Body Odor & Dead People: How Culture & Scent Preferences Mix

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.

How Culture Shapes Our World

You woke up this morning and ate a breakfast of eggs and toast without consciously realizing that breakfast was culture.

You dressed, got ready, did your hair, suited up without realizing that style is culture.

You went to work by metro, jostled in between a man in sneakers and sweatpants and a woman in a pantsuit, both on their smartphones, without realizing that mode of transportation, personal space, and gender equality are culture.

You sat in on a morning meeting, putting forth your ideas, your boss nodding along, without realizing that business and hierarchical structures are culture.

You chatted with your colleagues about the latest episode of Game of Thrones without realizing communication and entertainment are culture.

Although culture can appear in the form of tangible things – fashion, entertainment, food, etc. – our own culture is, for the most part, invisible. We don’t often say, “Hey, look – there’s culture!” We breathe it without thinking about it.

And, yet, culture shapes everything in our world.

The Not-So-Invisible Shapes of Culture

Being that culture is so alive and vibrant, it’s not so much that you don’t see culture or know it’s there. The thing is, you’re often blind to your own culture, until it’s contrasted with others.

For instance, here are a few cultural differences. Consider your own culture’s preferences in contrast with those below:

  • Greetings – a handshake in America, a kiss on both cheeks in Italy, a bow in Japan
  • Breakfast – a croissant in France, bread and honey in Morocco, fried noodles in China
  • Common mode of transport – a car in Los Angeles, the Underground in London, a bicycle in Amsterdam
  • Punctuality – extremely punctual in Switzerland, very late in Thailand, punctual in business/not so much in personal matters in Chile
  • Sports – hockey in Canada, cricket in India, football basically everywhere else in the world

These are just some of the ways in which cultures differ. Now, imagine yourself trying to integrate some of these foreign cultural preferences into your life.

Cross-Cultural Understanding

Most of the things around you are culture, from what you eat to what you watch to what you wear, from how you get around to how you think and speak. Apart from your genetic material, culture is everything that shapes who you are and how you view the world.

Knowing all this, in order to integrate into another culture, you must make an effort to stop Viewing Others Through Your Own Culture-Tinted Glasses.

Next week, I’ll provide tips on how to do just that. Stay tuned.