Perfume wars

Dear Aunt Angela:
Recently, I was shocked and dismayed at an incident that occurred in my building, normally a place of peace and harmony. I got into the elevator at the same time as Mrs. X, one of our long-time residents. The doors started to close but Ms. Z, another resident, came rushing up.  She was about to enter but then, springing back with a hand to her nose, she said,  “Ugh … too much perfume! Never mind; I’ll take the stairs.”

Though scrupulous about hygiene, I am innocent of using highly scented products. But I know Mrs. X has started to leave asphyxiating clouds of J’Adore L’Absolu in her wake. I believe she has begun to lose her sense of smell.

The problem is that Mrs. X has made no secret of being extremely offended by Ms. Z’s remarks. Tension is the building is almost as palpable as the perfume. Residents are taking sides. What can I do to restore the feeling of tranquillity that formerly reigned?

Shocked and Dismayed in Vancouver

Dear Shocked and Dismayed:

What an unfortunate situation. To be clear, there are two infringements of etiquette here: the lady who wears too much perfume (highly unpleasant to many people, especially at close quarters, and — worse — a potential cause of asthma attacks in those sufferers sensitive to the irritants in the perfume), and the lady who expressed her opinion too openly and without diplomacy, thus causing a hostile reaction.

You, S&D, must be the diplomat here. Your task is to find a way to speak to Mrs. X about this. If it is possible for you to invite her for coffee, that is a good way to begin. Otherwise, you will have to take the next opportunity to draw her aside for a few words in private. Your best starting position is to assume that she would rightly be horrified if she knew  she was doing something socially reprehensible. Appeal to her better nature. Infer that awareness of this problem is a very recent development. Express understanding and solidarity. Enlist her aid.

Phrases such as:

  • “So sad — I used to love wearing perfume myself, but …”
  • “You know, of course, that many offices have recently banned …”
  • “I know you would be the last person to intentionally cause distress …”
  • “Perhaps you would consider mentioning this to other people in our complex?”

are along the right lines.

If you are right that she has begun to lose her sense of smell, this could of course ultimately be dangerous. Tread carefully here and see whether there is an opportunity to raise this during the initial conversation, but leave it for later if the time doesn’t seem right.

I would leave Ms. Z alone. However tactless her remark, she has at least raised awareness of this issue and one has some sympathy for her natural reaction.

… Aunt Angela


Too Much Information

Aunt Angela would like to state categorically that she is for, not against, the miracle of birth. She applauds the mothers who do the hard work and the fathers, other support people, and medical personnel who help out. She is completely in favour of information sharing in general and the demystification of natural human processes in particular.

However, she gently suggests that occasionally, through an excess of enthusiasm for the aforementioned miracle of birth, some people share Too Much Information.

Recently, a former colleague with whom Aunt Angela was not even that close offered information on the condition of his wife’s cervix that Aunt Angela did not need to know. She was happy to see a nicely cleaned-up baby picture after the fact.

A friend heard through relatives the update that his niece was “six centimetres dilated” and was perhaps a little taken aback at the intimate nature of this information. Aunt Angela offers the following alternatives, suitable for sharing with relatives and friends of varying degrees of closeness:

  • Labour is progressing well and the birth is imminent.
  • We expect the baby will be born later today.

Cell phone conversations that should not be overheard

Conversation 1, while waiting on the tarmac to take off

  • Still waiting. They say it’s a technical thing. No, not what you want to hear.
  • And some lady got sick.
  • Yeah … right.
  • Yeah, it’s like that movie, what’s it … No, you don’t want to be here.
  • I think we should get off now, while we still can.

Conversation 2, in the doctor’s waiting room

  • I’ve got these bites all over my body. Yes, red bites all over … very itchy. I can’t stop scratching.
  • No, I don’t think they’re bedbugs.
  • No, not lice … that would be on my head, wouldn’t it?
  • All over my neck and my legs and my breast, my chest, you know. And my back. Red, insect bites, I think, and they itch something fierce.

Conversation 3

  • Hello Poppa. I SAID, HELLO POPPA.
  • Why don’t you put Momma on.

Aunt Angela on taking photographs

Questioner iconDear Aunt Angela:

I hate having my photograph taken. I have several friends who take my photograph constantly, even though they know I don’t like it. What can I do?

Yours truly, Anonymous

Aunt AngelaDear Anonymous:

I do sympathize with you, my dear. So many individuals carry these little digital cameras everywhere with them today, and — sadly — they take them out and flash them in one’s face at the most inopportune times. You may find this unbelievable, but I have seen people actually photograph their friends eating.

Much depends on the degree of your opposition. If you are adamant that you want no photographs at all, ever, you might take your friends aside, one at a time, and quietly point this out to them. If they completely disregard your wishes, you might want to reflect on the value of their company.

“First seek to understand” is a motto that is perhaps relevant here. Your friends are quite likely so enamoured of your appearance that they yearn to capture your elusive beauty on film. If you are somewhat opposed but willing to compromise a little, you might suggest that they take just one photograph of you on each occasion, giving you notice ahead of time so that you can be prepared for it.

Good luck. A colleague less considerate than myself suggests that you should obtain a camera and attempt to capture your friends with spinach in their teeth, but naturally I disassociate myself from such an attitude.

Yours in etiquette, Aunt Angela

Etiquette for seminar participants

Aunt Angela’s advice for seminar participants:

Although you may feel you know more about the subject than the instructor, do refrain from over-participation. Your many amusing anecdotes and your years of wisdom about the subject must take second place at this time to those of the person actually teaching the seminar.

Aunt Angela is dismayed

Anmaru: So, Aunt Angela, you look more than usually disapproving. What’s up?

Aunt AngelaAunt Angela: Well, dear, I overheard a perfectly pleasant person yesterday asking a most personal question of a former colleague. “So, when’s the honeymoon?” she asked in a jocular fashion. The former colleague indicated that there had as yet been no discussion of a wedding and that therefore notions of a honeymoon were decidedly premature.

Now, I don’t know about you, dear, but I was brought up with a clear understanding that one does not ask personal questions pertaining to health, relationships, family planning, or salary. (Asking “What do you do?” was felt to be in poor taste. Certainly, such a question can put the independently wealthy and the temporarily unemployed alike at a disadvantage. I always advise people to stick to interests and hobbies rather than paid occupation when making light conversation. And let us always remember that when someone asks “How are you?” they are normally hoping for a short, positive response—only truly close friends want more detail.)

But now back to the interpersonal issues. Of course, dear, one should never assume (a) heterosexuality; (b) if single, a desire to be married; (c) if married or cohabiting, a desire to have children. Such behaviour is insensitive at best.

Anmaru: Aunt Angela, I am so pleased to have you straighten me out once again. Allow me to freshen your drink.