How To Tell Someone They Smell – Without Offending Them

No matter how polite you are, some conversations are just hard to start. How do you tell someone they smell? It’s embarrassing. Isn’t it? On several occasions, I have suffered quietly because I couldn’t ‘man-up’ and speak. But wait a minute; now that we are embarrassed about these odors, are we implying we don’t know where they come from? Okay, let’s assume we don’t know and discuss the causes of body odors.

Why do people smell?

There are multiple reasons why someone may smell. The first one is obvious, hygiene issues. A person may just be dirty. Maybe they don’t consider a daily bath important. Even when it’s obvious that they sweat and interact with scores of people, they treat it as a casual routine. Others rewind clothes. When you wear clothes more than once especially on hot days, what do you expect? Odors will not escape you. Similar scenarios include skipping important body-care routines such as brushing teeth, shaving, ear-cleaning, and proper sanitary hygiene.

 Besides hygiene, medical conditions such as liver and kidney problems can cause the body to smell. Other conditions include foot fungus, skin problems, mouth sores, ear infections, and nose infections. Hyperhidrosis – a condition that causes excessive sweating, stress, menopause, and being overweight can also increase body odor. Although rare, genetic issues can also cause body odor.

Strong scents as well – mainly from perfumes or consumed foods are also known to increase odor.

How do you tell someone they smell without offending them?

To tell someone they smell without offending them

  1. Request for permission to tell them
  2. Move to a secluded place
  3. Unearth the issue, ask if they are aware and whether it concerns them
  4. Give room for explanation
  5. Find a solution together
  6. Conclude on a positive note

1.    Request for permission to tell them

So, you have decided regardless of the cause of the odor, we need to find a way of telling that colleague or friend that they smell. To prepare a person mentally, set the stage by asking for permission to share the private conversation. You can say “Hi, I need to ask you something in private if that’s okay with you” or “sir, there is something private I want us to discuss. May I have a minute with you?”

When you ask for permission, it disarms the person and prepares you mentally. Most people will be curious and will agree; others may block you at that point. If the person resists, don’t force it. Thank the person and leave. Leave that door open for another time or person.

2.    Find privacy

If the person agrees, it’s time to create the right environment. Find a private room or if they have a private office, you can close the door. This secures their confidence so they can talk freely. It also covers you. In case the discussion’ goes south’, you won’t be embarrassed. You don’t have to make this a big deal, once the person agrees to step one, immediately suggest moving to another room. You can also mention it in passing and say, “I need to close this door.”

3.    Begin the conversation

Be mild and go straight to the point so that you don’t cause anxiety. Use appreciation or a disarming statement to make it easier. Say “I really like your dressing but there’s something about your body scent that doesn’t compliment you. Are you aware?” or “this is totally embarrassing but you have an unfriendly body odor these days. Have you noticed?” 

To make this person feel comfortable, make the issue about you. Do not mention anybody else in the conversation regardless of whether people around show it or not.

4.    Give room for explanation and find a solution together

Let the person respond to your concern. Try not to be judgmental even if you feel it’s something they could have worked on. Instead, help them find a solution. For instance, if they sweat excessively, you can advise them to invest in wet wipes to help them freshen up often. You can also offer to help them look for a suitable antiperspirant or deodorant.

It’s also possible that a person may have no idea what the issue is. Assuming they say, “I don’t even notice it.” Try not to embarrass them, accept their response as it is, and help them explore the possible causes and their solutions.

5.    Conclude the conversation on a positive note

It’s not easy to be confronted with such a personal issue and to find the courage to cooperate. Thank the person for allowing you to address the issue. Affirm them so that their confidence remains intact. Also, let the person know their information is safe with you. Here is an example of what you can say. “Thank you so much for allowing me to address this. I know it’s not easy. Let’s keep this between us and if you need any help, you can always talk to me.”

Why you need to tell someone they smell

I know you may be wondering, “Why should I bother?” Maybe you are not the person’s supervisor or close friend. A lot of people suffer in silence. Why should you be the one to talk?

You need to tell someone they smell because:

1.    It improves their life.

As you can imagine, people tend to sit farthest from a person who smells leave alone interact with them. When you share with them and help them improve their scent, you increase their social acceptability.

2.    It clears the tension between you two and creates friendships.

When you open up and talk about such an embarrassing issue, you open doors for a better relationship. That person finds the freedom to open up about other personal matters.

3.    It increases productivity.

When people are not distracted, they work better and yield better results. As for the affected person, their confidence improves and they are motivated to work and yield better results. Overall, they become a better person.

Also see How to Tell Someone They Talk Too Much


Am a graduate sociologist and a regular contributor to national publications such as the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Journal of Applied Social Science and the Annual Review of Sociology.

Recent Posts