Tag Archives: etiquette

Scents and Sensitivity

8 Mar

Last week, a freelance writer from Seattle contacted me because she had run across my “Sensitive to Scent” post from the old blog.  She writes health and beauty articles for online news pages like MSNBC.com and CNN.com and was researching a story about the etiquette around scent sensitivity.  She wanted to phone me and chat about my scent-sensitivity experiences for 15 to 20 minutes; I’m never one to turn down a conversation, so we connected this afternoon while Jade was down for her nap.  The talk was stimulating, so of course I have to dump some of my thoughts here.

I admit that I don’t mind a nice-smelling cologne or a light perfume, but on the whole I find them unneccessary.  And, to be honest, I think they’re inappropriate in an office environment.  Office air quality is often bad enough without adding fragrance chemicals to the mix.  If someone happens to be sensitive to scent, it can make the office hell.  While I was pregnant with Jade, that was me; it’s hard to work when your head hurts, and you’re dizzy, light-headed, and nauseated.

By all means, wear a perfume when you’re going out on a date; it can be damn sexy to smell that signature scent on the one you love (or just lust after, whatever).  But please, keep it light.  Only your date should be able to smell you, not the poor person trapped in the seat behind you in the theatre, or the sap who can’t even smell his steak through your cloud of Chanel No. 5.  (Remember, you might not be able to smell yourself because the more you use a scent, the more your olfactory nerves are desensitized to it.)

Not being able to tell how strong your own scent is is one of the biggest reasons I don’t wear perfume anymore.  After my two bouts of being scent sensitive, I figure I’d never want to cause that kind of misery to anyone who lives with a sensitivity all the time.  I don’t find it leaves a gaping hole in my life not to wear perfume.  (Besides, Michael doesn’t like the stuff.)

The reporter wanted to know if I’d ever encountered any hostility when I asked someone not to wear perfume.  Luckily, I haven’t.  I think I’ve tried to be respectful in the asking, but also, how could someone be upset when it’s kind of a medical issue?  Smokers understand they shouldn’t blow cigarette smoke into a non-smoker’s face, and parents understand they can’t pack nuts into their kids’ lunches; scent isn’t that different.

Then there was the small uproar there was in the news recently about phthalates, found in many plastics and in scented products, possibly causing reproductive problems, particularly when these products are used on babies.  I felt just a little smug because I’ve tried to use only fragrance-free products on Jade, except for essential oils. (Although I’m sure I’m doing something wrong, since there are always studies coming out to tell us new scary effects of evil chemicals found in everyday objects.)

Anyway, I know that technically I’m somewhat inconsistent because I like the smell of freshly-washed hair (which, really, is the smell of shampoo) and shower gels. I’ve never encountered anyone so sensitive to scents that they couldn’t stand it if someone had just showered with soap and I can see how it might be a burden to accommodate someone who asked me to replace all of my beauty and hygiene products.  I’m sure I’d suspect them of exaggerating.

Whew, this seems like a lot of brain energy going into a pretty simple topic.   It’s certainly something I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about before I became scent sensitive myself (temporarily, thank goodness).  I even remember a girl in grade 6 who would bring a bottle of “Exclamation” to school and found it a great joke to spray it on people.  It seemed childish at the time, but not particularly offensive.  And I can still remember the perfume of one girlfriend I went to high school with.  It truly is amazing how scent seems to be hardwired to memories and emotions.

As for Michael, the smell that will forever remind me of him is laundry detergent.  Nice and clean… now that’s sexy!

Just don’t ask

4 Mar

“Are you planning to have kids?” 
“When are you planning to have another?”

Do these seem like a highly personal questions to you?  They didn’t seem so to me a few years ago, but now I have a different perspective.

Now, y’all know that I’m not the most secretive gal.  It’s not just the blogging, I’m like this in person, too; when I meet another chatty extrovert like me, we can have our life stories out within 20 minutes of meeting (and yet keep gabbing for days).  So a question like this, meant to encourage small-talk, would not have given me a second thought in the past.

Since the miscarriage, though, I have a dilemma.  Do I simply say, “Yes, we’d like more children,” and feel that I am lying by not telling you the pertinent fact that by rights I ought to be pregnant this very moment?  Or do I say, “Actually, I had a miscarriage recently” and make you feel terrible for asking the question, which you suddenly realize must be one that is pretty emotional for me.  I’ve gone both ways on this one, depending on how charitable I’m feeling.  (Or just because I felt like sharing.  Or not.)

But it’s not just about me.

Some time ago, I was in a restaurant with a couple of friends who had been trying to get pregnant for years.  They were in the throes of deciding whether to attempt the physically and financially demanding process of IVF.  An acquaintance they hadn’t seen in years wandered in and they briefly caught up on each others’ lives, before the guy dropped the bomb.  “So, you guys don’t have any kids yet?” he boomed.  “You ought to have some by now!”

It’s unfortunate that he was particularly insensitive in how he put it, but even if he’d asked simply, still I would have the same reaction, which was to cringe inwardly, knowing the bitterness and pain the question no doubt induced in my friends.

So, no matter if I am burning with curiosity, I would never ask this question of anyone unless I was starting to get to know them pretty well.  (And with a chatty extrovert, that can happen pretty fast.  Well, a chatty girl extrovert, anyway.)

What do you think?  Have you been in this situation?  Are there any other seemingly innocent questions you would add to the “Just don’t ask” list?