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Classmate with a hygiene problem

  1. Feb 5, 2016 #1
    This has been causing a bit of a problem for me lately. One of my classmates absolutely reeks of body odor, it's very clear that he does not shower, and he usually will wear the same clothes for several days on end without changing. He seems to be unaware of it. If he sits near me then I want desperately to get up and move but I don't want to interrupt the class or call attention to it. But the odor is so strong that it's noticeable from the instant he walks into the classroom.

    Obviously there's the very tangible problem that it's gross. And I know this may sound a bit snobbish, but it's a 400-level physics course and I find the lack of respect he's showing to the class to be a little irritating.

    The issue isn't that he doesn't own enough clothing. He has many outfits: the problem is that he'll wear the same one for so long. And I know for a fact (at least by looking at his user stats on Steam) that he isn't so busy that he can't find time for a shower.

    I just need some advice on how to approach the issue delicately.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 5, 2016 #2
    There are two ways to look at this:

    1) He improves/We try to improve him; and
    2) We adjust.

    Which one do you want to do?

    Once we decide on that, I can think up ways. I ask this because lots of things popped up in my head at once.

    PS: How old are you? What level of classes are these?
  4. Feb 5, 2016 #3
    Well obviously I'd rather pick the first option, since I don't really think I want to spend the next year smelling that when I try to go to class. I'm also worried there might be maybe a mental health or social skills problem going on. I don't know him extremely well but I do kind of feeling like there's something "off" about him (aside from the stank, I mean) that makes me feel like he needs help.

    I'm 22, he seems to be close to my age, maybe a little a younger. These are all 300 and 400 level (that is, junior and senior) courses
  5. Feb 5, 2016 #4


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    Have you tried wearing one of these to class?

  6. Feb 5, 2016 #5


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    It's not snobbish, it is a real isdue: tell your professor and have him/er deal with it. The classroom environment is their responsibility.
  7. Feb 5, 2016 #6
    I think this would be extremely humiliating for that classmate. University is not kindergarten or primary school, students should not talk about personal care issues with their professors behind one's back. I mean...how would you feel if your professor called you because other student said you stink?
    If you want to talk with him about that maybe try gently making some small remark, but not too personal or offensive. I don't know if you normally talk to him and what your relationship is.
    The other option is to sit elsewhere, away from him.

    Another thought: if you normally talk to each other, maybe you can say. "Hey do you know what I read on the internet yesterday? Some people don't use shampoo for weeks or months. It's called No Poo method. It's some kind of new fashion. That's disgusting! I need to wash my hair ( insert your frequency) and I need to take a shower every day, otherwise I wouldn't feel comfortable. I like smelling and being fresh. What about you? What do you think of this new fashion?" Of course, this is only natural if you do talk to each other. It would be weird to just come to him out of the blue and start talking about this.
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2016
  8. Feb 5, 2016 #7


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    Good: it should be. It is disgusting/unacceptable.

    The OP can approach the person if s/he wants to (it would be nice), but doesn't have that responsibility.
    The standard is HIGHER here, not lower.

    I can't understand why you don't seem to think this person's behavior is a problem. In the real world, this could get him fired.
  9. Feb 5, 2016 #8

    I see no point in humiliating people more than necessary. I don't know maybe it's because I am a woman. It would be much better to tell him directly that he stinks than to ask a professor to do that. And I really don't know if it's the teacher's responsibility to solve issues like this.
  10. Feb 5, 2016 #9
    There are other things to consider, health issue such as allergies to chemical deodorant. Skin conditions that will not allow the application of cologne. Poor living conditions, economical hardships. Lots of things that could be contributory to his condition. It should be addressed in a sensitive manner,, assessed and discussed. If nothing can be done then alternative measures should be considered. Perhaps online classes.
  11. Feb 5, 2016 #10
    You can reference this thread. The OP had the same complaint.
  12. Feb 5, 2016 #11


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    You could always try the, what do they call it now-a-days, passive-aggressive(?) approach.

    One year, when I was around 17, I received the following for Christmas. (There may have been more.)
    circa 1976 (and yes, the British Sterling bottle had my real name engraved upon it.)​

    In my whole life, no one had ever bought me such things.
    I'm guessing I got the hint, as I never got another bottle, for the rest of my life.

    ps. I'm guessing I liked the British Sterling the best, as it is the only empty bottle.
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2016
  13. Feb 5, 2016 #12


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    That's....disappointing. Problems need to be fixed, not glossed-over/ignored (or worse, having the victim accept being a victim as ok!) because fixing them might hurt the person's feelings. What about the feelings -- and more importantly, the learning environment -- of the classmates who are being harmed?
    If the person is capable of it, it might be better to deal with it himself, but it really isn't his responsibility. I wouldn't want to encourage it and them have him do nothing and accept the negative consequences.

    I did some googling and it looks many colleges, such as the one I went to, don't have specific hygiene policies. But they do have "you're an adult, act like it" policies:

    There's an entire section dedicated to explaining just what that means. The basic problem becomes evident: when you are a kid, your parents make you do everything and some kids never learn to make decisions for themselves. So when they go to college, they stop doing many of the things their parents made them do. Hygiene is one of the famous things that college kids are bad at. It's pretty much a cliche. But that doesn't make it ok. Personal hygiene is a basic function of being a human being.

    Most schools do have general rules against classroom disruption - and poor hygiene would qualify even if it isn't explicitly stated. But here's an example where it is:

    Is it notable that that's a community college, where you might expect a lower quality of students, who need to be told these things?
  14. Feb 5, 2016 #13


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    You are referring to the person who has the odor issue, right?
  15. Feb 5, 2016 #14
    Yes,...odor,.. that could be disruptive to the entire class and would cause a problem as a whole. So it wouldn't be fair to allow him to disrupt the other students. If there is a reasonable explanation for his condition other wise, teach tell the kid to take a bath please ..lol
  16. Feb 5, 2016 #15


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    JaredJames nailed it, IMHO; "3) He just stinks (and maybe doesn't realise it)."

    Believe it or not, the Stinkmeister may actually appreciate being told about the "situation".

    I mean, really, he might finally get someone to agree to go out on a date with him. :partytime:
  17. Feb 5, 2016 #16
    Is it possible that a person can be immune to their own body odor? I suppose genetically you could lack certain olfactory reseptors. Maybe he can't smell it?
  18. Feb 5, 2016 #17


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    When I retired, I went from bathing every morning and putting on fresh clothes, to bathing once every three weeks and not changing my even my underwear for the entire time.
    Trust me. It's possible.

    Of course, there's always that morning I wake up, and wonder what crawled under the bed and died. At which point I take a healthy bath. (Sometimes I add bleach to the water, as I'm quite certain there are many strange things living on me by that point.)
  19. Feb 5, 2016 #18


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    I think you have to say something about it if it's bothering you.

    You don't have to humiliate him to do it, but I think the direct approach is probably better, as difficult as it may be. Some people don't get hints. And in some cases the student in questions may not even do anything about it. (There are some people who might just think they have a right to smell the way they do). You have options to escalate if it comes to that.

    And if saying anything is too difficult for you, I think it's fair to talk to the professor about it. I agree with Russ that there is a certain obligation on the professor or university's behalf to maintain a suitable learning environment.
  20. Feb 5, 2016 #19
  21. Feb 5, 2016 #20
    Anonymous note. (Or if you're willing to take the heat if he gets back to you, a signed note.) I take it you've found out his name, so you should know how to get a note to him.

    I think the best way to approach the subject is to consider how you would want to be approached if you were on the receiving end of such a note.
  22. Feb 6, 2016 #21
    Ever notice how other people's homes often have a distinct smell, but you can't really smell your own home's smell?

    Regardless, on the one hand, I'm all for not embarrassing the guy, but on the other hand, it is an issue that should probably be addressed, not only for his fellow students' sake, but also because if it's as bad as the OP says, I find it hard to believe anyone would be willing to hire him after an interview. Sometimes a little toughness and embarrassment can be the thing people need to finally see the light.

    On a less serious note, have you have tried discreetly spraying him with deodorant? Here's an idea: pull out a bottle of cologne for "yourself" while walking near him, trip, and "accidentally" spill it all over him.
  23. Feb 6, 2016 #22
    OK, it needs to be solved. But all I was saying that it isn't necessarily needed to deliberately humiliate him. From your post I sensed that your primary goal is his humiliation (when you said It SHOULD humiliate him, it's good to do so). This was my main concern. You probably did not mean that, but that was my understanding of your words. To your post, I said that if it is possible, we should first try solving the issue in sensitive manner. Now I say ok, if it doesn't work, than yes, he could be more offensive.
    I didn't know that in the US issues like these are a responsibility of teachers. I've never seen it any my school rules nor have I ever heard of teacher discussing this with students. But if it really is in the rules, than yes, the lecturer can do something about it.
  24. Feb 6, 2016 #23
    yes, you get used to it like you get used to any other smell. This is especially true for smelly breath. Usually you can't smell your own breath, mainly if it smelly all the time.
  25. Feb 6, 2016 #24


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    This worked once :

    A particularly smelly student was also a bit of a loner . Someone had the bright idea of solving two problems at the same time and encouraged smelly student to come along to college grounds and join in a rugby training session . An hour of running around in the rain and getting covered in mud . Showers and the usual good natured fun in the changing rooms afterwards .

    He made some friends and his personal hygiene problems faded away .
  26. Feb 6, 2016 #25


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    No, I didn't mean that humiliation should be the goal -- you brought up humiliation, not me. The one and only goal should be fixing the problem, which is what I explained how to do in my first post. If it can be done without humiliation, fine, but that shouldn't be much of a concern here (and, indeed, humiliation may be a necessary tool if the person is stubborn about it). And that's what I meant when I said it should be humiliating: the person needs to be made to understand that poor hygiene is a really bad thing and if that requires humiliation because they won't take a simple correction, so be it. To be specific about it, here are the steps:
    1. Another student can approach him discretely and suggest improving hygiene (optional).
    2. The student tells the teacher and the teacher approaches him discretely and orders improved hygiene.
    3. If the above doesn't work, the teacher can kick him out of class the next time.

    Step 3 would be public humiliation and if that's what it takes, so be it.

    You seemed to object to fixing the problem because doing so could be humiliating. It is true that there's really no easy way around it - it is a potentially humiliating problem and any attempt to fix it could cause humiliation. But so be it.
    I don't understand -- who else's responsibility could it possibly be? The teacher is the only person who has direct control/responsibility for the learning environment in the classroom.
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