Yonden Lhatoo
SCMP Columnist
Just Saying
by Yonden Lhatoo
Just Saying
by Yonden Lhatoo

Body odour and bad breath: is it harassment in the workplace?

Yonden Lhatoo is intrigued by the latest trend in Japan to tackle a universal problem in the workplace that most of us are too polite to raise a stink over

Can you call it harassment when you have to put up with someone’s particularly bad breath or body odour?

Trust the Japanese to not only make “smell harassment” part of their lexicon, but also to conduct seminars for companies seeking to reduce olfactory assaults in the workplace without hurting the feelings of staff concerned.

Mandom, Japan’s biggest manufacturer of men’s personal-care products, was in the news this week for holding seminars on “smell care” or “odour etiquette” – polite classes on how not to asphyxiate your colleagues. The aim is to help people become more aware of the scents they produce and encourage them to improve personal hygiene, thereby reducing the distress they cause to others.

Companies have already started sending their staff to these seminars, and some are taking it a step further with guidelines for employees to brush their teeth after meals, lay off pungent food during office hours, and generally avoid inflicting unpleasant smells on their colleagues.

Women, in particular, are becoming increasingly “sensitive to the smells of men”, a Mandom spokesman was quoted as stating.

Why is it that body odour seems to be a bigger problem among men than women? Photo: Shutterstock

While all this may seem bizarre or comical to many, it resonates in Japan with its much maligned demographic of middle-aged or older “salarymen” who are often portrayed as a bunch of smelly, chain-smoking, beer-guzzling sad sacks.

Bear in mind, also, that the concept of “smell harassment” fits right into a cubicle culture of office complaints that include “alcohol harassment” (hapless junior staff being forced to binge-drink by their seniors or bosses) and “karaoke harassment” (forced to sing or listen to others yodelling at office gatherings, often in combination with alcohol harassment).

The more politically correct and commiserating types among us may have reservations about using the term “harassment”, but a long-suffering friend has no qualms about telling it like it is when it comes to her workplace.

She says her boss is a believer in close-contact communication, which would be fine if he wasn’t afflicted by a particularly horrendous case of halitosis.

Every conversation with him apparently leaves her green around the gills as she tries anything from holding her breath to thinking of England to counter the onslaught without hurting his feelings. He also has a habit of “spraying it, not saying it”, which leaves her fantasising about shower caps, in addition to gas masks, when he’s talking to her.

I guess there are elements to this story that ring true for many of us. And it’s not just in the workplace.

I was on a long-distance flight once when every hair in my nostrils was under attack, courtesy of the passenger sitting next to me. His breath was so powerful that you didn’t even have to be downwind to experience its potency, the laws of physics be damned. Instead of kicking up a stink, I ended up asking the flight attendant for a medical mask and pretending I was the sick man.

It’s easy to be insensitive and even cruel about it, which is why there’s no shortage of wisecracks like, “Is it rude to throw a breath mint into someone’s mouth while they’re talking?” or “We should have a way of telling people their breath stinks without hurting their feelings, like, ‘I’m bored, let’s go brush your teeth’!”

But the bottom line is whether it’s a case of genuine halitosis, digestive dysfunction, a garlic-heavy meal, or coffee and cigarettes on a stressful day at work, being unaware of how you smell can be very problematic.

I’d say the rule of thumb is, if you can smell yourself, chances are others have been able to for a while.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Body odour and bad breath: when it becomes harassment