Manners: Good Sense, Bad Scents

by Aruna Papp. MA, ADR, Med

The former Executive Director at the CARE Centre for Internationally Educated Nurses tackles a sensitive subject. Food odours like curry and fish are often cited by racists as rationales for their prejudice. But it is important for all of us to be aware of the effect these smells can have on other people.

During my years as a university student I was usually late for my classes. Everyday, I had to leave work, rush home, feed the children, make sure they had something to do and then try to make it on time for my lessons. On one of those days, I tried to slip into my seat quietly when I heard the student seated behind me saying, "Your hair smells so good that I could eat it." I turned around, embarrassed, and asked, "What do you mean?" He replied, "Your hair smells like curry. You always smell like food." I felt humiliated; especially when I heard someone else say, "I hate that smell."

Years later, as a consultant for various School Boards in the GTA, I conducted a ‘Cross Cultural Training’ program for teachers who were interested in their students’ cultures. I always asked the teachers to send me their questions before the workshops, just to be better prepared. All the time, I received teacher’s letters full of sentences like, "I have this beautiful child in my class who is always rejected by other children because she smells. The other children do not like to play with her."

Although adults are seldom as outspoken (and occasionally cruel) as children, these sorts of odours can affect you in the workplace. You may find it harder to befriend people (and chances are, no one will explain why).

Showing up at an interview smelling strongly of ethnic food may even hurt your chances of getting the job in the first place.

For immigrants like me, eating ethnic food is a good way to avoid homesickness. Personally, I have to get Indian food at least once a day or I feel very sorry for myself. Sandwiches, pasta and pizza are not ‘meals’, they are just snacks. But I wish that, when I was a newcomer, someone had warned me about strong stale curry smell all over my home, car, clothes and hair. If you travel by bus or subway around Toronto, you know what I mean. You can tell who ate garlic, fish, or Chinese or Indian food. They may not even know that they have an odour.

Ethnic foods smell great when they are being cooked or served, but the next day, the aroma on your clothes is not as pleasant. And for young children in schools, the problem is even harder because they can be rejected. Classmates can tell your child out loud, "You stink. I don’t want to play with you." And there is little that a teacher can do about it.

Here are a few tricks to prevent these offending odours from getting stuck on you. Before you start cooking, make sure to turn on the vent fan – they are usually located on top of the stove – and keep some windows open. While you are cooking, keep a pot of boiling water on the stove and put half cup of vinegar in it. If you have already finished cooking, boil a pot of water with three or four sticks of cinnamon or vanilla.

While discussing solutions to odour in one of my workshops, someone brought up the fact that some people like to burn incense sticks. This can be a problem as well because you might like it but other commuters may not. Be aware of how much perfume or cologne you wear because many people dislike it and some are even allergic to it and ‘react’ to it (with headaches and other physical symptoms).

Finally, make sure the bedroom doors are closed when you are cooking so the smells do not get on clothes. When possible, do most of the cooking during the weekend. And to avoid commentaries like, "your hair smells like food," wash it with fresh-smelling shampoo.

Be proud of your cultural heritage. Enjoy your favourite foods. But be aware that other people may not share your preferences. It can be valuable to recognize that your ‘scent’ may work against you as you try to fit into Canadian society.