P.U. It's a little whiffy in here.
December 11, 2007 8:07 AM   Subscribe

I have a coworker with intermittent odor issues (cigarette smoke and stinky food) and am hoping for some new suggestions in dealing with them. Non-confrontational, passive methods preferred.

Background: She sits in the next cubical. Our walls are short, rising only about to our chins when seated, so we are all within view of each other (there are about 150 people on my floor). Her head is literally just 3' from mine. Now, I like this person very much and she does not have body odor or any other persistant smell. The problem is that she only stinks a few times a day. She loves popcorn, and sits in her cube munching but the wafting fetid "popcorn breath" is strong and nauseating. It's enough to peel wallpaper. She also loves stinky lunches, favoring raw onions and cruciferous noshings such as broccoli soup or saurkraut. She's a heavy smoker and when she returns from her breaks 2 or 3 times a day, the cigarette stink is strong, far reaching, and long lasting. Now don't get me wrong; I enjoy the occasional smelly lunch myself and I don't judge her for smoking. I just want to be able to get through the day without my poor nose being assaulted to the point of nausea and lightheadedness.

I have tried the Oust fan, and found that though it's effective, it's not an ongoing option. When coworker came back a-stinkin' I'd discreetly turn on the Oust fan & put it under my monitor pointed at my face. Though I don't care for the scent (it gives me a headache) it did work to blast away the stink, but caused its own problems.... namely the girl across the aisle apparently hated it; so much that she started turning her own large high-power fan directly at my cube and spraying perfume into it. That was obnoxious. But she stopped when I got rid of the Oust. The Oust has been Ousted. So now I'm back at square one. I do have a couple of plants in my cube. Does anyone have suggestions for things such as a gadget or another specific type of plant that would help? Not static air fresheners (the kind that just continually put out scent like the plug-ins, glade thingies, or potpourri pots), I don't think they'd do anything for the overpowering sudden-onset odors. I'd prefer something I can do just when she starts to stink... does anyone have experience with those electronic air purifiers? Any specific models I should check out? Are there any pleasant flowering easy-care plants that would suck up the smell (that are not a type of lily), maybe if I turned a fan on it now & then? I'm considering refilling the oil bottle for my Oust fan with a more friendly scent like vanilla or apple or somesuch but I'm also hoping for a fallback in case obnoxious perfume girl hates that too. Talking to the stinker, moving to another cube, or reporting her to leadership is not an option. I'd like to keep this as polite, private, and passive as possible so that my personal space alone is odor-cleansed without offending anyone else. I've already viewed these MeFi threads and didn't find much that was helpful. I appreciate any new thoughts!
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy to Grab Bag (36 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Why don't you talk to the girl with the fan and explain that your neighbor has theeeeeeee stinkiest lunches of all time, and is there any scent of the Oust fan that wouldn't bother her if you revved it up a couple of times a day?

Because you call her Obnoxious Perfume Girl, but you were actually Obnoxious Oust Cuddles since you sent YOUR scent spraying into HER cube. She's just better at fixing the problem than you are, so I bet she could offer up some tips or at least come up with a neutral scent for her that you can also use.
posted by headspace at 8:25 AM on December 11, 2007

(I mean, after all, she did get *you* to quit!)
posted by headspace at 8:25 AM on December 11, 2007

Yeah, I know, I was unwittingly the annoying one myself for a while there. :-) I guess I wasn't aware the Oust was that noticeable that far from from my cube, since I didn't keep the fan on all the time. In her defense, the default Oust scent is pretty awful. (Basically a more tolerable odor than the smoke/food stench.) Yesterday I was prepared to talk to the perfume girl just as you suggest to find out what scents she likes.... problem is getting her by herself. There's no privacy at all here and I don't want to embarrass either her, Stinker, or myself by making a Big Issue out of it. (Oh jeez, as I type this, the Stinker just came back with a bowl of steaming cauliflower. Ugh.)
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 8:33 AM on December 11, 2007

What about using some kind of subtle aromatherapy product that wouldn't be noticed by anyone else? I like Origins' Peace of Mind, the directions say to apply it to your temples/neck for stress relief but since it has a light pepperminty scent, it might work just as well if you applied a tiny dab under your nose. (I personally didn't find the "tingling" sensation they advertise to be all that noticeable, but YMMV).

Another option might be to store a jarred candle (the Yankee type) and just take off the lid when the stinkiness starts -- you shouldn't need to light it, just uncovering it should release some scent. I think this would only work if you kept it tightly closed whenever you aren't using it, though, so your nose doesn't get used to the scent. I've found that the apple varieties are pretty aromatic even when they aren't lit.
posted by justonegirl at 8:44 AM on December 11, 2007

My first thought was Yankee Candles. Don't laugh; they're quite good. I use one nearly every day to relieve the cat litter smell in our basement (we scoop every day but there are four cats and it can get dusty/stinky down there). It's best if you can go to a retailer to see which scent you like, but they're quite nice and not overpowering. I like the Granny Smith Apple and Lavender (I haven't been able to find that one in stores lately, though). There are different sizes that burn for different amounts of time and they don't smell "candle-y."
posted by cooker girl at 8:48 AM on December 11, 2007

You could see if management would be willing to distribute emails or flyers to every employee, discussing odor problems and how to avoid causing them
posted by Sufi at 8:51 AM on December 11, 2007

You could always take to wearing a nosegay to keep her smells away. You may even start a trend of reviving plague-era ephemera among the office staff with that. You never know.

Alternately, you might try getting your own high-powered fan, a la Obnoxious Perfume Girl, and crank it up only when your co-worker stinks (aimed at her, of course). You've said you would like to be as non-confrontational as you can, but being excessively stinky is an invasion of other's personal space, IMO, and I think your malodorous coworker needs to be made aware that this is an issue that she has a responsibility to deal with. It's rude to be that smelly.

Another option might be to aim your little Oust fan at the offending coworker when she sends the stink your way. You could load the fan with sweet-smelling things and put it on your left, aimed right, so that it blows across your face but at your coworker. Maybe get two for extra umpf.

Can you burn incense?
posted by Pecinpah at 8:52 AM on December 11, 2007

If it was the scent of the Oust fan that was bothering your coworker (and you), why not try a small desktop fan of the unscented variety to keep the odors away? Another option that might work, if your workplace allows it, is to burn a candle at your desk.
posted by kitty teeth at 8:52 AM on December 11, 2007

Can someone's bowl of cauliflower or popcorn actually cause you "nausea and light-headedness"? I suspect you're either exaggerating, you're naturally unneccesarily dramatic, or you're peeved about some other aspect of your life and just directing that frustration at your coworker.

These sorts of problems are what living in society is about and it's imperative to learn to cope or else you'll lose your shit completely and end up living in a hut in the woods, stockpiling weaponry. This woman isn't doing you any harm. Maybe something you're doing is driving her up the wall. I suggest you try to get over it like you hope others will get over it when they're annoyed by you. And don't kid yourself -- it's inevitable.
posted by loiseau at 8:52 AM on December 11, 2007 [4 favorites]

I like the dab-of-aromatherapy under the nose idea; I'll keep that in mind but am not sure how much of a long-term option that might be in case there might be skin reactions. I love scented candles (and have even used Yankee candles at home) but unfortunately we can't burn them in the office. Occasional sniffs of an unlit one might help, I suppose. It reminds of the Victorian ladies' practice of keeping a rosewater-soaked hanky in their glove for just such an occasion. I do recognize that this whole situation is a little silly. Cubicle Stinkwars! The politics of office odors are a complicated minefield to navigate.
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 8:56 AM on December 11, 2007

Thank you loiseau for the lecture. Not welcome, but I'm sure you felt justified. No, I don't think I'm being overdramatic, and yes, I am an adult, and yes, the smells are nauseating. And I am approaching this with a certain amount of levity. You aren't here, so don't judge. I'm just asking for suggestions on how to make the place I spend half of my waking life more comfortable without being an offender myself. To those who have provided actual advice; thank you, I really do appreciate you taking the time out to provide feedback.
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 9:00 AM on December 11, 2007

You could see if management would be willing to distribute emails or flyers to every employee, discussing odor problems and how to avoid causing them

Bad idea. Direct feedback by the person's manager is in order here. Gentle, but effective. Bottom, line, the smell is affecting your work so it's a company -- NOT just personal -- issue. Talk to your manager and tell him/her about the problem. Politely suggest some feedback. If your manager has any balls, they'll get it done and problem solved. If not, then start talking results, impact, bottom line and go above your manager if necessary.
posted by drinkcoffee at 9:03 AM on December 11, 2007

Oh, and loiseau?

this woman isn't doing you any harm

Wrong. Cuddles is at WORK and as a worker you have certain rights and responsibilities. One of those is the right to perform in an inoffensive environment. Also, the responsibility to get work done without distraction. Cuddles -- as an addendum to my last comment...go to HR if necessary.
posted by drinkcoffee at 9:07 AM on December 11, 2007

Thanks for the thoughts drinkcoffee: I'm a former HR person myself and normally that might be the suggestion I'd give someone else in a similar situation. I'd rather not go to management right now, though: The stinker and I both report to the same person, and that person sits directly in front of the stinker. Her walls are tall, so she doesn't smell the smells. Team lead is very by-the-book and rigid about rules. One of my concerns is if I do go to the team lead, that she'll escalate and ban all eating-at-desks on the team, or even ban anything perfumed. That would be a nightmare. It would not be unheard of for her. One of my own biggest pleasures each day is lunching at my desk while reading MeFi and I certainly don't want to damage my own privileges here.
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 9:11 AM on December 11, 2007

I just read this part:

reporting her to leadership is not an option

What about reporting to your leadership? If you want to keep this private and passive, then be prepared to live with it.
posted by drinkcoffee at 9:12 AM on December 11, 2007

Ok, I understand a little better now; thanks for the clarification. It's a shame the team lead would go to such extremes; it's amazing what a little feedback can accomplish in this situation.
posted by drinkcoffee at 9:14 AM on December 11, 2007

I just bought perfume oils I love from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. I've been trying them out on my wrist all day and my nose seems totally full of the smell, but my coworker said she can't smell them from where she sits 5 feet away.

So find something you'd rather smell instead, dab it on your wrist (if you're afraid of facial skin sensitivity), and make frequent nose-to wrist visits to get you through the stinky times.
posted by hermitosis at 9:14 AM on December 11, 2007

loiseau, you may have missed this sentence in the OP's question:

Non-confrontational, passive methods preferred.

I don't think what he's asking is unreasonable at all. We all have different levels of tolerance - some of us can't stand loud noises, others have difficulties with smells.

I work in an open office myself and if one of my direct neighbours' food or cigarette smells really bothered me, I would try to just bring it up with them - in a pleasant, non-confrontational manner.

You could even combine some of the above suggestions by making her aware of the problem: "Sorry, your food smells are quite nauseating to me, would you mind very much if I pointed my Oust at you while you eat? Any scents you would prefer?"

Just pointing it at her without saying anything reeks (excuse the pun) of passive-aggressiveness.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 9:18 AM on December 11, 2007

I can't recommend Ozium highly enough. Touted as an air sanitizer rather than an air freshener, the odorless version really has no discernible smell of its own whatsoever. It does a great job of sucking unpleasant odors right out of the air. It's big with clandestine marijuana growers, and you can probably find it at your local headshop if you can't wait for shipping.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 9:21 AM on December 11, 2007

I get migraines from some fragrances, so I know what you're going through. I left a job because management would not deal with another employee's insistence on perfuming herself heavily. More recently, wearing an I Can Breathe mask with its charcoal filter has helped me greatly.

I do not endorse the idea of adding more scents to your workplace. Avoidance is the best way to handle such sensitivity.
posted by Carol Anne at 9:21 AM on December 11, 2007

Well, you could mask the smell of her food with another smell, or blow it away from you with a fan, or stop it getting to you in the first place (a nice big bunch of flowers or something on the desk). Or wear a nose clip like swimmers wear (just kidding).

Or, if you want to be super passive aggressive, get some fresh breath mints and leave them on her desk for her to find when she comes back from her break.
posted by Solomon at 9:27 AM on December 11, 2007

Yep, I'd like to avoid the immaturity of passive-aggressiveness myself (a'la obnoxious perfume girl with the frikkin' wind machine), so I wasn't pointing the Oust at the stinker, but at my own face, just a few inches from my nose. And I stopped after recognizing that it was apparently a problem to others. Anything effective I can do for me versus against someone else is what I'm aiming for. :-) On preview: Hmm, Ozium could be interesting. What about an ozone machine? Anybody find one effective for a small space?
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 9:30 AM on December 11, 2007

Is this person your friend? If so, you might want to have a talk with her about how her smoking is plainly killing her senses of smell and taste, as evidenced by her obliviousness to the strength of odors or flavors. Maybe if you couched your approach in concern for her, you could confront her about the smells in a helpful, non-judgmental manner.
posted by Sara Anne at 9:41 AM on December 11, 2007

Get one of those personal desktop air ionizing filters from Sharper Image.
posted by gnutron at 9:57 AM on December 11, 2007

Maybe if you couched your approach in concern for her, you could confront her about the smells in a helpful, non-judgmental manner.

I do not think this is likely to get a positive response.
posted by redfoxtail at 10:37 AM on December 11, 2007

Funny thing about popcorn, the smell can be ugly...until you have a small portion of it yourself. Then the distraction is gone. Perhaps keep a little sandwich bag of popcorn in your desk for these 'stink emergencies'. As far as the other food and cigs smells...wind machine.
posted by artdrectr at 11:01 AM on December 11, 2007

Heavily scented lip balm. Mmmmm.

Or maybe some mints that YOU can eat? Some of the really strong ones might be able to over power your sense of smell.

And a normal (non scented) fan on the side of your cubical nearest the smell, pointed up on a diagonal so that it pulls non-stinky air in and blows the stinky air up and away.
posted by anaelith at 11:03 AM on December 11, 2007

Well, I can see how it would be hard to confront her because so many of the things she likes are stinky. But still you might be able to ask her if there's an agreement you can come to... she only eats stinky food twice a week, for example.

I sometimes take frozen meals to work. The smell of fishsticks doesn't bother me, but one of my co-workers can't stand the smell. So I don't eat fishsticks at work anymore.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:28 AM on December 11, 2007

A dab of Vicks Vapo-Rub under the nose will solve your problem.

The other option is to adapt. The sense of smell begins adapting to a new scent and ignoring it within seconds. This is a way for your brain to determine if the smell is getting stronger or not. So as soon as you smell the scent that bothers you, actively pay attention to it and continue to smell it until your senses adapt and you can't smell it anymore. It should take no more than a minute or two.

If it's really, honestly making you sick, get a doctor's note and get moved to a place where you don't have to be around people. Everyone is going to smell at some point, even if it's just breaking wind, and if this is actually making you ill then you should get some medical attention.
posted by mullingitover at 11:53 AM on December 11, 2007

Sort of what mullingitover said, train yourself to get used to these smells. Eat yourself some popcorn, sauerkraut, and broccoli, once each every week. Getting used to enjoying these will immediately make them smell less bad. I guess I won't suggest you take up smoking too.
posted by poppo at 12:28 PM on December 11, 2007

you: "hey, is someone eating onions?"
she: "yeah, why?"
you: "wow, they're making my eyes water!" (laugh with false naivete)

she'll probably never bring them again.
as for the smoking, a discreet cough might work.
posted by thinkingwoman at 12:51 PM on December 11, 2007

A few options:

- direct action: probably too confrontational unless you have a good relationship otherwise and may not be effective anyway.

- a quiet word with their supervisor: more likely to be effective, especially if you keep it professional.

- a note on the office fridge in comic sans: least likely to work, but could cause a a general improvement in office hygene. Try it and see! Here are some good examples to get you started.
posted by bonehead at 1:49 PM on December 11, 2007

bonehead: "A few options:
- a note on the office fridge in comic sans: least likely to work, but could cause a a general improvement in office hygene.

Fat chance. Where I work has a dry erase board dedicated to notes like these. At least one person who got notes up there regularly (no names provided, either to or from) never cleaned up after herself or threw her trash in the garbage. Fortunately she got fired yesterday.
posted by IndigoRain at 3:31 PM on December 11, 2007

I feel your pain.

Having grown up with severe asthmatics, in a totally scent-free household, I have an acute sense of smell. There are odours that make me throw up or cough violently before they reach most people's threshold of detection (no, not exaggerating - I wish I was).

This has been interesting, to say the least, in workplaces.

I have found that making up an essential oil mix of lavender, lemongrass, mint and using that as a wrist perfume to be an effective way to mask bad smells. Bonus points for being able to lean on my elbow so it doesn't look like I'm sniffing my wrists. Experiment with what works best for you; I can't use that mix around my mother, for example, because she reacts to lavender.

I also drink a lot of tea, especially spicy chai teas. I find it soothing and sufficiently aromatic to override unpleasant odours.
posted by ysabet at 4:25 PM on December 11, 2007

totally feeling your pain. i lived with a PIG of a roommate for a couple years, who had bad hygeine and filthy dreadlocks, and she stunk up the whole apartment. she smelled so terrible that on several occasions, friends thought i was exaggerating till they came over & smelled her- and later they *raised their voices* at me when they chastized me for not doing something about it. "goat", "homeless", and "sour apple juice pee smell" were the descriptors they used. i just didn't know what to say to her. once my boyfriend was in a video store and smelled a bad, familiar smell and when he turned around, my roommate was there two aisles away! ick.

anyway, to cope, i put essential oil in a spray bottle with a lot of water (1 cup water, 3 drops oil) and sprayed the furniture whenever she got rank. it was a mild, pleasant smell.

i turned a fan on, pointing it so the breeze went up to the ceiling, and the back of the fan faced away from the stinky person (fans suck air from behind them, so make sure the source is clean).

opening a bottle of essential oil on your desk might overpower the stank, too.
three essential oils with non-annoying scents to consider might be:
peppermint, lavender, and rosewood. usually around $8 for a little 2-inch tall bottle.

i find it hard to believe you can smell her breath when she eats popcorn- gross! dunno how to fix that, maybe going to the washroom & doing a listerine gargle whenever she starts to stink would deaden your nose? or drink a coffee or peppermint tea when she's doing that, to overpower the scent that way? oh, and figure out what kind of gum or mints she likes and offer those when she's done.

i pity you- i have a super-sensitive nose myself, and that sounds like hell. good luck!
posted by twistofrhyme at 5:09 PM on December 11, 2007

If all else fails I can second the Vicks VapoRub option.
posted by jbiz at 5:23 PM on December 11, 2007

« Older How to get a career in forensic computing.   |   How to motivate myself to make school a priority? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.