell, it needs to be identified and dealt with, that's what you know.

You don't say if you're at all familiar with his living environment, but if you ever go into his residence you can probably guess the likelihood that this is a housekeeping problem rather than a bathing problem. You say this has been going on as long as you've known him, are his clothes well-kept? Does he seem like a throw-it-on-the-floor-until-needed-again type? Does his home smell? (Does he wash his sheets? You may have to ask because my foggy recollection of Twentysomething men was that even if they were very proactive about washing clothes, there seemed to be some sort of mental block about hauling sheets down to the laundromat.)

I have found, in a couple of cases where I had to intervene in a housekeeping situation for a friend, it was easiest to be very matter-of-fact about it. Don't go in mewling with pity, just sensitivity and an attitude that, whatever the problem is, let's commence with dealing with it and then we'll never speak of it again and it'll be all over.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:52 AM on April 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

Hey there! This is a great question, and it's an issue I'm often on the receiving end of.

Context: my partner and I are both hairy, sweaty dudes. Neither of us wear antiperspirant (ever) or deodorant (unless during work travel). We do this because... well, a number of reasons, but in a nutshell: we like how each other smells, we dislike the overuse of cosmetic fragrances (e.g. everything from deodorant to lotion smelling like Axe pumpkin spice fabric softener, not talking about a little splash of a good cologne), and we live and socialize in a context where this is totally normalized (gay bears in San Francisco). This isn't related to hygiene, which can be impeccable without trying to change the way your body smells.

This means that we're both asked/told about our b.o. on a pretty regular basis by family and especially straight friends, especially in the summer. We get it and that's totally cool--there's no reason for us to expect that deviating from someone's norm will be clearly intentional, so we know that people will ask questions or provide friendly, unsolicited advice. If someone asks cautiously, or politely, or without judgment, it's very easy to respond with the context I wrote above and to do so while genuinely smiling in gratitude. Because I appreciate it! If someone is willing to very nicely tread on eggshells to make sure I know something about myself that is socially taboo to discuss but I might not know about, that is a sign of real care and intention.

For the flipside--people who just flat out complain that I stink and should smell different for them--well darlin', I can be just as much of an asshole with my response as you can be with your expectations.

And that's really all there is to it! Do feel free to ask your friend about it (don't tell him about it, ask him if he's aware of it), with as much deference to his feelings as possible. If it gets awkward, try to help laugh off the tension--you can even tell him that you asked your intentionally-smelly gay friends about this--and then reassure him by saying you'll never talk about it again unless he's ok with it, since you already are.

You're a good friend for wondering how to do this right.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:02 AM on April 29, 2015 [18 favorites]

What is the odor, exactly? Is it the underarm-emanating funk smell of someone who doesn't wear underarm deodorant? Is it the built-up, underarm-funk plus total-body smell of someone who doesn't bathe (though you say he bathes daily...)? Is it the festering wound smell of an ill person? If you could narrow this down--in other words, where is the guy on the scale of poor hygiene to intentionally smelly to can't-help-it--it might help in how you approach it or whether you decide to broach the subject at all. It could be a medical condition, too.
posted by resurrexit at 9:18 AM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Two different smelly guys I knew:

One informed me, as a fun fact about himself, that he had no body odor. I cannot imagine where he got that idea, but I just told him he was mistaken. This guy didn't shower or wash his clothes, and I'm pretty sure he didn't brush his teeth or wipe himself very well. But the core problem was that he had become so acclimated to his smell that he was completely oblivious to it.

The other one, otherwise generally a clean guy, was under the impression that pants should never be washed. He had literally never washed the jeans he wore every day for years. In a separate talk, I explained to him the purpose of bedsheets. He had been sleeping on a bare mattress ever since he moved out of his parents' house. The dynamic going on there was that the women in his family were all obsessive clean freaks, and I think being waited on by the women had left the men kind of clueless and oblivious, so these educated adult humans were in need of some very basic information.

The point being that, if it isn't a medical condition, it's entirely possible that he is either oblivious to his own smells or that he is lacking some basic hygiene knowledge. Lifehacker just recently did a quick overview of basic hygiene skills that, as a bonus, sort of normalizes the issue. Apparently, it's a subject that a lot of people feel they have insufficient knowledge of. (And I would add that a lot of people are not good at wiping thoroughly.)

I don't feel like I can really advise on how to bring the topic up gently because the times I've had that talk, it came up naturally, although I agree that you probably should, and I like the advice others have given. If this is just something he is ignorant about in some way, letting him know without shaming him, and helping him figure out how to deal with it could be one of the kindest things you could do. His life is clearly affected by it whether he knows it or not.
posted by ernielundquist at 12:36 PM on April 29, 2015

The Manager Tools guys had a podcast about this a while back. Although it's geared towards a manager having this discussion with a employee, you could probably adapt it for your situation.
posted by Ostara at 12:52 PM on April 29, 2015

I have a close friend I have known since childhood (so literally decades) who often smells strongly, expecially in warm weather, partly due to lack of personal hygiene and partly from poorly washed / dried laundry. He knows about it, and also that it is a problem to some of his friends (including his current girlfriend). Yet he says it is the way he likes it to be and that he is not bothered by his own smell. Because we are such close friends, I have over the years been asked by otehrs to tell him he stinks... I never do and this the reason why: he associates having his strong and to many people unpleasant smell accepted with being accepted as who he is as a person. He is very sensitive to any comments re his strong smell/odor. I share this as a caution - I can totally see where you are coming from and as you know him for so many years you probably will find the right way but I would think it through before speaking to him about it.
Maybe at first just chat generally about BO (if it is not to contrived) and find out how he feels about it? Is he bothered by other people's BO? Do you know?

As others have written, it may also simply a problem of laundry - does he do his own? Does he know how? I am continously amazed by the number of (male) friends who do not realise how smelly freshly washed laundry becomes when you do not hang it up to dry (I live in Europe) but let sit in the machine wet for days before drying. This produces a cat piss-like smell.

Another good friend I had, since passed away, had a very foul rotting smell hanging about him, which he constantly denied having, and finally it turned out he actually had a festering skin cancer which he was trying to hide. He eventually died of it.

For a while i shared a flat with both of them, an interesting experience. It resulted in a supervisor speaking to me about smelling in the office ( in a very nice but also direct way), this was when i realised I needed to move, much as I liked them both.

So I would start by finding out his attitude towards smells on other people before addressing his smell.
posted by 15L06 at 1:05 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

I read a comment here recently from someone who said that due to an abusive upbringing they were not taught proper hygiene (and then as part of the abuse they were later scolded for their uncleanliness). So I agree, tread lightly because it could be a source of shame just as much as it could be obliviousness.

Also agree with the advice above to try to narrow down the origin of the odor before beginning the conversation, if you can (in almost all cases I've dealt with this its been a laundry issue - nothing worse than a sweaty guy at the gym trying to chat you up while his mustiness is wafting over you - it just made me want to scream "wash your gym shorts, please!").

You are a good friend and a good person for considering bringing up this topic with your friend. Please check back in and let us know how it turns out.
posted by vignettist at 2:44 PM on April 29, 2015

There are anonymous notification systems for this. Sounds like your friend is out and about enough (online dating, etc.), that he won't necessarily tie the notice to you, so no awkward moments need be had.
posted by apparently at 5:20 PM on April 29, 2015

I don't drink and I hate alcohol, so normally this would be the last thing I'd advise, but this sounds like the sort of conversation that would go a lot easier after a few drinks. Not so many drinks that he won't remember the conversation, but just enough that you'll both be able to laugh about it and talk candidly. I mean, this is such a silly little problem, and someone just needs to tell him about it, yet it's so hard to talk about. The relaxed, a-little-too-honest attitude you get after a couple drinks would make this a lot easier.

Obviously you wouldn't do this if either of you have issues with alcohol.
posted by sam_harms at 7:33 PM on April 29, 2015

You should tell him - it will almost certainly be difficult for him to hear, but you can be sensitive about it. I have a similar experience where I was in your friend's place that may help.

A couple of months ago, a guy I had just started dating told me I had bad breath. I was mortified, but I think we both handled it with grace. His approach was:
- he told me he had something difficult to discuss
- he asked if I had any health issues that might cause bad breath, because mine was bad and he was worried about me
- he emphasised that he was sorry to say this to me but he thought he owed it to me
- he then asked me whether I was angry with him (I wasn't - embarrassed and a bit upset, yes, but not angry)
- and then he dropped the subject

I think this was a good approach - it was direct but kind, and the "health" angle allowed me to save face in the moment without feeling patronising. (At the time I don't think either of us actually believed it was a health issue, but it actually did turn out to be the cause, so it was also a very helpful thing for him to do for me. We are still together. I still get flair-ups and when I do, he just says, "the breath is coming back" and I go deal with it and things are fine).

If you can try a similar approach, it might work. Please do your friend this favour. I hate to think I was going around grossing people out for however long before someone told me.
posted by cloverthistle at 1:27 AM on April 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

According to phunniemee's classification system, my cousin was a type 2 stinky person. He is in his 40s and until very recently, he genuinely did not know that he was smelly. He didn't know he needed to take more baths. His mother (RIP Auntie D) didn't tell him about this and generally let her kids do what they wanted. They were like the ones in ernielundquist's example.

My husband is like this with cleanliness and housework. He genuinely does not see a problem with not washing sheets for months, thinks that using a spray to clean counters is strange and might cause food poisoning, and sometimes I have to ask him to bathe.

Please tell him this -- in the most gentle way possible. He may also have problems with cleanliness at his home.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 1:29 AM on April 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I like cloverthistle's solution. After all, if he has tried to get rid of the smell and not been able to, he might need to see a doctor. If he's clueless, this is a good nudge, and you can help him with "is it bodily odor, laundry, house that smells bad, etc." Some people just have a terrible sense of smell for themselves and for others. The husband is like this; our kid can be reeking and he doesn't notice. On the other hand, he showers anytime he's been sweating on the assumption that he stinks, whether he smells it or not.

If it's medical and not-fixable, well, he knows you'll still be his friend and so it's mildly embarrassing but not a huge problem, hopefully.
posted by emjaybee at 8:54 AM on May 1, 2015

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