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.

Cultural Conditioning: How Does Our Culture Influence the Way We See the World?

figure1

Look at this figure. Study it. Memorize it.

Now, take out a blank sheet of paper, turn your screen away, and draw the figure from memory.

Return to your screen.

Did you draw it accurately?

For more than a decade, I’ve given my classes this test, and I’ve yet to have a single student be replicate this picture from memory.

Why does this simple figure baffle us so?

Three-dimensional Conditioning

In Western culture, we are taught to recognize three-dimensional projections on paper as real object replicas.

In all actuality, this drawing when taken in two-dimensional pieces is only three circles, six horizontal lines, three diagonals and one vertical line.

But when we see this figure through our Western lens, our brains start doing mental gymnastics, trying to interpret a two-dimensional figure as a three-dimensional one.

This happens with other like-figures. M. C. Escher’s infinite staircase based on Penrose Stairs, for instance.

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Or the triangle of Penrose.

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Because we have been trained and socialized to see three-dimensionality on paper, we have a much harder time replicating these impossible figures.

Absence of Three-dimensional Conditioning

Zambian children with no academic education were presented with the same exercise by J. B. Deregowski, author of Illusions, Patterns, and Pictures.

How did they do?

You probably guessed that they were much more successful at reproducing the figure above.

However, if you asked the same students to give you directions using a two-dimensional map, more than likely, they’d be unable to transpose the map against reality’s three-dimensional surroundings.

Why?

Because they weren’t taught to see three-dimensional figures on paper. Three-dimensionality is not important to their culture, thus, to them, there is no optical illusion.

It’s that simple.

90°

Right angles are another example of differing cultural perceptions.

People who live in traditional societies with arched doorways, arched ceilings, round huts are known to have a “circular culture.”

They are not able to perceive 90° angles, because right angles don’t appear in nature. They don’t exist there, so they don’t exist in the architecture or elsewhere in these cultures.

Conditioning

The color research we’ve talked about over the past couple weeks demonstrates that our perception of the world through our senses is influenced by cultural conditioning.

For instance, we mentioned that Russian culture differentiates between dark blue and light blue with language, defining them as totally different colors.

The British, on the other hand, don’t define them as two colors, but as two shades of one color.

Brit and Russian optics have the same functionality.

But, for some cultural reason, the distinction between light and dark blue isn’t of great importance to the Brits, while it is to Russians, according to their language.

Why is that?

Next week, we’ll talk more about how our visual framework influences our interpretation of reality.

When Cultures Collide: A Profound Conflict of Values

We’ve talked about what can happen when physical or time limitations prevent full cross cultural integration. We’ve talked about what can happen when your own discomfort with another culture’s norms gets in the way of adapting.

But what happens when there are certain behaviors and norms you don’t want to adapt to due to your own deep-seated cultural values?

This is where cross cultural issues can cause some real friction.

The Headscarf

One example is, of course, the cultural norm of wearing a headscarf.

In some Muslim countries, it is not government mandated for women to wear a headscarf (hijab). Unless you’re visiting a mosque, it’s an optional behavior, for native people and for tourists.

However, if you visit or work in a Muslim country where women must wear a headscarf by law, like Saudi Arabia, then you are faced with a norm rooted in cultural values that directly contradict your own.

While wearing a headscarf is easy enough to do, it’s the values that the headscarf symbolize that many Westerners reject. Freedom of choice is the foundation of Western culture.

If you refuse to adapt to the practice in a country for which it is law to wear the headscarf, or in a country which, more or less, abides by the religious practice, you may not ever fully integrate into the culture, and you may face legal punishment.

What do you do in this case?

To Adapt or Not to Adapt

To adapt or not to adapt, that is the question.

If you are someone who is living and working abroad, and you’re interested in fully integrating into the culture (and I’m guessing you are, if you’re reading this blog), then when facing conflicts like this one, where you feel you will betray your own values by adapting to another’s, you have two choices:

  1. Avoid the situation, altogether; or,
  2. Explain your rationale

In choosing #1, you would refrain from travel to countries where hijabs or burkas are required.

The latter choice is more of a gamble. You must explain your rationale in a way that does not diminish your foreign counterparts’ cultural norm or tradition.

And no matter how diplomatic you are about it, you’re assuming that your foreign counterpart will respect your rationale…which won’t always be the case. 

Not Optional

Some adaptions may not be optional. Awareness and acceptance won’t be enough in situations where cultural values and norms run deep.

So, when living and working in a foreign culture, do your homework beforehand and come prepared to adapt your behavior regarding strict norms and values, whether they fall in line with yours or not.