“What’s a nice way to tell someone (who you’re not super close to) that they smell bad?” This is a question I encountered on Facebook a few days ago. It was interesting to read, but it’s a legitimate question. So I came up with some answers, some better than others. I sort them by their being indirect or direct. I take no responsibility for their success in the real world.
Indirect approaches for back-handed people
Ambiguous bad smell
“Ugh, smells like x.” Here, make sure the thing you mention does not directly describe the odorous person. For example, if someone smells sweaty, don’t say “ugh, smells like sweat.” Go for something more indirect like “smells like cheese” if their sweat smells like cheese, or if they have bad breath, “smells like farts” may be in order.
Be really back-handed. Ask them if they just got back from the gym, right after a quick sniff. Some more examples of innocent questions, most of them relating to exercising: “Have you been trying out CrossFit?” “Do you change clothes after you work out, or just wear the same things all day?” “How often do you like to shampoo your hair? I heard different types of hair have different needs.”
Try to tell a story relevant to the story which led to your audience’s odor. If it seems like the guy to whom you’re talking hasn’t showered, tell a story of a person who didn’t shower and faced repulsion from her peers. “You know what’s weird? I just remembered Karen, who refused to shower in eighth grade. Everyone could smell her within a 5-yard radius. She got sent home from school one time for her body odor.” Or let them know about other smelly people who are still better than your audience for their efforts. “Guys in middle school always masked their crappy odor with Axe. I mean, it just made it worse, but at least they tried.”
The personal anecdote follows the same idea as the impersonal anecdote, but adds a personal element, giving you more space to say what you want. “I used to x. That was really embarrassing; I smelled like y.” Let your audience know you did something similar to what they did once. And that you smelled terrible for it.
Friendly suggestion or offer
Hey look, a random hygienic item! Made to make people hygienic! “Have you tried this bath bomb? I just found it and think you might really like it.” Alternatives: “Want a mint?” “Have you tried this gum?”
Direct approaches for front-handed people
Be a social butterfly and charm people with your wits. Or your lack of confidence. “Dude, your feet smell wild. Haha.” The laughter here is crucial. Put your direct message off with a playful or timid laugh, signaling lightheartedness or maybe a simple lack of confidence to offend.
Make it sound like you’re doing the smelly person a favor by letting them in on their odors. For example, you might say, “just a heads up so you don’t unwittingly offend x: your breath smells shitty.” If it’s just you and the smelly person, tell them you’re helping them by preparing them for the future: “Guy, if you want to get Julie, you’d better start showering.”
“You smell bad.” Some people are good for this one. Be selective, though. Go back to joking by throwing in a timid laugh if you’re feeling uncomfortable.
The same principles here may apply to other instances of being gentle with people. Does someone have spinach in her teeth? Be extremely indirect by asking her if she likes to floss, or go for a nice laugh: “You have spinach in your teeth. Haha.” However, a word of advice is to only inform people of their deficiencies if they are immediately resolvable. For example, you might not want to let someone in on his acne in the middle of a party. Tell him afterwards. Have fun beating people down gently!