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Heavy Meddle: Help! My Friend Has B.O.!

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Dear Steve,
What is the best way to tell a friend that he smells bad?
Signed,
Just Say No to B.O.

Dear Just Say No,
If this is your way of telling me I have B.O. — not cool, dude. But if this is a real question about someone else who smells bad, let’s set down a few sureties.

First: There’s no nice way to say this. The fact that your friend has taken no measures to alter his bodily aroma indicates that he’s either unaware that he’s malodorous, or that he’s fine with how he smells, regardless of what others think. I’m not sure which is worse.

Second: You may not be the right person to say this. You should think carefully about why you’ve nominated yourself for this job. Are there other people, such as a partner or family member, who you might want to consult? And does your friend trust you enough to be able to hear your comments as concerned rather than humiliating?

I’m not sure it’s psychologically healthy for an entire culture to pretend that our bowel movements smell like vanilla-scented candles.

Third: Is it necessary for you to say something? I mean by this: What’s your true purpose? Do you think this person is losing friends or romantic/social/business opportunities? Is he the butt of jokes or derisive conversation among mutual acquaintances? These would be good reasons to say something.
But if his smell is just offending you, well, that feels a bit iffier. Consider how you’d feel if he complained about some aspect of your hygiene. If you can honestly say that you’d be grateful for the feedback, then apply the golden rule.

Finally, as you might have sensed, I have some sympathy for your friend. As a rule, I think Americans are too uptight about cleanliness. Much of our consumer culture seems devoted to eliminating all sensory evidence of our natural human bodily processes. We’re in the stage of capitalism where even trash bags are scented. And yet: I’m not sure it’s psychologically healthy for an entire culture to pretend that our bowel movements smell like vanilla-scented candles. And we’ve almost reached this weird overload point, where the scent pollution has gotten so bad that as many people complain these days about strong perfumes as underarm odor.

Again: I’m not saying that you don’t have a right to be concerned about your pal stinking up the joint. If you think he’s driving people away (you, for instance) than by all means speak up. But do so with some humility in the recognition that we all stink up the joint in our own special ways, if not literally than in some other fashion that we’ll probably never recognize until a friend does so for us, with compassion. ♥


(Kevin N. Murphy/flickr)
(Kevin N. Murphy/flickr)

Dear Steve,
I am currently in my early 30s and happily married. How do you know when it is the right time to have kids? Or buy a house?
--On the Brink

Dear Brink,
Good questions, both. Let me take them one at a time.

First, there is no “right” time to have a child. There’s just the moment when you and your partner finally hop off the fence. Or (if you’re me) when you and your partner have a little too much box wine. But honestly, my feeling about kids is pretty basic: In terms of the time and emotion and money you’re going to invest, it’s either pay me now or pay me later. And from where I’m sitting — as a dad in his mid-40s who must sometimes say things like, “Just give daddy a minute, so he can realign his herniated disk” — I’d have had the kids much sooner, if I’d had that option.

The less time you spend anxiously cogitating over major life decisions the more time you’ll have to feel anxious about the actual results of those major life decisions.

Then again, this is your decision. Only you and your partner can say when you’re ready. And you’re best to listen to your gut, because you’re the one who’s going to be waking in the middle of the night to (let’s say) clean baby poop off the drapes. Will you be as happy with children as you were without children? The answer is probably no, based on the existing psychological surveys. But I’d argue that the quality of happiness changes as well. Children force you to love more deeply, and more thanklessly, and more tirelessly. That’s just part of the contract. In all likelihood, it was for your parents as well.

Now then, when it comes to buying a house I will be equally useless. I purchased a house a month or so after eloping with my pregnant fiancé. My reasoning for doing so is pretty clearly set out in the previous sentence. Up until then, I’d been happily living in a septic one-bedroom in Somerville.

I’m not a great believer in the peculiar American idea that everyone should own their own home. Some people (such as me, for instance) have no idea how to repair anything. And being a homeowner is therefore a constant source of anguish, humiliation and repair bills. But that’s just me. Maybe you and/or your partner are sick of paying rent, or dealing with a landlord, or eager for a sense of adult ownership. In this case, the world of real estate psychosis awaits you.

The thing to realize is that your life belongs to you. It’s short and precious and the less time you spend anxiously cogitating over major life decisions the more time you’ll have to feel anxious about the actual results of those major life decisions. And that’s where the real action is. ♥


Editor's Note: Well, readers, what do you think? Did Steve get it right? Did he miss the mark? Let us hear from you in the comments. What about you? Are you struggling with your own existential crisis? An etiquette issue? Mild forms of social self-recrimination? We can help. Send your questions: advice@wbur.org

This program aired on June 3, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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