We’ve all had that experience. You walk into someone’s house and within minutes you notice a horrid odor. Their cats’ litter boxes or their garbage can is wafting a nasty aroma. The smell could be infiltrating the entire house, every room you enter stinks to high heaven. So, how do you tell them?
Telling someone their house smells bad is a delicate situation that requires finesse, class, and a little bit of etiquette. Start with a cautious question such as: “Do you smell something, too?” If the answer to this question is yes, you can offer your help.
Devising Your Approach
Telling someone their house smells is a delicate, fragile matter. In most cases, people will be receptive and appreciative of honesty. But, there will be those who will find it offensive. And yet, others don’t really care about the smell, regardless of how bad it is.
On a more positive note, this doesn’t have to become a dramatic scene.
But, you do have to employ some objectivity, sensitivity, and couth. Also, you should read the person, how they are about issues of truth (if you know it) and if the situation calls for it.
Regardless, use keen observation and selectiveness while also being sincere and helpful. The point is, whatever you do, you want to be diplomatic and nonchalant about it.
You Level of Knowledge about the Person
Obviously, your largest determiner on how to handle this will be your level of familiarity. Are they close friends or relatives? Is this someone you just met? Are they a coworker or an acquaintance? Or, is this someone you’ve known for many years?
In the event this is a huge gray area, there is a good go-to you can try. But, before getting into that, this will depend on how long you plan on being at this person’s house.
The Length of Time Spent at the House
If you’re going to be there for 15 to 20 minutes or less, don’t say anything at all. However, there may be times where the odor is too overpowering, even for that short duration. You could say you’re going to take a call outside or that you have to check something in the car. It’s simply not worth saying something at this point.
In the event, you’re going to be there for a while, ask with sincere curiosity:
“Do you smell something?”
And gauge what the person says; there are a variety of responses that can result.
How to Gauge ; Possible Methods
Their reaction and response will provide valuable information to make a quick decision. You will be able to gauge if the person is aware of the stench and you’ll be able to observe their level of sensitivity.
If you know the person well, just be honest about it. You know yourself, them, and your relationship. So, deliver it in a way you know they’ll best receive the message.
If you make this benign inquiry and the person acts aloof or appears unaware, just reiterate your questions. If anyone else is in the room, look to them and see if they also smell it. Usually, other people will follow suit when someone else breaks the ice.
But, if the person acknowledges there’s a smell and tells you about it, then perhaps you can offer to help them. It may be sufficient to clean the cats’ litter box more often.
Sometimes, old houses just smell bad. This is often the case when there’s a mustiness. In the case you know it’s an old house, chances are, the person is aware of the odor.
It’s common for older homes to have mold or mildew from water damage, weather, wear-and-tear, etc.
There’s really nothing that you can do about it. You can try to burn some incense, light a scented candle or spray some air freshener. But, there’s no guarantee this will rid the smell.
The Power of Honesty
When people live in a place for a significant amount of time, they could be nose-blind. It’s possible they don’t smell the stench that you do. So, this becomes a matter requiring some delicacy. You don’t want to be offensive, but you really can’t stand the nastiness offending your olfactory system.
You might amaze yourself at how often people actually appreciate honesty though. It may seem like instinct to not say anything but consider for a moment that it’s ruder to not speak up than it is to keep quiet.
Alternatively, you shouldn’t blurt things out haphazardly. While you want to let them know, especially if they seem oblivious, avoid being patronizing or condescending as much as possible.
Which do you think is ruder? Telling someone their house smells bad? Or gossiping about it behind their back and posting your disdain on social media or an online forum? As the answer may seem quite simple, there are caveats.
You could find yourself in a situation where you use all the couth and finesse in the world and it will still go over like a turd in a punch bowl. Either the person becomes upset with you or they don’t care.
In Rare Circumstances
It’s not infrequent for some people to acknowledge the odor but they don’t concern themselves with it at all. This is probably the only instance where you can put your foot down with your feelings. You can say that you can’t stand it.
However, this is very rare and most people don’t want others to be uncomfortable in their homes.
Dealing with Sensitive People
While it’s true some people value truthfulness, others are very sensitive about it. Some people equate truth as a personal attack or a critique. For those people, you will have to use a different tactic.
Oversensitivity = Insecurity
Many psychological studies supply strong evidence that the easily offended are very insecure.  Whatever happened in their life, they just don’t take well to what they perceive as negative, especially when it’s directed specifically at them.
More often than not, these people listen best when you cater to their egos.
So, when you are blunt about the smell of their home, this might trigger their deep inner sense of doubt. They’ll shriek, get upset, or exhibit defensive maneuvers, so you have to come at them from a more roundabout approach.
Use a Gentle Approach
As an example, you could ask them about their favorite scent or if they practice aromatherapy. But, you can’t just throw it into the conversation, you have to work it in when there’s a window for it. You can start this off by asking about their favorite food or flowers. From here, slowly work their favorite scent into the conversation.
Next time, give them a gift. Bring a scented candle, some incense, or an essential oil diffuser with the appropriate fragrance.
Understanding Your Place in the Situation
Remember, it’s not all about you and your preferences. You may not understand the situation, what’s happening in that person’s house, or if the person is aware of it. So, any belligerent, arrogant, or insensitive approach on your part will be in bad taste.
Always try to be aware of others and have some semblance of consideration. This will be especially true if you’re a guest in a person’s home with who you aren’t close to or familiar. So, observing a little etiquette will go a long way.
Tips to Avoid Rudeness
- Don’t just start chasing down the smell the very moment you notice it.
- Try not to appear disgusted or start covering your nose. While it’s difficult to do, that is definitely rude.
- Don’t waltz into someone’s house you just met and announce there’s a nasty smell. While it may be true, it’s simply rude. You’re only thinking of yourself and it’s an epic display of the ultimate selfishness.
- If you choose the gift route, don’t just assume it. When you bring something like incense and you didn’t discuss it before, it may come off as imperious. Besides, some people can’t handle incense or are allergic to fragrances. If you don’t know this ahead of time, such a gift can be disastrous.
- At the very least, don’t take it upon yourself to announce the horrid odor and handle it. This will be particularly poignant if you don’t know the person or are only spending a short period of time in the house.
It’s Not the End of the World
While the smell is likely to be unbearable, the only thing that’s offended is your sense of smell. It’s not going to kill you and it won’t come home with you. Unless it’s something like cigars or cigarettes, it might stick to your clothing. But, you can always wash them.
In this case, the smell is so strong and overpowering you absolutely must cover your nose, apologize immediately. Try to state as kindly as possible how you feel about it.
Katie Holmes is a senior author at everyday-courtesy.com with over 15 years of experience in marketing and psychology. As a freelance consultant, she also supports companies and executives in overcoming communication challenges. Katie is a passionate digital nomad working on her first book on the art of communication.