I had a similar situation in college with one of my freshman year roommates. She had horrific body odor coming from her armpits. She showered every day, used deodorant, but she still smelled terribly. It got to the point that other people in the dorm were whispering about her behind her back. Friends no longer wanted to come hang out in our room because it smelled so bad.
Finally, my other roommate and I decided that something had to be done. (There were 3 of us roommates.) We talked to our R.A. (Resident Assistant), hoping that a person in “authority” would handle it. But our R.A. suggested that, as her roommates, we were the closest to her at college, and that it would be less humiliating coming from us than coming from someone in authority. So we took a big breath and decided to do it ourselves.
On the day we had planned to confront her, my other roommate bailed – intentionally leaving the entire burden on my shoulders. So I had to do it myself. It was horrible and nerve wracking, but eventually I did it. I just asked her, “What brand of deodorant are you using?” (It was some type of budget, cheap brand.) And when she responded, I just politely said, “I don’t think that’s working. I think you need to try something different.” I told her that people could smell her. And then I told her about the difference between products with and without antiperspirant. And she was temporarily mortified and embarrassed. And I think a little bit ashamed. And the room was incredibly tense and awkward. But . . . she immediately went out and bought a different brand and the problem resolved instantly. People were no longer whispering about her behind her back. And she went on to make friends and to have a normal college experience. And today, she has a husband and children and is raising a family – all things that might not ever have happened if she had not gotten control of her hygiene. So at the end of the day, it was good that I told her. Sometimes, you just have to quickly rip off the bandaid. Yes, it hurts, but it has to be done and things are much better in the end.
I think the biggest problem is making sure that you communicate in a way that the person knows you are trying to help them, not belittle them or make fun of them or get them into trouble.
Many years ago, my mom had a coworker who smelled like cat urine. This woman was a hoarder of cats, she had way more cats than is normal. And she’d show up to work with a thick layer of cat hair all over her clothing. She smelled as if she kept cat boxes in her closets. She looked as if she’d been leaving her clothes on the floors for the cats to lay all over, then picking up the clothes off the floor in the morning and putting them on for work. And when she got to her desk at work, she’d turn on a little space heater under her desk. Then the hot air would blow and the horrific stench of heated cat urine would fill the whole place.
When she was first hired (while her hygiene was still decent), my mom had agreed to carpool with her, because they lived in the same area and the commute was an hour away. But after the first week of employment, her hygiene seriously declined and the stench in the car was so severe that it triggered my mom’s asthma and she couldn’t breathe – even with the window down and her head pointing out. And my mom’s desk was right next to hers at work and it was triggering her asthma and allergies and she couldn’t breathe.
My mom spent several weeks on high doses of medication, hoping that high doses of medication would help her breathe. It didn’t work. Eventually, my mom just had to do the difficult task of telling her co-worker that the smell of cat was triggering her asthma and her allergies and that she couldn’t breathe. And the lady apologized and came to work clean for about a week. But after that week, she was right back to her old self – stinking like pee and covered in blankets of cat hair. And even knowing my mom couldn’t breathe, her attitude was like, “Too bad, deal with it.” So my mom (who had already stopped commuting with her) had to seek help from Human Resources. And Human Resources did confront the co-worker. And after that, the relationship just soured. The woman was angry and made fun of my mom for not being able to breathe – as if she was making it all up (which she wasn’t). But the smell got a little bit better. Not completely better, but a little bit. And then it was bad again. I don’t remember if my mom eventually asked to move desks or not. (This was many years ago.) But eventually, the lady just left that job and my mom was able to breathe again.
So I guess what I learned from these two situations is the same principle that is set forth in Matthew 18:15-17:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
I know this passage is talking about conflict within the church, but there are nuggets of wisdom for general life as well. When I confronted my roommate privately and discreetly, the situation quickly resolved and the relationship was salvaged. When my mom confronted her co-worker privately and discreetly, the situation was not resolved, and she had to take it up to the next level. At this point of escalation, there is a chance that the relationship cannot be salvaged or normalized. But . . . at the end of the day, you have to breathe and you have to stand up for yourself. If you’ve first confronted the person privately and discreetly, at least you know you’ve done all that you can do to be kind and compassionate and to save them embarrassment. But if they choose not to respect your need to breathe, then they are choosing to disregard you and you know you are within Biblical grounds to seek outside help. If you continue to be friendly and kind and professional, any souring of the relationship rests on their shoulders and is their choice.