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