Can We Talk?

When I was working at the University about 20 years ago, I met a student named Bobby who was really interested in my field of study and he took to hanging around my office to volunteer and learn more about everything we were working on at that time.  He was intelligent, personable, funny, very helpful, and just a really great person to have around.  There was only one problem.  Bobby had just about the worst body odor you can imagine.

It wasn’t just obvious and unpleasant; it was unusual.  It smelled like a combination of urine and ammonia.  It was so bad that even after he had left my office, his odor lingered, and people arriving later would notice it.  It wasn’t long before just about everyone was talking and gossiping about Bobby’s B.O.  I knew I had to do something about it, so I took that on as a personal mission.  I was going to help Bobby overcome his odor, get rid of the gossip, gain self-respect, and restore his bright future.

Before I brought it up with him, I took some time to observe him more closely.  I noticed that every day his hair was clean and combed, clothes freshly laundered.  His hands were clammy every time we shook, but that isn’t necessarily related to odor.  I was satisfied that he was well-groomed every day.

We had a private talk, and I told him that I detected an odor and it would be best if he could address that and eliminate it in whatever way he could.  He told me that he always had that odor and he had tried everything—soaps, deodorants, antiperspirants, you name it.  His mother and grandmother had addressed his condition and over the years everyone had given up.  He told me that the contents of the bulky bag he carried every day contained a change of clothes.  Every day he changed his clothes mid-day, right down to his socks and underwear.  I asked him if he understood that this would affect his future relationships and would probably repel potential mates.  He told me that if they couldn’t accept him as he was, so be it.  I told him that employers might refuse to hire him on the basis that his personal hygiene was substandard.  That gave him pause.

The next day, under the pretext of going out to lunch, we got in my car and headed downtown.  I took him into a supermarket and we stood in front of the deodorants and I invited him to pick one, any one, two if he liked, this would be my treat.  He told me he had tried them all, every single one, even the ones that were advertised as strong and guaranteed.  I took note of that and we left the store.

That afternoon I called my friend JoAnne in the Biology Department. JoAnne was a powerful woman who was also wise and a good friend.  I told her the situation and she responded without hesitating at all: Send him to a doctor.  The next time I saw Bobby, I asked him to please make an appointment and go, and that if he needed any financial help, I would help him.  I repeated the idea that he might not get hired or even land a decent internship if he could not smell good, or at least neutral and OK.  He was easily convinced and he agreed.

I didn’t see Bobby for a few days after that, but the next time I saw him he was smiling and happy—and odor-free.  He told me the doctor said he had a vitamin deficiency!  He got a generic daily multivitamin and some anti-fungal soap, and he now had an effective and enduring solution.  This one, simple action changed his life for the better, and it was all because of a simple conversation.

I had a great experience in talking with Bobby because I learned to overcome my own fear of being honest in an awkward situation.  I learned that my concern for his welfare was greater than my desire to look good and avoid uncomfortable conversations.  I learned that I can speak up in a concerned, supportive way that did not cause defensiveness or anger, and once I was able to learn that, I can now do it at anytime, forever.

Can we talk?  Can we really talk to each other and help each other to be at our best and find solutions?  Will you tell me if there is something I can improve about how I’m being and what I’m doing?  I’ll certainly tell you.  Let’s help each other be at our best, and let’s do that with Love and genuine concern for each other as friends and humans who care.

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