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How to Address Bad Body Odor

Dear Joseph,

My son tells me his roommate at college has a body odor issue. It has become so bad that my son stays at his girlfriend’s more often than not. He has mentioned to his roommate that there is a terrible odor in the room, but hasn’t gone much farther than that. He did speak to the R.A. who said he would speak to the roommate. I haven’t heard back as to next steps. Your thoughts?

Addressing Odor

Dear Addressing Odor,

Let me back up. I’m going to address your son, rather than you, and assume he is starting over again. He has already dug himself into a hole by being disingenuous—pretending the issue was disembodied odor rather than body odor. He needs to clean that up and start fresh.

Here’s my advice to him.

1. What do you want? What are your options? First, don’t step into this until you know what you really want. Do you like this roommate? Are you willing to invest in the relationship? Are you stuck no matter what? Do you have a housing contract that will not release you unless you claim this is a health and safety issue? If you have an easy exit path and aren’t willing to invest in the relationship, the answer is easy. Get out. If getting out is unlikely and you like this guy, this will be a great opportunity to learn how to deal maturely with relationship problems.

2. Master your story. You won’t be able to have a decent conversation with your roommate until you strip all of your judgments and personalization out of your story. If you feel resentment and disgust toward him, that will drive the entire interaction. So . . . own the fact that your emotions and judgments are just that—yours. You are entitled to not enjoy the smell. But, if you want a shot at making it go away, you need to accept that you are amplifying the experience through the story you’re telling yourself about why he smells.

For example, Rachel Herz studies the psychology of smells. She once did an experiment where subjects were asked to whiff the same odor and then rate its pleasant- or unpleasant-ness. Some were told it was Parmesan cheese. Others were told it was vomit. And guess what? In spite of the fact that they were having the same sensory experience, the Parmesan group judged it as pleasant. The others recoiled in revulsion.

Before you talk with him, examine the judgments you are making. Are you loading up your story with beliefs about his intentions (he’s inconsiderate), his character (he’s lazy), or his morality (smelling this way is bad). Remind yourself that most of the seven billion people in the world think differently about hygiene than you do. Also, open yourself to the fact that these odors may have nothing to do with hygiene. Certain medications generate different body odors as do different physiologies. Your goal is not to dismiss your own desires or preferences but to come to a place of curiosity and compassion from which you can converse rather than coerce.

3. Create safety and clarify purpose. Start the conversation by honoring both your need and his humanity. “I’d like to talk about something that is affecting me. But I’m worried that in doing so, I’ll communicate disrespect, judgment, or intolerance of you. That’s not what I want or how I feel. I just want to find a solution that works for you and me.” Having done so, realize that discussing something as personal as how someone smells is very likely to provoke defensiveness. Which leads to my next point . . .

4. Your actions are yours. His feelings are his. Even if you do your best to approach him with curiosity and respect, he may react to his vulnerability by recoiling in hurt or blame. If he does, do not apologize for your needs. Simply clarify your intentions. For example, if he says, “I don’t have to listen to this!” and heads for the door, offer something like, “I am not trying to attack or insult you. Please let me know if we can talk about this later—I just want to work it out for both of us. I’d like to be your roommate.” Then let it go.

A primary reason many of us stay in silence rather than connecting honestly is that we misunderstand our responsibility for others’ emotions. We are responsible to care about how others feel, but we are not responsible for how they feel. Their emotions are their choices. How we act can affect them—and we should always act with compassion and respect. But that is where our duty stops. When you take responsibility for others’ feelings, you begin to live dishonestly. You begin to calculate and manipulate in order to control others’ feelings. And by so doing, you surrender the possibility of both solving problems and connecting deeply.

I wish you the best and assure you that how you approach this moment is important practice for every future relationship of your life.


Joseph Grenny

“If I haven’t challenged you, I haven’t helped you.” Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. His work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.

The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations

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10 thoughts on “How to Address Bad Body Odor

  1. I appreciate this information, especially “We are responsible to care about how others feel, but we are not responsible for how they feel.”
    I did want to comment that some cultures eat differently then we do. For example, some cultures eat a lot of garlic in the diet, or fish, and those odors may come out. It was just a thought. It might not be because someone doesn’t bathe or use deodorant. :-)

  2. Hey! If someone is your roommate I assume you do get along to some extent or you won’t be roommates in the first place. If he truly does have a body odor, you will be helping him by letting him know. If properly handled, your roommate will always appreciate rather than recent you for talking to him about it.

  3. The CC model is so practical, humane and grounded. And this particular example is an excellent teaching tool for deciding when we truly want to have a CC. I encourage all my colleagues to sign up for the newsletter, and endeavour to apply the model in my CCs in all facets of my life.

  4. Good advice. It is always possible that the roommate may not be aware of his body odour and the polite feedback could make him aware of the pain point.

  5. This same thing happened to me as an Resident Assist. This is way before CC and the only way I knew how to handle this was to call in the School Nurse. In my case the person did not show up with bad odor, but it came on over the semester. There was other things going on in this persons life. Also the Nurse was an outsider and had no vested involvement.

    After learning more here with CC I can see that I should have made a different effort to seek first to understand (Covey) and then move towards a safer place to make sure the two of us had the conversation. As an RA I accepted the fact that I needed to have a good relationship with every person on my floor. I passed that responsibility for my actions off on the Nurse. I did not own my feelings. I did not understand that he will also have to own his feels.

    CC should be a part of a curriculum in High School or College. Not a full semester, but part of a required humanities course (interpersonal Communications maybe). Not to be certified, but to share the concept and inform the individual that a more complete CC is available once they have graduated.

  6. I truly enjoyed reading this article and will share with family/friends and will apply to many situations in my life which need this type of break down for the discussion. I will Google other articles from you to hopefully get more wisdom.

  7. WOW!!

    That was an INCREDIBLE response to a very awkward topic. Joseph is right, his approach on this matter can be applied to so many other things that go on with other people in our life. I liked it so much I printed it and put it on the wall where I work. Its his point of view I like so much. Its RESPECTABLE advice. His advice, I’m going to take it and I’m going to use it – I hope he doesn’t mind. I know its the right thing to do.

  8. This story/scenario is the crux of any interaction between two or more people. I especially appreciate the clarity of this statement: “We are responsible to care about how others feel, but we are not responsible for how they feel.” This is such a crucial point, it ought to be printed on T-shirts and billboards across this great country. I greatly appreciate your contributions to the world.

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