How should I respectfully approach a co-worker about her pungent perfume? I can tell she’s been down the hall even after she’s been gone for five or ten minutes. The scent lingers and is foul to me; after encountering it I begin to feel nauseous. She’s a very popular and pleasant person. Except for the smell of her perfume, which is always the same, I love being around her. Even as I was writing this she just came into my office with a request. Ugh. I hate to sound immature, but I am sensitive to odors. I hope no one feels the same way about my perfume What can I do?
Signed, Perfume Paradox
Dear Perfume Paradox,
The most important advice I can offer is to stop worrying and start talking. The longer you obsess about how scary the conversation with be, the more you raise the emotional stakes. One of the most subtle influences on how safe the other person feels in a crucial conversation is how safe you feel. If you come in terrified because you’ve pre-lived every disastrous outcome in your head, they will pick up on your stress and feel anxious in response.
Calm yourself. Lower the stakes. Come in relaxed. Here’s how.
Instead of thinking of disaster scenarios, think about how much you admire her. You describe her as a “very popular and pleasant person.” You say, “I love being around her.” Focus on that. Get clear in your head that what you really want from this conversation is not less perfume but more friendship. If that’s where you’re coming from when you approach her, she’ll feel that. And she’ll feel safer.
Approach the conversation like this:
Lead With Purpose
If people are okay with your intent they will be okay with your content. Proudly and unapologetically share your intentions while sharing the problem you are trying to solve. Start by explaining that you’ve noticed yourself avoiding contact with her because you react physically to her perfume.
Take Ownership of Your Own Problem
Don’t make it about how much perfume she wears, make it about your reaction to the perfume. Once again, declare why you are bringing this up. You might say, “I realize I have been a coward because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. But then I notice I’m trying to be around you less, so I don’t get this reaction. I like that solution even less than taking this risk.”
Offer Solutions that Impose on You not on Her
Don’t ask her to stop wearing the perfume or reduce her volume. Let her make that offer if she chooses to. There’s a good chance she’s going to feel defensive for a little while. You can help her get over it faster by reassuring her this is your thing and that you aren’t asking her to change anything. Simply explain, “It works better for me if we meet in the cubicle area and not in my tiny office. It also works better if I sit a little farther from you. That’s my plan.”
End with Purpose
Reassure her one last time of your intent. “I just wanted to have this conversation so that you’ll understand what might look like quirky behavior. I don’t want you to think I’m avoiding you. I want you to know that the opposite is the truth. I didn’t want to risk my relationship with you by leaving my behavior unexplained.”
Let Her Do Her
No matter how well you handle this, she might still feel a little shell-shocked. Give her time to get through it in her own way. Don’t nurse your own paranoia by looking for signs of resentment. Let her be distant, tentative, hurt, or whatever she needs to feel to get to the other side of the adjustment. Prove your sincerity by having more contact with her in the near-term rather than less.
If you handle this well, it could help you create a closer relationship with her than you have ever had. Crucial conversations, if held well, are trust accelerants. They help us learn to be more honest and develop more authentic connections with those around us.