In "Social Q's: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries, and Quagmires of Today," New York Times advice columnist helps readers make sense of the perilous complexities of proper social etiquette. Here's an excerpt.
When Good Hygiene Goes Bad
Dog Breath and B O and Snot, Oh My!
My assistant is a train wreck: long, greasy hair pulled back into a ponytail, not a stitch of makeup, and dumpy clothes with food stains down the front. I try to set a good example, but she doesn’t take the hint.
Yesterday was the last straw. She wore open-toed shoes that showed dirty, unkempt feet. I thought I’d be sick! This young woman wants to move into the business world once she finishes her MBA. Shouldn’t I speak with her to help her on her way? —Alexandra, Chicago
Come off it, Boss Lady! You’re not nearly as concerned with Miss Greasy-Haired, Scurfy-Toe’s career advancement as you are grossed out by her, right? (Thought so.) Better to keep quiet for the moment.
We don’t get to weigh in with people just because they disgust us. There has to be some health risk to them or others, or a close, personal relationship to call on. (Or at least, a certainty that we can run faster than they can!)
But never fear, there’s another way to skin this filthy cat: If your assistant considers you a mentor—if she asks for career advice or solicits your opinion—jump right in. Try: “You know, Susie, bad presentation can be a big hindrance to women in the workplace. You may want to keep that in mind.”
Just make sure, before opening your mouth, that it’s your assistant’s interests that are spurring you on, and not your gag reflex.
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The world is filled with gorgeousness: blooming roses and verdant meadows, pretty people riding horseback. But for every pale-pink peony in the world, Social Q’s readers have isolated approximately three thousand instances of repulsive behavior: gassy bosses, lice-ridden schoolkids, and restaurant workers who skip out of the bathroom without so much as a backward glance at the sink, much less giving their hands a thorough scrub.
We’ve had enough!
In the (almost) words of Rodgers and Hammerstein:
Fingers up noses, and dog breath on sisters,
Boyfriends with B O, and pasta in whiskers;
Kiddies who sneeze on us from here to Beijing,
These are a few of our least favorite things!
But when, exactly, can we speak up about bad hygiene, and with whom? Does it take more than a copy of our birth certificate and an offense to one of our five senses? Unfortunately, it does.
Well, how much more? That, my friend, is the question at hand.
Happily, I’ve developed an easy, three-part test to help us know
when we’re entitled to set filthy people straight.
No. 1: Is Anyone’s Health at Risk? (And I Don’t Mean, Are You About to Vomit Because You’re So Grossed Out?)
Is the bad hygiene in question threatening anyone’s health, or are you merely disgusted by it? If a person could get sick, give yourself one point. If not, score it a zero. (Don’t worry, this test doesn’t require a score of 100 percent to speak up. There may be other reasons to weigh in—since I know you’re dying to.)
My very nice boss often comes out to my cubicle to chat. He proceeds to cough and sneeze on me and my things without covering his mouth or using a handkerchief. I’m starting to feel like I work in a petri dish. Can I speak up?
Please pass the Purell!
See a health risk here? I can. I feel like I’m coming down with something, and I haven’t even met this boss. So give yourself 1 point out of a possible perfect score of 3.
My best friend’s cat has the run of her house. She lets it walk all over her kitchen counters and stove. It even jumps onto the table during meals. My friend thinks this is cute; I’m appalled. Cats are in and out of their litter boxes all day long and lick themselves to distraction. Don’t I have a right to meals that are prepared and eaten in a more hygienic environment?
Survey says, Holy Hair Ball!
No question, cats on the dinner table are disgusting, but there’s probably not much chance of becoming sick from your furry dinner companion—even though a single strand of cat hair in my Caesar salad would push me right over the edge. So let’s score this one a (grudging) zero: no health risk.
And one more for good measure:
My brand-new boyfriend, who looks a little like Jared Leto, constantly borrows my laptop. He snacks on sticky foods, then licks his fingers—which he puts all over my keyboard. Isn’t this unhealthy?
Probably for the keyboard. But as long as you’re making out with this guy and trading saliva with him directly, there’s probably no increased health risk from indirect contact with his dried-up saliva on your computer. It’s gross, for sure, but score it a zero for health risk. (Sorry. But hearty congratulations on snagging a hottie!)
So, with health risk locked in, let’s move on to the second question.
No. 2: Who’s in Charge Around Here?
You know those bumper stickers: “Some days you’re the fire hydrant; some days you’re the dog,” “Some days you’re the windshield; some days you’re the bug,” “Some days you’re the statue; some days you’re the pigeon”?
You get the point.
We enjoy different levels of power in our different relationships, and sometimes, power shifts within a relationship. Bob the Boss may hold the cards at the office, but not after you take another job across town. Jimmy the Summer Intern works for you, and since he also wants to sleep with you, you pretty much own his ass. Your sister, Sarah, and you stand on relatively equal footing, but the simplest suggestion to your brother, Jack, sends him into a tailspin (especially since his divorce).
With power comes the prerogative to speak, often without suffering terrible consequences. (Not that you should!) And with weakness comes a greater need to ingratiate and please. Figuring out where the power lies in that hygiene debacle will help us decide whether to weigh in.
So who’s got the power: you or your filthy cohort?
Let’s review the preceding scenarios with an eye to identifying the clout. Give yourself another point if you have as much, or more, power than the other guy, and no points if he or she has more power than you.
Sad to say, Sneezy the Boss, who coughs all over us and our desk, has the upper hand here, right? Unless we’ve got some serious dirt on him, he could probably send us packing on a whim. No additional point.
We’re probably on more equal footing with our “best friend,” Carla the Cat Lover, whose pesky feline has just started licking the crumbs from the top of the toaster. Let’s give ourselves a point.
And the same goes for our hot new boyfriend, the Jared Leto look-alike. Notwithstanding the urban legends about gals getting struck by lightning easier than finding a mate, Laptop Linda seems to be doing just fine. She should tread carefully, since it’s a “brandnew” relationship, but I’d still give her (and her sticky laptop) a point.
So, with the health risk and power dynamic of this hygiene fiasco locked down, on to the final question:
No. 3: Risk Assessment 101—Will There Be “Backdraft”?
The third and final question is the most delicate: What are the risks of speaking up? Will the other person welcome our suggestion for more sanitary living? Or hear our statement as unwarranted criticism or attack?
We’re all familiar with the well-known genre of firefighter films, and the moment at which our brave hero—played by Kurt Russell or Denis Leary or any action star of the moment—innocently opens a door inside a burning house and is thrown halfway across the room, explosive flames licking his taut tushie.
It’s called backdraft, and we need to guard against it in these hygiene scenarios every bit as much as Mark Wahlberg does. The last thing we want is our smelly cohort thundering back at us with rage.
Assessing the level of risk is a function of how much goodwill we have stored up with this other person, and even more importantly, how attached he or she is to the filthy habit in question.
Give yourself one last point if you believe you can make your plea for cleaner living without becoming subject to fierce counterattack— or a bloody nose.
Drumroll, please, for the big finish: If your total score is 2 out of 3 (or better), feel free to air your concern to the dirty bird, trying to be as tactful as possible. But if your score is less than 2 out of 3, file your would-be suggestion under Gross Things I Guess I’ll Keep to Myself.
With Sneezy the Boss, for instance, we may be the only person who can make this point: Stop coughing on us, as if we were merely an extension of you, like some sort of vestigial limb. We’re your assistant, dude, not your spittoon! (But sweeter, of course!)
Sneezy is the boss, though, after all, so we run the risk of alienating him and having to file for unemployment insurance. But the assistant says he’s a nice boss. So, given our legitimate health concern and the reasonableness of the request, I’d assess the risk as relatively low and award us another point, bringing the tally to 2 out of 3.
So let it rip! Try smiling: “Quite a cold you have there, Boss Man! Would you like a box of Kleenex for your office?” That should do the trick. And as an added incentive, underscore the value—to him—of your good health: “I want to stay fit as a fiddle to keep your expense reports up to date!”
Kitty Cat Lover poses a different problem: She’s our best friend, so we probably have loads of goodwill with her, and our request to keep Puss in Boots off the table during mealtime could not be more reasonable. But in my experience, people’s pets are like bona fide members of their family. And asking her to quarantine her cat is like asking your sister to put her toddler in storage. (You remember how that went!)
So, unfair as it may seem, I fear a massive counterinsurgency by asking her to keep the cat at bay: big risk. No more points, I’m afraid, bringing the grand total to a mere 1 out of 3.
I’d keep your lips zipped—and avoid mealtime at the Kitty Castle. Invite your best friend out to dinner instead. Just think of the incremental cost of restaurants as being offset by lower drycleaning bills, now that you won’t be covered head to toe in cat hair every time you see her.
Finally, we come to Jared Leto, chomping on chicken wings that are finger-lickin’ good, then surfing the web on our laptop. Not much to fear, right? He’s our boyfriend. What’s more, he’s probably never stopped to think about how gross his habit is, and won’t mind too much when we point it out. Give us another point, for 2 out of 3.
Swing for the fences, girlfriend: “Sweetie, when you lick your fingers and type like that, you’re sort of marinating my keyboard in spit. Do you think you could knock it off?”
Now that you’ve got a few under your belt, consider one last hygiene horror:
I have a cousin who I’m very close with. His breath reeks—not so bad that you notice it from across the room, but bad enough to curl your hair when you’re standing next to him. I think it’s the reason he’s never found a long-term girlfriend. None of his dates seem to go anywhere. Should I talk to him about his breath?
Before you answer, make sure to run through our three-part hygiene test:
1. Health risk?
2. Power in the relationship?
4. Possible backdraft?
Once you’ve worked out your answer, turn the page to look at mine. (No cheating!)
Hello, nuclear-strength Altoids!
In most cases, I’d suggest holding your tongue—and your nose. But you’ve distinguished yourself from the garden-variety hygiene hawk. You’re worried about your cousin’s long-term happiness, not fainting from the miserable stench.
Go ahead, make his day. Say, “Cuz, I’ve noticed your breath has taken a turn for the stinky. Maybe you should check in with your dentist about this.”
It may be as simple as brushing more often, but that grosses me out. I prefer to think he has a medical condition that will be rectified with pills and shiny silver implements.
So, how’d you do?
Check the box that fits:
❑ Great! ❑ I’m not sure I agree ❑ Is it too late for a refund?
It may not work every time, but at least we’ve got a simple rubric for handling those icky hygiene disasters that we run across every day.
Feeling any cleaner?
Shall we try one more for good measure?
I work the second shift in an office where cubicles are shared. The fellow who uses my cubicle in the first shift has a luxurious beard. Every night, I come to work and find beard hairs all over my desk and keyboard. I find this incredibly disgusting. Is there a polite way of asking him to clean up after himself? —Marci
How about weaving those molted whiskers into a wreath that you can hang from your shared cubicle wall, with a bit of verse attached:
Your beard is handsome,
And deserves an award.
But on your face,
Not in my keyboard.
Don’t forget to tidy!
And if you’re short on time, feel free to skip the wreath.
Reprinted from "Social Q's: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries, and Quagmires of Today" by Philip Galanes © 2011 by Philip Galanes. Used with permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive