What would you do if you were on the metro, and you caught a strong whiff of body odor? You’d probably hold your breath, right?
Over the past few weeks, we’ve learned that cultures view scent in different ways.
The West tends to view it as of a lower order, in relation to the other four senses.
Other cultures – like the Onge and Indian groups – hold scent in high esteem. Algerians even reference the nose as their “honor.”
But not only do we view scent in a different way; we also may smell it differently.
Body Odor & Dead People
In some cultures, physical scent takes on a spiritual form.
For instance, a person’s scent is associated with personal identity for the Bororo of Brazil and the Serer Ndut of Senegal.
The Bororo see body odor as a person’s life force.
And the Ndut take this a step further. They believe in a physical and a spiritual scent-defined force.
The physical force is, of course, associated with body odor. The spiritual force may indicate when a deceased person or ancestor has been reincarnated in the body of a child with a similar scent.
On the other hand, Western cultures generally consider body odor unfavorable and even embarrassing. They do anything they can to cover it up.
Deodorants, body sprays, cologne, aftershave.
Natural body odor in the West is not a good thing.
But a Westerner in Africa might be considered strange for trying to cover up their god-given scent. In fact, I’ve been told by Africans that white people smell like death…which we can safely assume is not a compliment.
The Scents Around Us
The cultural preferences of scent may be partially influenced by the scents surrounding us, the scents we’ve taken in during primary socialization.
Consider a local market in Africa.
The fragrances are strong, exotic, unfamiliar. A Westerner might breathe in these aromas and find them unpleasant, while locals would probably disagree.
Much of what we find attractive in a scent depends on what’s valued in our culture.
In Ethiopia, the Dassanetch people, who raise cattle, find the smell of cattle preferable. The scent is tied to fertility and social status, so men often cover their bodies in cow manure and wash their hands in cow urine.
In Mali, the Dogon people find the fragrant scent of onion alluring. Both men and women use fried onion as a perfume, rubbing it on their bodies to attract partners.
All of these examples just goes to show that our own environment often influences our preferences, shapes how we see the world, and ultimately defines our sense of smell.
Next week, we’ll discuss research on the differences in German and Japanese scent preferences.