Issues involved in cross cultural communication are often more earthy than ethereal. I know this from experience, having worked in an office environment long enough to know forever and two days afterward that I was not cut out for that particular life. You live long enough, you are bound to learn a few things. One of the few things I learned back then–knowledge that I never in 1.6 million years thought I would ever possibly use but for the one obvious way that is about to become more obvious to you–is that working in any sort of close proximity with others in a place of business that has a high turnover rate eventually brings you into contact with how important cross cultural communication can be. Especially when the culture with whom you are at cross purposes communicates the closeness of their proximity in a less socially acceptable manner.
Those who have been raised in the more antiseptic culture of industrial Western countries have grown accustomed to mass-produced artificial aromas to make working in close proximity to others more pleasing to the olfactory sense. Such attention to artificial scents designed to mask the body’s natural musk is not as culturally widespread around the globe as these people might expect.
Body odor is an element of human existence capable of producing fodder for stand-up comics, but when it comes to cross cultural communication, the problem and the solution may be anything but funny. The problem of having to work closely with someone who is not as obsessed with perfumes, colognes, body sprays and deodorants is exacerbated when the issue moves beyond the individual and into the arena of the cross cultural communication. So how do you go about politely informing a co-worker that their body odor is offensive to the point of impacting efficiency without insulting their culture?
The first step in the process is to remain above the temptation to make a joke about it. If the body odor is affecting your capacity to work efficiently, it’s not funny. Body odor is serious business so approach the situation with maturity. You have a few options that you can consider before broaching the subject. The first option, of course, is to put distance between you and the person with the odor. Try to get your work done so that you are not in close proximity to the person.
Another step to effective cross cultural communication when working with a person with a foul body odor is to charge up your workspace with attractive scents. If possible, light a scented candle in your cubicle. If burning a candle is not a possibility, try placing a few scented soaps on your desk in a decorative manner. Fighting fire with fire is one of your options, but one that is simply not practical under certain working conditions. And it is up to you to do a little cross cultural communication on your own to make sure that this approach is not offensive to your co-worker to the point that now their work is being negatively impacted.
If you don’t want to come face to face with your co-worker about the body odor issue because of embarrassment or because you simply are not confident you can discuss the issue without your efforts at cross culture communication transforming into an issue of your cultural insensitivity, you should consult with your Human Resources Department, if applicable. Remember that you are entitled to a working environment that is not offensive to you just as much as your co-worker with the body odor problem is entitled to his own cultural differences. If necessary, let the higher-ups do the dirty work that they get paid more to do.
The last option you’ve got is to address the body odor issue head-on. Before you approach your co-worker, however, you should arm yourself with knowledge. Educate yourself about the culture in which the co-worker grew up and try to find out as much as you can about how that culture deals with issues of hygiene and cosmetics. Only when you feel confident that you can communicate your private concern of an individual’s body odor within the more public context of cultural differences should actually broach the subject. Make sure this conversation takes place away from any prying ears and don’t do anything that would cause unnecessary embarrassment to your co-worker. Or to yourself, if you seem to be the odd person out among several co-workers.
The best approach is the most professional. So bring up the issue with the context of cross cultural communication by informing them of how the bad odor is negatively impacting your ability to get your job done to the best of your ability. In most cases, the co-worker will accept the news without incident and take steps to improve the smell emanating from their body. If this is not how the situation winds up and the co-worker does not take the advice in a mature way, then for sure it is definitely time to take the situation higher up the ladder.