Banana? Yogurt? Bagel?
November 9, 2007 5:41 PM   Subscribe

Should I confront my coworker about his smelly food?

There's a guy at work who cooks up maple-and-brown-sugar oatmeal and brings it to his cube every morning. It's pungent, but only for about 5-10 minutes. It kinda drives me nuts, but it seems like a relatively petty thing to complain about.

Is this worth being assertive about? Any suggestions about how to go about it? When I imagine myself being "assertive", I only hear anger.

Thanks for your advice!
posted by mpls2 to Human Relations (32 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Yes. Confront but nicely. Do it right away, before you get angry. You hear anger from yourself because you've let it fester for too long within you.
posted by randomstriker at 5:44 PM on November 9, 2007

Best answer: schedule your "cigarette" break for the same time, a five minute nuisance is not really worth it.
posted by kanemano at 5:46 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


If it were something widely acclaimed as stinky (girl who microwaved her tuna melt with provolone right next to my desk the other day I'm looking at YOU!), then maybe it would be fine to say something, but something as relatively innocuous as maple-and-brown-sugar oatmeal?


Despite the fact that you have every right to say something if it bothers you, and despite the fact that it's NOT petty and anal to complain about something that genuinely bothers you, there is no way to complain about the smell of maple-and-brown-sugar oatmeal without coming off as petty and anal.
posted by dersins at 5:47 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, put some spaces between your tags.
posted by dersins at 5:48 PM on November 9, 2007

As someone who shares a work-floor with people who love stinky food (stop burning the fucking microwave popcorn, damn it!) I commiserate.

But I kinda agree with kanemano as well, if it's just once, for 10 minutes a day, and it's at a consistent time?

I'd just go elsewhere for a bit.
posted by quin at 5:50 PM on November 9, 2007

What Dersins said. If this were tuna or something else genuinely smelly, then a tactful word would be appropriate. But maple-and-brown-sugar oatmeal? A lot of people would think that smells yummy.

Use this time to take an extended bathroom break, walk around the block, meet with someone in another department, in general get away from your desk.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:52 PM on November 9, 2007

I'm with dersins. As it's something that's not normally considered pungent, if you complain and then he mentions something to other coworkers, you're probably going to look silly.

Honestly, I'd enjoy the smell of maple & brown sugar in the morning. If it really bothers you that much, find somewhere else to be for 5 minutes.
posted by Nelsormensch at 5:53 PM on November 9, 2007

Can you cook/heat up something else that has a smell (taste) you'll enjoy? Someone here heats some kind of meaty soup in our microwave, and if I don't get something to eat myself it makes me quite cross. Canned soup makers must add a special scent ingredient, just to get attention, and maybe oatmeal makers do the same.
posted by anadem at 5:59 PM on November 9, 2007

Yeah if you complain about it now he's just going to bring in fish curry tomorrow for lunch. Use that time to grab a coffee or a tea. The other option is, if this person is eating at their desk, perhaps say something to some sort of central manager-type person so they can put around an office memo not to eat at your desk.
posted by SassHat at 6:08 PM on November 9, 2007

"Confront" seems a little strong in this case, since I would agree with the above comments that this isn't a smell everyone could reasonably expect would be irritating to coworkers. Jumping straight to confrontation or anger would seem excessive.

But I don't think you'd be out of line at all to say something. Maybe "Hey, I'm really sensitive to that smell - could you give me a heads-up when you're getting ready to make breakfast, so I can go grab a cup of coffee?" Or if there's a food area where they could eat, it wouldn't be unreasonable to ask them to eat it there. Something in the way of a compromise.
posted by Stacey at 6:13 PM on November 9, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for your advice so far.

To the point of the particular odor... lullabies are nice and pleasant, but probably not if you had to hear the same one every morning for 5-10 minutes.
posted by mpls2 at 6:15 PM on November 9, 2007

Best answer: You will, by allowing yourself to be annoyed by passing aromas, tasteless ring tones, loud phone voices, talk radio, ugly sweaters, cretinous political opinions, weird and reverberating laughs, ill-timed sneezing, enthusiastic sports fandom, the things that people do with their jaws and knuckles, chewing, e-mail forwards, Christianity, insincerity, and unwavering cheerfulness, slowly drive yourself insane and make yourself unsuitable for employment anywhere less secluded than a hut in the Yukon. You may also grow a hump in your back and break out in hives and die an early death. Don't do this to yourself. Besides: something completely minor and largely inoffensive about you bothers your coworkers so badly that they're seriously considering taking out a contract on your life.

Save the confrontations for uncontrolled flatulence, inhumanity to animals or children, or curry.
posted by dyoneo at 6:19 PM on November 9, 2007 [68 favorites]

You really can't complain about this without coming off as a wee bit nutty. I say take your bathroom/coffee break, or eat something that smells good to you (citrus fruits have a strong smell that might mask the scent).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:20 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ha, I have maple and brown sugar oatmeal in the morning and my coworkers love the smell. I'd probably be really annoyed if someone told me to stop eating it, but that's because we work in an open plan office and there would be nowhere to go to eat it. Is there somewhere else he could go?
posted by sweetkid at 6:23 PM on November 9, 2007

I work with many folks from all around the world and have been exposed to odors that would make the dead weep. I time my lunch kitchen visits appropriately to avoid the guy who microwaves a fish head at least once a week and the two women who eat McDonald's every single day, as the smell of both makes me gagalicious. We all have our sensitivities. I was once reprimanded for bringing (and attempting to eat) a Durian fruit to work (it was on sale and I was curious!).

Dyoneo has some brilliant advice up there. Don't be that person.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 6:30 PM on November 9, 2007

Durian? Man, that's hardcore.

Burn a scented candle for ten minutes every day. Guess which ten minutes.
posted by konolia at 6:41 PM on November 9, 2007

You're lucky. At my last job the guy that sat next to me ate and entire onion like an apple for his morning snack. For the afternoon it was sardines and mustard on crackers. I would have paid someone to sit by me with some mapley goodness.
posted by sanka at 6:50 PM on November 9, 2007

I adore onions on my salad, but I know my co-workers don't. So I got a little Oust fan that really masks the scent of my onions (now they come to my office and tell me how good is smells). Perhaps you could get a similar thing for your cubicle. The fan I got lets you turn it on whenever you want, so you could run it for ten minutes and then shut it off for the rest of the day. That would be easier than a confrontation over oatmeal.
posted by christinetheslp at 7:20 PM on November 9, 2007

Yeah, buy some Oust. Spritz some every day when he makes the oatmeal.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:26 PM on November 9, 2007

I would happily trade you your oatmeal noshing co-worker for my office full of folks who regularly microwave tupperware containers full of items such as fish sauce steeped shrimp and ground beef casseroles at irregular intervals throughout the day.

When it gets really bad, I swab lavender essential oil under my nose.
posted by pluckysparrow at 7:35 PM on November 9, 2007

If you can bare it, good, if you can't, try leaving an anonymous note on his desk:

I'm not writing to insult you or anything, although I might invariably end up doing that (but that's not your fault; I'm just weird like that), but could you not bring food which smells so much to work.

(On second thought: don't leave him the message; it's a bad idea. Just bare it.)
posted by hadjiboy at 9:21 PM on November 9, 2007

During the entirety of my pregnancy, I had a co-worker who ate fried rice every Thursday and microwaved the leftovers on Friday. The protein-y smell of rubbery reheated eggs permeated the office for hours and hours. I wanted to cry. Maple and brown sugar would have been a godsend.
posted by peep at 10:10 PM on November 9, 2007

People need to learn to eat their breakfasts at home before, you know, coming to work? I'm not paying people to be eating their shit on my dime.

I work in an office that has a kitchen with places to sit down. One of our co-workers had an affinity for fish and insisted on eating it at her desk while it wafted through the 10 cubicles around her. It smelled like a corpse had crawled in the ceiling tiles and died there. I told her to "take that shit to the kitchen where it belongs." It's fucking nasty.

Now in your case, do you have a kitchen area? I think you have every right to request that this person eat their breakfast there (although I can't fathom why maple and brown sugar smell bad). If they say "no, I'd let it be and suck it up. However, if it smell like a diaper filled with a burning tire, I'd, pardon the pun, make a stink about it.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 10:12 PM on November 9, 2007

People need to learn to eat their breakfasts at home before, you know, coming to work? I'm not paying people to be eating their shit on my dime...I told her to "take that shit to the kitchen where it belongs." It's fucking nasty.

I think it's safe to say that you can get away with that when you're the boss, as you appear to be in this situation, but that's hardly fair. Also, as a boss I hope you'll give some thought to the following statement: people who eat at their desks generally do so because they have responsibilities at work and home that prevent them from taking time for themselves to eat proper meals, not because they like getting paid to eat.
posted by davejay at 10:57 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Maybe I have high standards for human rights, but I figure that anywhere where I'm expected to spend 36% of my waking life is somewhere where I should be allowed to eat maple and brown sugar oatmeal and do other life-sustaining things.
posted by Skwirl at 12:00 AM on November 10, 2007

Just get over it - I take salads into work and they contain both spring onions and tuna...people don't seem to be bothered one way or the other...and yes, there is a kitchen but I don't have time to take a proper lunch break and stop working as the workload I am expected to get through won't permit this...
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:20 AM on November 10, 2007

I think I might be the only one who can relate to you, as sometimes the smell of maple oatmeal can drive me up the wall (actually worst is the artificial maple-nut flavor). I think some people's answers have reflected the fact that this smell is not as universally offensive as, say, curry, garlic, or fish. I personally would not find the last three upsetting (although you might).

In fact, in general I'm only disturbed by the smell of other foods to the extent that they make me hungry and want to try that food the other person is eating (the smellier, the better).

I don't really have a solution for you, but I just wanted to let you know you're not crazy for hating the smell of maple syrup oatmeal. Ignore the haters who make it seem like appropriate smells are absolute; they're only more common or less common. I remember a Chinese friend of mine who was genuinely weirded out that in America we mostly use ginger for sweets, rather than in cooking salty dishes. I think in some parts of Asia they also find the idea of dairy cheese to be pretty gross.

Anadem's advice is probably best -- choose a smell that you like, and eat it at the same time. You should probably experiment. There might be something that has, uh, negative smell wave forms, canceling out the oatmeal into, er...white smell?
posted by Deathalicious at 4:29 AM on November 10, 2007

If the most annoying thing that happens in your office is the smell of maple syrup and oatmeal for 5 minutes, then you have an office that's pretty low on the annoyance scale IMO. Count yourself lucky.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:39 AM on November 10, 2007

Just to validate your feelings, as they used to say....
I can't stand the smell of maple in any form. Somebody in my environment eats fast food pancakes every so often. I feel like gagging, but they apparently close the container before discarding it, so the smell only lasts a few minutes and I just bite the bullet. The one that really makes me crazy is the banana peel in the trash can that I get to smell for another 5 hours before I can leave.
If they did it every day, I'd get a plugin room freshener and spritz it once a day and go on.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 10:53 AM on November 10, 2007

But maple-and-brown-sugar oatmeal? A lot of people would think that smells yummy.

Yeah, really. But as the above post shows, some can't stand that smell. In fact, didn't I just read somewhere that peoples' reaction to odors divide them into three groups? The ones who're bothered a lot, bothered some, and only bothered a little? I've definitely known those in the first group, they're so vocal and militant: "Who farted?"

But when it comes to food at work, count me among those most revolted by the microwave popcorn smell.
posted by Rash at 2:11 PM on November 10, 2007

I eat most of my food at my desk and rarely go out. I imagine sometimes my food smells might bother other people. However, I have to regularly deal with people reheating grilled fish that smells awful (live in Japan) all the time so I don't feel bad when they need to deal with my food. I don't think oatmeal is the right food to pick a fight over, especially because you may be opening yourself up to revenge.
If they stop their oatmeal habit and suddenly find they can't stand your favorite food, what are you going to do? If you think your food doesn't stink are you going to stop eating it because they don't like it?
posted by m3thod4 at 1:18 AM on November 12, 2007

I dislike the smell of bananas, especially ripe bananas. And yes, I can smell the banana that my coworker eats 5 feet away. I can even smell the unopened banana he stores on his desk, because as it ripens, it gives off that banana-y odor. So no matter what people eat, they're going to bother someone. But when you live in a world with other people, you just have to deal with this stuff.

Oh, and please don't get an air freshener at work. In addition to smelling revolting, they aggrevate many people's allergies, so you'd be putting them in the same position you're in now ("how do I talk to my coworker about smelling up the place?") except that you'd actually be messing with someone's health and well being.
posted by decathecting at 10:40 AM on November 12, 2007

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