Smells, Community and Freedom
By Charles Bush
I have managed a dozen communities of all sizes and types over the past 50 years. The question of what to do about the way some folks smell, that other folks don't like, is always a sensitive and thorny issue. I always think that the things we don't like to talk about have a lot to teach us, and smells are high on that list.
What is it that is so special about smells compared to our other senses, and what can smells teach us about managing interpersonal boundaries in a community?
In order to “sense” something, we have to “let it in” somehow. For example, to see, we have to let light in our eyes. Light rays aren't so scary, and we can just look away or close our eyes if things don't look pretty to us. To feel a touch, we have to make physical contact on the body's surface. We mostly stay in control because we can usually avoid undesired contact. Hearing is a little more complicated because sound can travel a long way and is harder to avoid. Nevertheless, at least it is just air waves getting into us – may be unpleasant, but at least not physically intrusive. Tastes are very intrusive, but we can avoid them by simply keeping our mouths
Then there is smell. Which happens when little particles get right in our nose, and we know there's something real that got inside us. Nevertheless it can come from a distance, and since we have to breathe, we just can't keep smells out. They really intrude in a very intimate way. Smells are also connected strongly to emotion, and to attraction and repulsion. As a result we react strongly to how someone else smells, and all around the world, in different cultures we have different smell preferences.
All of this makes it very hard for us to talk about smells, and hard to listen when someone tells us we don't smell good to them. When someone doesn't match our smell preferences, we generally want the “community manager” to fix it, whether that is our parent, the club president, the coach, the teacher, the theatre manager, the restaurant server, or the senior center director.
Sometimes that can be a good solution. The thing to remember is that whenever folks in the community have different preferences, styles, or “smell sensibilities” it is worth trying to make an adjustment with a simple unemotional chat. If we turn to the “boss” to decide which sensibility wins, or decide to make rules about it, we always end up giving up some of our freedom. Learning how to work things out – person-to-person – can be hard, a little scary, but in the end very rewarding.
How we smell to one another is really action-packed and intimate. If we can learn to tackle a hard one like that in a personal way, we will be on our way toward a beautiful self-governing community. So take a good whiff, and if something doesn't tickle your fancy have a friendly visit about it. It's hard to know how we smell to others, because were so used to ourselves. Having someone mention it is great – like when someone tells you your zipper is unzipped or your shirt button undone, or there is something caught on your teeth or coming out your nose. Those are the times when sharing information builds community by allowing us to freely accommodate one another in a kind way by negotiating our preferences.
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