During a recent market study, I happened to come face-to-face with a woman who bluntly stated, “I don’t wear fragrance.” Arms crossed adamantly, she launched into a very long diatribe against what she felt to be the very ills of not only fragrance, but those who might be tempted to indulge in a little scenting.
Our initial conversation was full of judgmental edicts aimed towards anyone who would dare to wear any form of fragrance, outwardly professing the superiority of her “fragrance free” lifestyle. To her, these people were being inconsiderate and insensitive to her needs, even using this as justification for attempting to convince her bosses to declare their offices a so-called “fragrance free” zone, so others like herself could be free to breathe easy without fears of encountering any disruptive eaus, or as she referred to them, “invisible headache missiles.”
For me, this extremist position demanded a closer look. I asked her if she would be willing to meet with me again independently of the study, to further discuss her concerns. My desire was to challenge her on what I saw as errors in her “logical” thinking, and hopefully educate her a little more on the overall importance of fragrance in our lives. All I asked was that she come to the table with an open mind, and give me a chance to better understand her point of view while offering me the same opportunity to explain my own. She agreed, and scheduled an appointment with me to meet again in her home (my suggestion so I could see exactly how she was living “fragrance free”).
One week later, I turned up to meet “Dora” at her lovely home. Armed with nothing but a pen, a notepad and my wits, I took one last breath, closed my eyes, and rang the doorbell. Immediately a cacophony of barking ensued, as her two black labradors announced my presence at the door. Stranger danger. Dora arrived at the front door with a smile, opened it, and graciously welcomed me inside. We made our way into her living room, sat down together on the sofa, and from there the day’s discussion began.
Playing the part of the dutiful host, Dora offered me a drink: a choice of tea or coffee. I thanked her, and kindly asked for coffee. She excused herself to the kitchen, allowing me my first alone time in her space. I seized this moment to engage in a little pre-conversation reconnaissance. First, some quick visual notes on the space: no Airwicks, air fresheners, candles, diffusers, or potpourri. There was, however, a wood burning fireplace against the far wall. I then closed my eyes, and like a bloodhound, allowed the rest of the room to begin revealing its secrets to me olfactively. How “fragrance free” was “fragrance free?”
The first thing to invade my nostrils was the distinct smell of Murphy’s Oil soap clinging to the hardwood floors. In anticipation of my arrival, Dora had clearly done some pre-cleaning. This was coupled with notes of the furniture polish used to wipe down the wooden coffee table and bookshelves. Underneath that, was a powdery presence, which I later uncovered to be Pet Fresh upholstery cleaner used on the chairs and sofa. Overall, a typical mixture of American at-home “clean.” I opened my eyes again as Dora returned, fragrant coffee and tea in hand. I smiled. So much for being 100% “fragrance free.” Yet I resisted the urge to instantly reveal my initial findings. There was definitely more to learn here.
I took this opportunity to compliment Dora on her beautiful home. She clearly took pride in its upkeep. I also expressed my jealousy of her fireplace, something I missed greatly since trading in Pennsylvania for Brooklyn. For the next 15 minutes, we engaged in polite casual conversation, ranging from her job responsibilities (she was an executive assistant working in a cubicle environment) to a typical day in her busy life (mother of three very active pre-teen daughters working 40+ hours a week; investment banker husband). Still, she managed to run her household with no outside help, something she credited to multi-tasking skills learned on the job.
After the initial meet-and-greet, we got down to the business at hand. I explained to her that I was there only to listen, learn and offer my own thoughts on the issue of fragrance and fragrance usage. For me, conversations with people like herself allowed for better understanding on how people reacted to my own work; their concerns were always my concerns and remained front of mind when working on any new project. The last thing I would ever want to do is craft something that encouraged the misery of others, so when someone was as adamant on the subject as she was, it was important for me to understand all of the facts. So, strictly a fact finding mission with only the best intentions.
I suggested we begin by talking about her office. What was it about scent that was setting off this reaction? Talk me through a typical day, alerting me to anything that was unsettling.
After showering and getting ready at home, Dora arrived like clockwork everyday at 8AM, 30 minutes before her boss. She would make her way to the office kitchen (refrigerator, microwave, coffee/tea maker, no windows) and brew herself a fresh cup of tea “just to kickstart the day.” She drank loose leaf Earl Grey that she brought with her from home. I asked if others in the office started their day with a beverage, and she said, “Yes, everyone had a hot cup of coffee or tea, except for the girl on the no-caffeine diet. She only drank water.” So a morning office swimming in awakening notes of coffee and teas. Tea in hand, Dora would return to her desk to begin work.
By 8:30AM, the rest of the office workers had arrived. Fifteen cubicles in total, with the executives situated in surrounding closed-door offices. Here is when Dora’s unhappiness would start. Two cubicles down, “Erica” worked for the President, and arrived everyday “dripping in noxious Angel.” Dora complained about how instantly the whole office knew she was there, as her presence invaded every nook and cranny. It was an instant mood changer.
“It may sound crazy, but the smell is so strong that I feel like I can taste it in my tea. And to make matters worse, Erica is a smoker, so throughout the day, just as I think I might get a break from the stench, she returns from outside, clearly respraying her perfume to try and mask the disgusting cigarette smell. The combination of the two is like an instant kick to the gut, making it so hard to concentrate. She does this repeatedly throughout the day, so the smell just seems to get stronger and stronger until my eyes are watering so badly I can barely focus. It’s unbearable.”
I asked her if there were any other culprits in the vicinity: Cleaning fumes or other odors also at play. She replied, not that she noticed. However, turns out, Erica’s behavior was contagious. Two other women had decided to adopt Erica’s scent choice; three women swimming in a sea of Angel from 8am-6pm daily (one of whom was not a smoker, but just liked the smell). There was also a man in the office who wore a heavy cologne (unknown at the time of the interview) that Dora simply referred to as “bad with a capital B.” The cumulative odor effect was what led her to push for the “fragrance free” zone.
“I don’t even wear fragrance when I go out with my husband. Personally, I don’t see the point. These girls can at least abstain in the office. Besides, they aren’t fooling anyone with their cover-up routine.”
It was at this point I asked if I could excuse myself to the little boys’ room. The coffee had done its job (note to those investigating in homes: I always drink coffee to guarantee I get a sneak peek inside the bathroom, an area that usually has some interesting scent secrets). Dora led me down the hall, whereupon I shut the door and locked it. It was time for reconnaissance part two.
This was the house’s downstairs bathroom (not the master bath), but it still had a shower, sink, and medicine cabinet, as well as a linen closet. I started at the sink: Liquid hand soap from BBW (Sweet Pea). Seeing this, I knew instantly I was onto something. I quickly peaked into the medicine cabinet (men’s and women’s deodorant), under the sink (household cleaning products, all with distinguishable odors), inside the closet (freshly laundered towels singing with fabric softener) and lastly into the shower (more BBW products, Safeguard bar soap, shaving creams, face wash). I grabbed a few sample items after using the facilities, purposely washed my hands in Sweet Pea, and made my way back to the living room. It was time for the two of us to talk.
Seeing me return with products in hand, I could instantly see the concern written across Dora’s face. She was tensing up a bit, which of course, was not at all my intention. The purpose of the next few minutes was simply to uncover what tended to be common misconceptions surrounding the world of fragrance. Frankly, I completely understood her office predicament. Angel is known to be a polarizing perfume, not known for entering a room gently. I kept that in mind as I continued.
The idea here was to explain how I feel it is impossible to live completely “fragrance free,” and moreover, how if this goal were ever truly realized, most people would respond negatively, not positively, simply stemming from the knowledge of the number of fragranced things (both fragrance-added and naturally occurring) we encounter each day. For me, this would be akin to driving down a road with no lights and all the sign posts removed: not only uninteresting, but quite dangerous. But more on this later. For now, let’s return to Dora.
As I said, I re-entered the room armed with a few choice bottles I had grabbed from her downstairs bathroom. I reopened the conversation by saying “Don’t panic. I just happen to be the type of person who explains himself better with a few visual aids.” Dora laughed, clearly lightening up a little. I think she could see I wasn’t trying to be confrontational, which again, was extremely important if the conversation were to continue. I was, after all, a guest in her home and did not want to be thrown out before given a chance to explain myself.
I began by expressing sympathy for her situation. I told her I was quite familiar with Angel, knowing how it can be a difficult odor to escape. I explained that what she was experiencing at work is what we sometimes refer to as taking a “Greek Bath” (I do not know if the term is derived from ancient Greeks dosing themselves in scent in lieu of bathing or if it refers to fraternity brothers binging for days without bathing. Personally, the term feels slightly derogatory, so if offended by its use here, please note my intention is/was not meant to do so). The people in her office were overdosing on fragrance, attempting to “clean themselves” without the ability to shower away what they knew to be an unpleasant smell, and doing so repeatedly and at everyone else’s expense.
Any scent, be it a stronger variety a la Angel or Poison, or something lighter like a Tommy Girl or Happy, has the power to be overused and hence overpowering, especially in a closed off space like the one Dora works in. I shared stories with her of Giorgio of Beverly Hills from the 1980′s, with business owners openly hanging warning signs out front as the fragrance was deemed just too strong for use inside their establishments; customers had lodged a host of similar complaints. I tabled the subject of Angel for a minute, and explained how these women were guilty of a fragrance felony: not knowing when enough is enough.
That being said, I told her I did not think it wise to immediately opt for the “fragrance free” option, which is why I had brought out the samples from her bathroom. That’s because other than water, there are very few things existing that are truly “fragrance free.” Some products produce smells just from ingredients used in formulation, while yes others have fragrance added.
I started with the products in my hands. First the hand soap. Dora quickly quipped, “I don’t use that, my daughters do.” Again I smiled. I explained how soap, and its evolution, have an interesting history. How people used to bath using herbs and flowers, relying on them for their natural antiseptic properties, until the discovery of other anti-bacterial and anti-microbial options. Washing and bathing have always had some form of odor involved, for those who did not smell “clean” were labeled as inferior, another classist form of attack aimed at the poor. Our associations, the various ideas of smelling clean, have definitely changed over the years as options for cleanliness increased, but to consider the alternative. I challenged her to imagine showering only with a scentless piece of glycerin (I know, again not completely odorless, but nothing in comparison to a BBW body wash), and to ask herself if she would still feel clean using only it. How would she know? The point being that she had been indoctrinated into a world where smelling clean had specific meanings to different cultures around the world. If she chose to rebel, it would not go unnoticed.
I then grabbed the deodorant. Again, I asked her to imagine having to let go of what is a safety blanket for most people. Especially in America, people do not react favorably to a person smelling of armpit sweat. While there are “fragrance free” alternatives to deodorants (Crystal), I do not know of a single “fragrance free” antiperspirant. Perhaps this is because the normal chemicals used in A/P’s smell horrid, kind of defeating the purpose of applying them in the first place. I took this a step further and asked her to imagine her same office with no one allowed to wear deodorant. On an especially hot or stressful day, as bodies underwent their natural processes, could she survive? Could her clients survive? Again, remember there is no option to open any windows.
Not wishing to beat the point over the head, I ended with the towel. “I don’t normally wear a towel to work,” she said. “That would definitely be frowned upon.” I went back to the idea of the smokers in her office. I asked if she had considered how their clothes would smell not only robbed of the scent of Angel, but also of the scent of clean laundry? Would they ever not smell of smoke? Thinking back to the compound effect of Angel, what type of cumulative odor would present itself without scented detergent? Furthermore, would she experience the same level of comfort wearing her own clothes if they did not smell of fabric softener. Back to the point of using deodorant, did she understand that her own body would still add a scent to everything she wore, everything she touched?
You see, we live in a fragranced world. Trying to avoid it is like trying to deny you have a nose… or more importantly that others have a nose. Fragrance is so much more than EDT’s and EDP’s. It’s even more than the handful of products we discussed here. Like an invisible friend holding our hand as we walk, scent safely guides us through our days. Look to the grass, the flowers, the trees… nature is definitely covered in fragrance. Exhaust fumes, kitchen smells, even Dora’s tea, olfaction follows us inside and outdoors. Fragrance also protects us from the dangers of fire or gas leaks, helps us to communicate our deepest sexual desires (pheromones), cleans away nasty bacteria as we go through hygiene rituals… Probably most importantly though, fragrance weds itself with all of our memories, allowing us to be transported back to places long forgotten.
We don’t just wear fragrance, we use fragrance.
I could see from her face that Dora was not completely convinced. My passionate monologue wasn’t going to do anything to stop the assault being waged on her nose at work. That was going to take some more thought. However, at least she was now aware, more cognizant of the inescapable properties of fragrance. After a quick once over inside her master bathroom upstairs (yes I did indeed find more scented bath and shower products), I thanked Dora for her time and honesty, and made my way home to Brooklyn.
The entire trip home, I had visions of Dora, sitting in her office chair, trying to concentrate on her computer screen while surrounded by three cackling girls constantly spraying oversized bottles of Angel, laughing maniacally (for some reason in my own visions, they all wore Macy’s name tags…). I could feel a headache of my own starting. From her description, the real pain I saw written across her face, I knew she was an innocent victim of fragrance abuse. I asked myself, “How would you respond to being attacked with fragrance bombs? How do you escape giant Angel-laced tentacles?”
At first I came up with a series of unacceptable answers: pull an “Office” style Meredith rundown, lock them out of the building, leave opens jars of civet hidden in their cubicles. While funny to think about, the goal here was not to get Dora fired (or arrested). In the end, I decided to try something inspired by a recent trip to Japan.
First, I wrote Dora a “thank you” note, expressing my sincerest gratitude for sharing her story with me. Her predicament was real, and I took everything she had said to heart. This was a serious situation, and I truly felt her pain. Along with the letter, I packed a box full of fragrant gifts: first off, some refills of what I had seen in her house, but also a few fine fragrances I wanted her to take to the office with her. These bottles were for the men and women in Dora’s office; lighter, daytime office scents more appropriate (and less disruptive), but a few that still had a subtle tip of the hat to Angel’s gourmand beauty aimed at appeasing Erica’s gang of three.
With these bottles, I also included some literature on office place, scent inspired, productivity studies. My hope was that some fragrance education, and hard core facts, would help the others see the error of their ways, while preventing Dora’s crusade for a “fragrance free” zone. Amongst these papers were a guide on fragrance application and usage, as well as a case study on an office I visited in Japan that used scent to regulate productivity throughout the Japanese work day by using timed release spritzes of lemon and lavender. Everything focused on how we can “use” scent responsibly in our daily lives, and how through its usage, powerful results were possible.
There was a real lesson to be learned from this experience with Dora: Never trivialize someone’s real response to scent exposure. If they claim it is affecting them, hear them out and try to get to the root of the problem. Ask yourself, how you would feel in a similar scenario? Is your own scent affiliation worth the pain caused to others? Would you make the same olfactive choices if you knew them to make a friend or loved-one ill or uncomfortable? Is it having the desired results? And most importantly, is compromise a possibility?
The point is, we all have relationships with fragrances, both positive and negative. It’s part of what makes us unique individuals. It’s also the reason for so many options offered up by the fragrance industry. Even manufacturers understand that not every scent is going to be your cup of tea. It’s why they provide so many options or launch under multiple brand names and include multiple styles. They know not everyone is a size 2, or is the type of person comfortable wearing bright red lipstick.
Every person is different. The only thing we do have in common is that basic human connection to scent… that special relationship each of us has with our own nose. For those of us that work in the fragrance industry, it is important that we spend just as much time (if not more) educating people on how to cultivate, understand, and grow that relationship as we spend on creation. We owe it to our customers.
Months went by, but I did indeed receive a follow up message from Dora. I was so curious to hear how things were going. Turns out, the scent box was a hit. Once the girls understood how they were flooding the room, they apologized, and promised to try and be more considerate to others in the office. They also eagerly gobbled up the freebies. Her bosses had loved the information on using scent to increase productivity, and were looking into how they might execute similar ideas in their own office, especially if it really helped with numbers. Even Dora admitted to a little fragrance experimentation, hanging on to a bottle of a Jo Malone scent I included in the care package for “special occasions.”
Thankfully, my message had been heard. The march towards a “fragrance free” zone was over.