update: I don’t want to change my hair routine for a coworker

Remember the letter-writer last week who didn’t want to change her hair routine for a coworker who seemed bothered by the smell of her shampoo? Here’s the update.

I asked Jane to give me a call when she had a spare moment but of course she showed up in my office instead. I told her I had gotten her email and that I think what she’s smelling is my shampoo, and I explained that it’s the only one I’ve found that works well with my hair. I asked if phone calls or emails would be an okay workaround, or meeting in a better ventilated area for things requiring meeting in-person. I also asked if it was giving her headaches or affecting her breathing and said if it was causing health problems I would work on finding a new shampoo.

She said it wasn’t affecting her physically and admitted she has a negative association with the scent. She was on a cross country train ride, someone in her car had a horrible body odor problem, and someone else drowned the car in a very similar perfume to (unsuccessfully) cover it up. Now the scent automatically bothers her and she also somehow worries she smells like B.O.! We ended up laughing about the whole thing and Jane actually apologized for the email and said she was having a particularly rough day when she sent it. That was unexpected and nice.

I think we’re in a better place and we’re going to keep on keeping on. I’m hopeful that now we’ve talked it out the theatrical hand-waving and face-making will stop. What a wild (train) ride!

Thank you for your response, and also to the commenters. Reading through comments really helped me realize that Jane could be both obnoxious AND have a real issue. Some commenters were not charitable and made some pretty gross leaps and assumptions about me or my motivations (I only mentioned my cancer for context re: having a brand new hair texture; I know my shampoo isn’t a medical need!) but honestly those helped too. It made me roll my eyes and realize that this was not as big of a deal as they were making it or I had made it in my head, and I ultimately just needed to talk to Jane. So thank you to all.

{ 266 comments… read them below }

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      Agreed! I’m glad you all were able to work it out and that you don’t have to change your routine either.

  1. Wordnerd*

    When I was in college, I had a classmate who had pretty noticeably bad hygiene. White woman with dreadlocks and veeeery noticeable body odor. I got to the point of showing up to class as late as possible so that I could choose to sit far away from her. When that didn’t work, I had a generic hand lotion that smelled strongly, and I would put it on my hands, and then tent my hands over my face to block the smell. To this day, I have a negative association with that generic hand lotion smell. Sense/scents memory is a powerful thing!
    (I hope I wouldn’t make that obvious to a coworker who used that type of lotion scent, though!!)

    1. Beth*

      Smell is pretty much hard-wired right into the really emotional parts of the memory.

      There’s a particular scent used in a cheap shampoo that sends me right back to one particular summer when I was in college. It was a really great summer, and I sometimes buy that really cheap shampoo (when I can find it) so I can wallow in the memory.

      1. Lily*

        For me, it’s the scents of coconut oil (Hawaiian Tropic tanning oil), cedar trees on a warm day, and stale cigarette smoke – happy Summer days at my grandparents’ house in the Sierra Nevada foothills. :D

      2. OyHiOh*

        I have a couple of those scents – one is an association with a very specific and lovely time and place, the other associated with jobs I had in college. There are certain brands of hotel chains that any time I drive by one, I “smell” the room cleaning products (I did hotel housekeeping for a number of years). That’s particularly startling when I’m just driving somewhere minding my own business and the memory of a scent pushes into my thoughts!

      3. what's in a name*

        My grandfather had a lung condition and always used menthol cough drops. I still use the same ones every time I’m sick because they smell like Grandpa and that makes me feel better emotionally as well as physically.

    2. Primrose*

      In college, I lived in an apartment with three other girls. One of them used a perfume that the rest of us couldn’t stand. Occasionally when she was out of the apartment, the girl who shared a bedroom with her would take it out onto the balcony and squirt a bunch of it just to use it up. I haven’t thought about that in years! But your comment reminded me of it.

      1. Laika*

        I had a college roommate who used her perfume to mask bathroom smells… Which had the inevitable consequence of making me think of poop-smells every time she wore it out. Urgh.

        1. Thunderingly*

          I used cloth diapers with my daughter, and the scent of the detergent I used to wash them makes me think of dirty diapers

        2. Marna Nightingale*

          So, they sell baby-powder scented dog poop bags. I accidentally bought a box of 1000 once.

          Yeah I can’t stand the smell of baby powder now. Thank God I didn’t accidentally get the lavender ones.

    3. Lily*

      In a hospital I worked at many years ago, when a patient had such foul-smelling BM that the entire unit reeked, the practice was to put some gauze in a cup on the counter at the nurses station and poor wintergreen essential oil in it.

      I only worked there for 3 months (travel nurse), but ever since then, when I smell wintergreen, I always ‘smell’ horrible BM as well.

      1. Motter*

        I had something similar in grad school (wildlife biology). One of the professors was doing research on ticks and other parasites I’m squirrels, so she had a couple dead squirrels in a freezer (meant for storing that kind of stuff, not regular food). Anyway, apparently the power went out over a long weekend, and when we came back to the building, they had defrosted and leaked. The whole building reeked of rotten squirrel. So when they came to clean it up, they used this really strong orange suspected cleaner, and it didn’t get rid of the original smell as much as mask it. and until they got everything truly disinfected and aired out the building thoroughly, it smelled of orange scented rotten squirrel. That was over 20 years ago, and I still can’t stomach any of the industrial orange scented cleaners.

      2. Pennyworth*

        Wintergreen has the opposite effect for me – it was the smell of the liniment which was my parents’ go-to remedy for any bump or muscle ache, so I associate it with their love and care. Now I mix it with epsom salts as a bath soak.

    4. KCMC*

      Vanilla air fresheners smell like cat pee to me now because that is the scent we used around the litter box in my childhood home. Brains are so strange!

      1. Cyndi*

        Yeah, I volunteer at a dog rescue and I associate the smells of bleach and pee so strongly that I can’t tell them apart even in other contexts.

        1. Sbc*

          just wanted to mention that chlorine bleach is not good for cleaning urine because it creates toxic gas when the chlorine and ammonia mix. so if it’s chlorine bleach you might want to encourage the shelter to switch products and ventilate very well!

      2. hamsterpants*

        This is why I refuse to buy the lavendar-scented cat litter. I like the smell of lavender and want to keep it that way, thanks!

    5. nm*

      I can’t use air freshener anymore because our college dorm trash cans were lined with Febreeze-brand scented garbage bags. So when I smell air freshener I think/feel like I’m smelling rotten college food.

    6. creature muse*

      I wonder if that was my roommate! Same situation, profound odor issue, and also she didn’t do any laundry for the entire spring semester. Euch!

    7. Miller_Admin*

      When I was in boot-camp (US Navy) we were not allowed to have glass bottles. The military exchange had only 1 scent available in plastic. I bought it like a good portion of the other women (80 in barracks). This was in 1983; white bottle, floral, lilies I think. I cannot recall the name. It makes me half sick if I smell something similar.

      1. StitchIsMySpiritAnimal*

        Jean Nate maybe? I remember my grandma constantly having a plastic bottle of that.

    8. Anon for this one, lol!*

      With my first husband, we would make sure our “adult novelty items” were clean by using the regular Softsoap Antibacterial soap to wash them. Now I cannot use that soap without thinking of “fun” times! XD

    9. Tundra dog*

      This is so interesting! A few years ago I was cat sitting for our then-neighbor. I washed my hands in their bathroom after scooping the cat box and immediately remembered camping trips from when I was a child, washing my hands in a plastic bucket filled with cold lake water…the particular variety of “softsoap” was the one we always used. I hadn’t thought about those trips in decades at this point!

      So interesting the way smell is wired to memory!

      1. Rara Avis*

        Washing my hands at the doctor’s office brings back visceral memories of a major medical issue and 9 days in the hospital because of the scent of the soap.

      2. Heather*

        The smell of hand sanitizer takes me back to the hospital when I gave birth. Very warm and fuzzy feelings associated with an otherwise harsh scent.

      3. nobadcats*

        My oldest scent memory takes me right back to my grandparents’ kitchen: brewing or percolating coffee, Joy lemon-scented dishsoap (or any lemon-scented dishsoap), and rye toast. Just thinking of it right now makes my mind’s eye flash on the morning sun coming through the eastern kitchen window and the birds in the feeder outside the big landscape window in the dining room; my grandpa got up with the sunrise and filled the feeders on the huge tree every morning.

        Scent memory is SO strong. Brains are fascinating.

    10. NervousHoolelya*

      When I was in college, I bought a new kind of body wash, just some mainstream brand that I had never tried before. The first time I used it, I literally gagged — the floral scent in the bodywash was the exact same scent as in the chemical toilet my family used at their off-the-grid cabin. I spent the rest of the day with my brain telling me that I smelled like a toilet, though other people presumably just thought I smelled like flowers. I made a beeline to the campus store after class to buy ANY OTHER bodywash they had.

    11. Justice*

      College memory for me too. I was coming down with mono, but all I knew is that I wasn’t feeling well, and we were having a verrrry long meeting in the campus coffeehouse. They were brewing coffee with a really strong hazelnut flavor, and I got so nauseated that I barely made it outside before tossing my cookies into a bush.
      My boss will occasionally put hazelnut creamer into her coffee, and it still turns my stomach a little. But it’s very mild now.
      Coffee still smells delicious (thank goodness), and I don’t have a problem with hazelnuts on their own, either. That specific mix of smells is just a weird trigger.

      1. Katy*

        I can’t drink soy milk, for the same reason. I was 14, at school lunch, feeling vaguely sick, then drank my box of soy milk and instantly went from feeling a little off to feeling horribly nauseated and feverish. Turns out I was coming down with bronchitis.

        1. Keyboard Cowboy*

          Nearly this exact occurrence is the reason I can’t drink eggnog at all. The first holiday season I ever tried it, I loved it, and I got a nasty vomituous stomach flu. No more eggnog for me, even 20 years later.

          1. Payne's Grey*

            I’m the same with chakri sticks, much to my disappointment because I used to love them until I ate some the day I came down with norovirus. I guess it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective to form these strong negative associations around sickness – it’s a shame when the food wasn’t to blame, though!

        2. amoeba*

          Happened to me with sushi. However, that was not acceptable to me, so I fought it and kept on trying/eating small amounts until it eventually, slowly got better. I can now happily report that I love sushi again!

        3. Artemesia*

          OUr bodies learn to protect themselves from poison by developing an aversion to whatever one ate before becoming sick. I had a favorite crock pot recipe that made pork on polenta — got really sick after eating it — a bug, nothing to do with the dish — have never made it again. That was 35 years ago.

          I remember a doctor who gave chemo to kids with cancer. He fed them maple ice cream before chemo — so they developed an aversion to this rare flavor rather than say the eggs or toast they had for breakfast.

          1. Moryera*

            As someone who works at a chemo clinic, I love it, that’s *genius*.

            As a lover of all things maple, on the other hand… :’)

    12. Butterfly Counter*

      I had a similar bus experience!

      I was reading a book borrowed from a friend that had been stored in a basement and had a very musty odor. But then a man got on the bus and his smell… It wasn’t BO. That man was sick with something that must have been killing him, I’m guessing diabetes because my brain kept saying, “This is what sugar would smell like if it turned into rotting flesh.” *gag*

      So, while I was glad I had a musty book to bury my nose in, I will forever associate the two smells.

      1. Lanlan*

        The smell of diabetes is Band-Aids. My ex smelled of Band-Aids every time he shot up his insulin. When I started smelling the same thing on my dad, I knew he was sick before he did.

        1. Butterfly Counter*

          Maybe? Like if you had dipped the Band-Aid in sugar, set it on fire, and put it out with marshmallows and hair?

          Like I said, I think this person was actively dying. I have no idea how he was mobile. He sat in the front of the bus and every single person in the front moved to the back of the bus. I felt so bad for the guy, but that smell will haunt me forever.

      2. allathian*

        It’s probably acetone. When someone’s breath smells slightly like acetone-based nail polish remover, they may have diabetic ketoacidosis.

    13. Robin Ellacott*

      I have this with patchouli! I had a number of otherwise charming hippie classmates in university who didn’t seem to wash much and also wore strong patchouli scent. I now will forever be unable to distinguish between Unwashed Human and Fancy Patchouli.

      (of course I don’t say anything to anyone wearing it – it’s a me problem)

      1. Katy*

        Patchouli has ALWAYS smelled exactly like mold to me. I genuinely can’t tell the difference, though I can usually figure out which is which from context.

        1. Holly*

          Yeah, to me it has always smelled like compost, mold, rotting vegetables etc. I truly can’t understand how other people find something to like in it.

          1. TeaCoziesRUs*

            I use essential oils for different things and it’s funny to me. One of my favorite blends that helps with menstrual cramps has quite a bit of Ylang Ylang in it. I usually can’t stand the smell of Ylang Ylang, but if I NEED that oil blend because of vicious cramps then it smells amazingly lovely to me. My working theory is that my body knows this is what it needs, so my body tells me it smells great. :)

            1. SimonTheGreyWarden*

              I have this but with echinacea. Can’t stand the smell of echinacea tea unless I’m coming down with something.

      2. Mildred*

        I was a political organizer & fundraiser for several years, and we canvassed door-to-door (like Greenpeace or the PIRGs, for example). I used to (and still do) like patchouli in moderation, so I was wearing it one day when I was working, and a man accused me of coming to his door smelling like pot. I was insulted that he would accuse me of doing something illegal, especially while I was working! And I was very confused…until it dawned on me that he was associating patchouli with pot and getting the smells confused.

        1. BlondeSpiders*

          This absolutely tracks. All my college pot-smoking friends used Nag Champa insense to cover the smell, and I still associate that scent with weed!

    14. J*

      It’s so interesting to hear about scent and memory. I’m a weird one: my brothers have anosmia and I have hyposmia and we’ve been studied. Interestingly, the best my olfactory system ever worked was during chemo and I have a ton of bad memories associated with it, but the chemo caused brain fog so I actually don’t have the memories themselves, just the negative associations. But outside of that, I have no association with smells and memories. I can empathize with both parties in this situation, especially given that additional context.

    15. Rosyglasses*

      Yeah, I can’t use the Poo-Pourri spray anymore because I automatically associate the smell with the barrier cream and depends that I had to help my dad with toward the end of his life, and my parents used the Poo Pourri liberally, and their bathroom still retains the scent. It’s horrible!

    16. Galadriel's Garden*

      OH man, another college-scent memory for me too! A friend got kicked out of his place of living and needed a place for his two ferrets to live while he figured his life out. My roommate and I offered to take them in, and said friend guaranteed that he would come by and clean the cages every other day. Well, he did not and then I came down with swine flu *badly* so while we tried to keep up with the ferret cage, it was not going well. We bought these Glade plug ins that were gardenia scented in an attempt to mask the smell a little bit, but instead it just all melded together into a horrific floral stench that made me run to the bathroom and throw up every time I left my room for five straight days. Luckily that scent appears to now be discontinued, but there was a time where I could not smell that Glade plug in without a visceral, gagging reaction.

    17. TooTiredToThink*

      I have congenital anosmia. Reading this thread is so very, very fascinating (and educational!). I once had a roommate tell me that common sense would tell me that something smelled. Uh… no. (I still cannot think of that person without wanting to…. scream). I have absolutely no idea what anything smells like, at all and its so fascinating how its such a huge thing for people.

    18. ZugTheMegasaurus*

      When I was in high school, I got on the bus and took a seat toward the back where there were a handful of other people. A white woman with dreadlocks got on and sat next to me; she was clearly using the “just allow the hair to become filthy and matted” method (which, for the record, is not the right method for dreadlocks!). The smell was so thick I could taste it. It was HORRENDOUS. When she got off, the people sitting nearby promptly opened up all the windows. That was in *2002* and to this day, I can smell it when I think about it.

    19. SaraV*

      I was at a generic gift/knick knack store at the mall once that also sold Yankee Candles. I took a sniff of a candle scent I had never seen before, and it was like I was two-hand shoved 15 years into the past. I was back at band camp, doing morning marching drills in the dewy grass at the beginning of August. I never saw that scent again…at an actual Yankee Candle store or anywhere else.

    20. Fleezer*

      The receptionist at an old job at a dental office I used to work at was very into Scentsy and used to use the incense warmer in the office (with the full support of the owner dentist’s wife, who also worked up front, to make it extra awkward). I could handle most of them, but one scent was EXACTLY the same one that my son’s old Diaper Genie refills used, so to me it smelled like old stinky diapers. I kept asking them to change at least the scent but they refused, so I finally had to go to the owner and tell him I was going to need to take sick days until that one was used up because the smell was making me nauseous and I didn’t want to throw up on a patient. They still used the Scentsy but at least changed the scent. :/

    21. BlondeSpiders*

      Scent is so closely tied with memory!

      Years ago I had a boyfriend who I suspected was cheating on me. I caught him coming home very early one morning reeking of patchouli, which happened to be the signature scent of “she’s just a friend!”

      27 years later, patchouli is still the scent of betrayal and misery.

    22. Anonny*

      I once had the misfortune of being stuck on a bus with a person who had the wonderful combination of BO and a hot cheese and onion pasty.

      Can’t eat cheese and onion pasties now. Other cheese and onion things, fine, but pasties? Nah.

      My school also used to be between a sewage works and a Burger King, which meant that when the wind was right the entire place smelled like deep-fried poop. I once happened to walk down a street with a similar setup and got hurtled back to secondary school.

    23. yippeee*

      A couple of years back I purchased some new body sprays, I’ve never been the type to wear perfume or anything but decided I wanted to try it out.

      My partner started using it on their jeans when they started to get a little funky between washes, but otherwise not too dirty to wear…

      And so I have since bought a different body spray and keep it out of the bathroom where they might find it.

    24. SplendidColors*

      I attended Cal Poly Humboldt and the white hippies with dreadlocks were sadly common there, complete with accusations that people who didn’t stink were killing the planet by wasting water. Unfortunately, my local water district is probably going to agree with them–we’re already not supposed to flush for #1 and we are supposed to take Navy showers.

    1. Quinalla*

      Yes, stories like this really help fuel me to just go ahead and have the awkward conversation. Even if I don’t get the result I want/expect, it nearly always gets a better outcome than the current tense and/or resentful situation.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Agreed. This was two really reasonable people wanting to find a way to make things work. And they did figure out how to make it work, which is even better.

      And OP, sometimes we just need to see things in writing, or hear it phrased a different way to have the solution pop out at us. Glad the voluminous commentary helped you figure out an answer.

    2. hbc*

      OP really handled it well, but I know I’ve been surprised a few times by people who seemed to have lost their minds on a subject who are completely disarmed by a simple “Hey, let’s solve this together.” I think some of us more even-keeled and/or analytical people project how much righteous, immovable fury we would have to amass to act like Jane, when for her she just has to flip a switch and it all goes away.

      1. Glenn*

        > I think some of us more even-keeled and/or analytical people project how much righteous, immovable fury we would have to amass to act like Jane, when for her she just has to flip a switch and it all goes away.

        Wow — as an even-keeled analytical person, this hit home and is really giving me something to think about.

      2. marvin*

        I’m guessing that people who Jane out over fairly minor stuff probably do get embarrassed and defensive about it as well, which is why approaching the conversation in a considerate way can help take the walls down.

  2. Buffy will save us*

    This is why, when we talk about using aromatherapy, we always say that just because lavender is considered calming doesn’t mean it is for everyone so don’t assume.

    1. Not Australian*

      It’s one of the (mercifully few) scents guaranteed to give me migraine if I don’t escape quickly enough!

      1. amethyst*

        Yep. I love the scent of lavender, but there is a very fine line between “mmm calming” and “migraine city, population me” and it’s so easy to flounce right over it.

    2. ilex*

      Yeah, especially since it can be a serious allergen! My happy calm scent is someone else’s medical emergency.

    3. OyHiOh*

      Citrus family and lavendar (and its resinous family members) oils are guaranteed to make my mouth numb and/or tingly if I smell them, and the gods forbid I eat/drink something with citrus oils in it (commercial “fresh” orange juice is the worst offender in this category). Finding cleaning products that smell nice and don’t have some combination of citrus/lavendar oils in them is . . . . difficult. Method has a few that are safe.

    4. I laugh at inappropriate times*

      Yeah, I just….don’t like it. My MIL on the other hand, loves it. Went with her to a small coffee shop/bakery once and she got a lavender scone she shared with me. My brain associates lavender scent with cleaning products, so to me it tasted just like soap.

    5. londonedit*

      Every time I’ve had an aromatherapy massage, I’ve been offered a choice of two or three scents for the massage oil – the idea is that you’ll naturally choose the one you ‘need’ at that time (so you might choose the relaxing blend if you’re stressed, or the energising blend if you’re tired – but it’s on a more subconscious level than that). Usually you’re not told what the blends are beforehand, so it’s really interesting when your brain goes ‘Ooooh, yes, I like that one’ and then the therapist says ‘Ah, so you’ve chosen the blend for energy, have you been feeling particularly tired lately?’

    6. That One Person*

      Had a bit of a running joke in my household growing up because at one point mum got one of those plug-in scent diffuser things and it was lavender. And the next day our house smelled, as we jokingly referred to it, “as a pimp joint.” The mistake was leaving it on all day so what could’ve been a pleasant scent was just in our face and from then on I actively avoided lavender scented things even though mum still liked it. Come to think of it I still don’t grab lavender things though I feel like these days its just less optional in the products I get.

  3. Alison Smaalders*

    I am so glad that you two could clear the air! As someone who both has specific shampoo I like that has a scent, AND who can react badly to some scents, I sympathized very much with both sides of this conflict.

  4. rosemaryshrub*

    I also have used some curly specific products in the past that I personally found to have a slight BO adjacent odor. I don’t mind it much on other people (though I almost always recognize the product by scent) but decided those products weren’t for me.

    1. Hannah Lee*

      I have (had) a favorite body lotion that I loved because it didn’t really have a scent and it didn’t cause any problems with my sensitive skin. The company changed the formulation for some reason, and while it claims to still be “unscented”, to me, it smells exactly like mildew. And if I put it on any part of my body *I* smell like mildew to me … for hours. Argh!

      I’ll still peek at the back of shelves when I’m out shopping to see if I can find one last bottle of the “good” stuff that isn’t “new & improved” But I tossed out the bottle of the new stuff I’d bought, because I just couldn’t stand that disgusting smell.

      1. Just Another Zebra*

        This is my struggle! I have a coconut allergy, and it’s so popular right now that companies are putting in everything. Formerly safe products now have undesirable (and itchy) consequences.

        I wrote to one company and asked if they had any of the ‘original’ product left because I loved it and was so sad I couldn’t use it anymore. I was happy to pay for it and shipping. They sent me a literal pallet, free of charge, and a bunch of coupons that didn’t expire.

            1. Just Your Everyday Crone*

              Well, I wonder–I’m also allergic to latex (rubber) and aloe is a form of rubber. Are you allergic to latex also?

              1. No name yet*

                My wife is allergic to aloe, though not latex. Always interesting to see the few other people in that category!

      2. Lady_Lessa*


        The product could be “unscented” and smell awful. I’m not in personal product chemistry, but often the base raw materials have an odor, sometimes unpleasant, and the formulators put a pleasant odor in it to cover up the natural scent.

      3. Roy G. Biv*

        I know what you mean about an unscented product having an off scent. A chemist friend told me to look for fragrance free rather than unscented, because various unscented/masking scents might be added to the “unscented” product, but fragrance free should be exactly that.

        1. Hannah Lee*

          Good point. I just checked the product page and it is described as “fragrance free” so who knows what’s making that awful smell. The ingredients list doesn’t have anything too crazy, so who knows what’s causing that smell.

          It’s the Cetaphil moisturizing lotion, and I’ve never had an issue with their products before either with scents or irritation. But this new but not improved version is just a no-go … it wasn’t just the scent, it had a really slimy texture too that left my skin feeling gross. (though not for too long, because the smell was so bad I had to wash it off minutes after putting it on)

          1. Lady_Lessa*

            Could be they had to change raw materials or suppliers just to keep making it.

            Supply chain issues are no fun at all.

          2. Roy G. Biv*

            As an allergy sufferer, I have to be very careful about scented products, especially fruity/floral scents. They just make me miserable — just way to much scent. But I have also found my on again/off again lingering Covid nose issues also mean some things that smelled good or bad to me, prior to Covid, now register completely differently. My go-to unscented body lotion now reeks of straight rubbing alcohol, at least to my nose, so I had to find something different. I wish you success in your search for replacement products.

          3. what's in a name*

            I noticed a musty kind of smell in my new bottle of this too! I thought it was just me!

          4. Pyjamas*

            I know!!! Why did they change? I use the generic version of their cleanser which hasn’t been updated (yet)

          5. La ti da*

            Their new gentle skin cleanser is funky now too. I use the knockoff store brands now – they’re closer to the original.

        2. NerdinBrooklyn*

          I’ve fallen into the unscented/fragrance free trap more than once, and I was recently very pleasantly surprised to find a section on the Supergoop website detailing which of their fragrance free products can be expected to have a scent due to natural ingredients.

          Some companies will take returns of “unscented” items that have a scent, some won’t, so I’ve burned more cash than I want to admit trying to find products that don’t trigger migraines. Seeing that section on Supergoop made me feel seen as a fragrance-induced migraine sufferer for the very first time, and I’d love to see it become standard practice.

      4. Quinalla*

        Ugh, I hate when this happens. I wish companies would make a new product instead of replacing existing – I get why they always can’t, but I’ve had similar things happen to me when recently a lot of folks starting adding what they call light scents to their sensitive skin products that were formerly unscented. I am extremely sensitive to scents (migraine trigger) and sometimes whatever they add also doesn’t agree with my sensitive skin. So annoying, no luck so far writing in to anyone, glad to hear someone below had some luck!

        1. NerdinBrooklyn*

          I shudder when I see “improved!” on my product labels, because with the current push to put scent in everything, it almost always means that product is no longer going to work with my migraines and skin sensitivity.

      5. I'm just here for the cats!*

        This happened with a face moisturizer. The Walmart brand was always so nice, it had a light scent but nothing overpowering. At some point they must have changed the formula because it smells like Bengay.

  5. CommanderBanana*

    Interesting update! There is a particular cologne that a horrible ex-boyfriend used to wear (and wear a LOT of it) and I hate the smell of it, but I have the self-awareness to know that it’s a scent association unique to me and I wouldn’t ask someone else to switch their cologne because I happen to dislike it.

    Hopefully Jane develops some self-control and better coping mechanisms for rough days than sending bratty emails to coworkers.

    1. StitchIsMySpiritAnimal*

      I have the same problem with original Old Spice for the same reason. The negative association is strong enough that I’ll move away from the smell if I can do it politely, but I wouldn’t make a big deal over a friend or coworker wearing it.

      1. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

        I have the opposite reaction to regular Old Spice. My dad wore it all the time, and I liked the way it smelle on him such that I started giving it to him for Christmas almost every year. It became sort of a joke between the two of us that no matter what I gave him for Christmas, I’d give him a bottle of Old Spice, too.

        He died over 30 years ago, but smelling that stuff still brings back warm feelings. These olfactory associations, whether good or bad, are so incredibly strong!

  6. Happy meal with extra happy*

    I think there’s a trend in the comment section at times to immediately assume zebras instead of horses. We have such a great, diverse comment section so it makes sense that there will be people who fall into the zebra end of the spectrum for issues, but I think it sometimes crosses the line when people are scolded for thinking horses. I do think that the whole spectrum of horse to zebra discussion is valid, because we’re not doctors, but there were a number of comments on the initial letter making a ton of assumptions that Jane definitely had medical concerns.

    1. M*

      Sorry I’m finding the zebra and horses analogy hard to follow. Can you explain what you mean? I’m genuinely interested, I just find metaphors and analogies hard sometimes!

      1. Environmental Compliance*

        If you hear hoofbeats, assume horses, not zebras.

        AKA assume the simplest explanation, not the most convoluted. Odds are the simplest cause will explain – not an obscure one.

      2. Happy meal with extra happy*

        No prob! There’s a saying in medical fields (and maybe others as well) that goes something like “if you hear hoof beats, don’t think zebras.” Basically, if you’re trying to figure out something, don’t start with the more unlikely options but make sure you rule out the common stuff first, like horses.

        1. Lenora Rose*

          And of course, in every group I know, people hearing this analogy THEN also jump to trying to think when it would be more likely to hear zebras… “But what if I’m in a game park in Zimbabwe?/at the zoo/heard a zebra call*…”

          (To which: if you know you ARE in a special circumstance already, you know why the standard advice doesn’t apply. And you are in fact DOING what the advice advises against.)

          *they do sound nothing like horses.

      3. Willow*

        There is a saying for doctors “when you hear hoofbeats, think horses first, not zebras.” It means when you see someone’s symptoms think about the most common issues they could have first. Don’t start by thinking they have some incredibly rare disease.

      4. Expelliarmus*

        On the original post, there was a trend where people were assuming that Jane had a medical reason for not liking the scent, like that she gets migraines or something, and there were plenty of discussions about dueling accommodations (migraines vs. dealing with cancer fallout). I think Happy meal is referring to said discussions as “zebras” when the actual situation (association with mildly bad event) is “horses” (less complex and specific than zebras)

        1. amethyst*

          But those aren’t zebras. Migraines and other medical reasons to not like scents are very common.

          1. Just Another Starving Artist*

            Common, but you know what’s more common? Immaturity and poor communication.

            There was no mention of Jane stating that she was ill or doing anything to indicate she was ill. There was mention of her being passive aggressive. Given that context, Jane having a debilitating issue with scent is the zebra, and Jane just not liking it and being a poor communicator is the horse.

      5. LawBee*

        The adage is if you hear hoof beats, assume horses (very common and the most likely explanation) and not zebras (rare and a less likely explanation).

        So, figure out if it’s an common problem/situation/ circumstance/illness etc first, before jumping to ever more improbable theories.

      6. sb51*

        It’s from a saying: “when you hear hoofbeats, expect horses, not zebras”. (Obviously a saying from a part of the world where zebras are rare and horses common.)

        Basically, it means to jump to the common situation, not the rare one. I disagree a little bit with the person you’re replying to that this saying applies in this situation, because the commentariat is not a “normal” subset of people, it’s a set that enjoys commenting here, and thus has some higher-proportions of certain subsets of people. So for some of us here, the thing TO expect in our daily lives is smell sensitivity/sensory overload, perhaps because we have a lot of autistic/neuroatypical friends, and thus for us it’s a “horse”, and “Jane is just an ass” is a “zebra”.

      7. Squidhead*

        It comes from the saying “when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras,” ie: the simplest explanation is often correct. I’ve mostly heard it used in medicine, where signs/symptoms can “look” like a lot of illnesses, but statistics make it much more likely that someone has, say, asthma than a rare fibrosis caused by exposure to a certain chemical. (Immensely frustrating to the few who actually have the fibrosis! But it still doesn’t make sense to do invasive tests first thing on every single person who has shortness of breath, before ruling out the simpler/likely explanations.)

        I assume there are parts of the world where zebras are actually more common than horses, so of course context matters!

      8. Kit*

        There’s a saying common in the medical field: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” The point is, basically, to make sure you rule out common concerns before jumping to the rare, one-in-a-million diagnoses.

        In this case, Happy meal is referring to the folks who assumed that Jane’s reason for reacting the way she did must have been a medical concern, like scent-triggered migraines; it’s not uncommon for that to be the case, but (as here) a lot of people who react to a fragrance have something simpler at the root of it! Someone noted above that olfactory memory works on a very primal level, and it’s true – the vast majority of humans have at least a few smells that will bypass conscious thought and trigger somatic responses, so it is the ‘horse’ to scent-sensitivity’s ‘zebra.’

      9. CharlieBrown*

        It’s Occam’s Razor: assume the simplest solution first. (Or as Occam put it, “Do not multiply entities unnecessarily.” Or something like that.)

        1. La Triviata*

          Someone a while back suggested that when someone comes up with a complicated, improbable explanation it should be referred to as Occam’s Paisley Necktie.

    2. Bread Addict*

      I am not sure how approproate that actually is. Because there is a wide enough variety of issues that could be affected by scents (asthma, allergies, migraines, PTSD, etc.) that it isnt necessarily zebras or more complicated to assume that she could have had an actual need. or was simpler to assume it wasnt?

      1. Siege*

        I realize there are a lot of issues around disclosing medical issues at work, but it’s really ridiculous to assume that someone with a genuine medical need would communicate it via the grade-school method of waving their hands around and making faces. On the spectrum of medical issues to have to disclose, saying “I have a scent allergy that your perfume is triggering” can’t be compared to “I have IBS and sometimes poop my pants unpredictably” in terms of embarrassment and professional consequences/accommodations, and it will never, ever, ever be reasonable to say that they are the same thing. So maybe growing up and admitting that you have a scent allergy would have been the professional, adult way to handle it if Jane really did have a medical need. Since she didn’t do that, I think it’s very reasonable to start from the assumption that she doesn’t have that need.

        And yes, that might indeed run into someone who has PTSD for a scent and doesn’t want to explain that, but dude. You have to pick someone to bear the onus of the issue when you have competing situations like this, and you can’t just default to “someone made faces about your shampoo, you need to go to great expense and time and effort to find a different shampoo”. Charades is not an appropriate way to ask for an accommodation. You can also get really far by just saying “I have a medical issue that means I can’t tolerate this smell,” no disclosure of specifics required!

        1. amethyst*

          Is it? Just because someone has a medical condition doesn’t mean that they’re an expert in communicating that. It could be new; they themselves could be new to dealing with it in a direct way. Just because you think disclosing IBS is more embarrassing does not mean that a person with the right combination of medical condition + introversion/shyness/anxiety wouldn’t find disclosing their scent allergy an at least low-threat situation.

          I’m not saying it’s the best way for people to do things, only that the fact that someone did these things does not necessarily mean she doesn’t have a medical condition.

          Also, talk to some people with disabilities about how well “I have a medical issue” goes for them. It doesn’t always go well or take you really far.

      2. Jackalope*

        I’m with Bread Addict here. The vast majority of the situations where I’ve been around a scent issue that was raised the problem was a sensitivity or an allergy. In my experience, that’s the horse and the “I just dislike it” is the zebra.

        (And responding to Siege… I encourage you to go read the comments thread from last week on this issue. A lot of people are surprisingly hostile towards someone coming forward with a scent allergy or sensitivity. When I am in a situation where I may need to talk about that, I’m always considering how hostile the response will be and am hesitant to bring it up if I don’t know how the other person will respond.)

        1. bad raincoat*

          Someone who’s worried about stepping on toes and dealing with hostility is probably not going to react like Jane either, though — while a conversation might possibly lead to hostility, pulling a face and waving the hand around performatively in the air definitely will! So I don’t really follow you.

          1. Jackalope*

            I was thinking less of the hand waving here and more of the general tone. I don’t know if you read the comments section from last week but there were a number of commenters that were seriously hostile towards anyone with a scent allergy; one person said that those asking someone else not to wear a scent because it gave them migraines were evil, another person called everyone with scent allergies “fragile flowers”, and a number of people were angry that they might possibly have to give up a scented product at work so their coworkers could breathe and not have migraines. In addition, some people who had scent allergies shared stories of coworkers doing things like spraying perfume on them when they asked for scent-related allergies. I don’t want to reopen the discussion, but I find it frustrating with that background when someone like in the post I responded to implies (or outright states) that it’s immature to dance around the subject rather than being up-front (“So maybe growing up and admitting that you have a scent allergy would have been the way to handle it….”). When I’ve needed to raise this as an issue before I have to figure out if I’m going to cause hostilities to rain down on me by having an allergen-related need. It’s not as simple as “growing up” and “using your words”, which is a fact that Siège wasn’t acknowledging in their post.

            1. bad raincoat*

              See… I think this is what the folks in this thread who are upset about extrapolation in the comments are talking about.

              OP isn’t dealing with all these other situations that involve a person with a scent allergy/sensitivity who wants medical accommodation vs. a person who is being truly cruel about that. OP is dealing with a situation where someone was really up-front rude about how she smelled.

              So it’s not super helpful to bring up a bunch of situations in the comments about how this one time, someone behaved terribly to someone with a scent allergy, because it doesn’t help OP in any way or apply to her situation really.

        2. DataSci*

          Same here! I know a ton of socially awkward people who avoid confrontation and a ton of people with scent sensitivities. So “Oh, she has a scent sensitivity and is in real agony” is for me a more likely scenario and “She finds the smell unpleasant and is bold enough to be confrontational about it” would be truly unexpected, because in my experience things have to get really bad before people would be that confrontational.

          1. Parakeet*

            Yep. I didn’t comment precisely because I didn’t think my knee-jerk response would be very useful to anyone (and also discovered that the friend I often discuss AAM letter with had a very different knee-jerk reaction than I did). But when I read the original letter, I figured that Jane had a medical issue because that’s the horse and someone making a big deal of a shampoo smell because they simply find it unpleasant is the zebra. And in this case, turns out that it was, from the vantage point of my bubble, a zebra! Live and learn!

      3. Roland*

        The thing is, just because there are a lot of options, it doesn’t actually mean the likelihood of one being true is high. Imo the likeliest explanation for someone not liking a scent is still “just not liking that scent”. It’s easy for our brains to see all those alternates and subconsciously understand that “dislike, asthma, etc are all equally likely” but that’s not really true. A wide variety of zebras doesn’t make horses less likely, as it were.

      4. Unaccountably*

        There’s a difference between “wide variety of issues” and “wide variety of frequently-occurring issues.” If there are 100 issues that can be affected by a given scent, but each of those issues are only present in response to that scent in 1 in every 100,000 people (to use random numbers as an example), it still makes more sense to assume that Jane doesn’t have any of those issues. The odds are just against it. Does that mean you’ll be accurate 100% of the time? No, but you’ll be accurate a whole lot more often than you aren’t.

        You don’t have to account for every single possibility and its base rates in order for the comparison to be appropriate. All you have to ask is “How likely is it that Jane is actually medically affected in some way?” If the odds are low, it’s okay to assume she’s not affected unless she says something about it, instead of assigning all sorts of negative outcomes to her, by fiat, just because those outcomes exist.

        1. Jackalope*

          Just did a tiny bit of research (so I admit it’s not very deep), and came across a study saying that 1 in 3 adults have claimed to have negative health reactions to specific scents. So given that people who don’t have those reactions and have a positive, neutral, or mildly negative reaction to someone else’s scented products aren’t going to complain about them, the chance that someone commenting on a scented product you’re wearing is having a negative health reaction is pretty high. Not to say that no one will ever have a negative reaction that’s solely based on disliking someone else’s scented product, but *if they are complaining*, I would argue that a scent-based allergy is the most likely reason; the horse in this case and not the zebra.

          1. Madame X*

            Ok. based on the “research” you did, 2/3 of people don’t have a negative health reaction to a specific scent. Thus, the more likely reason for a reaction like Jane is simply that the person does not like the scent rather than it being a health issue. Much like it was in this case.

            1. Polly*

              Agree. My informal survey reveals that 100% of people have at least one scent they strongly dislike. So that also seems the more probable option.

      5. RagingADHD*

        Since there was nothing in the original letter to indicate that *either* party had a medical need rather than a preference, many of the commenters were “looking for zebras” by inventing arguments about hypothetical medical needs.

        And in the grand scheme of things, there are a lot more people who prefer or dislike certain fragrances than there are people who have physical reactions to them.

        So horses = preferences on two counts: the letter itself, and general likelihood.
        Zebra = medical issue on the same two counts.

    3. Lady_Lessa*

      I think that one reason that we jump to zebras (rare problems) here is that many of the commenters have the rare problems.

      Folks, like myself, who don’t have scent problems, wouldn’t necessarily chime in

      1. Dahlia*

        People who did speak up and say “Hey, maybe since Jane said she just doesn’t like the smell, she meant she just doesn’t like the smell and also making faces and waving your hand in front of your face is a bad way to communicate an allergy” got yelled at for not being sensitive enough to Jane’s non-existent migraines.

    4. Malarkey01*

      I also think there’s a trend in the comment section lately that goes a bit nuclear early. Sure, it’s great to validate LWs and have them feel supported (I really do mean that) but I think it leads to a lot of people saying “you are 100% right and that means scorch the earth”, instead of “I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong, but you could resolve this through x or maybe there’s a way to talk and come out with a good solution”.

      I sort of miss the days when the advice was more “you aren’t wrong, but you will out of step if you respond like this” which I think was a lot more realistic.

      1. ADidgeridooForYou*

        I agree 100%. The comment section used to be far more charitable than it is now; I noticed that it really started to take a turn a couple months after Covid hit. There’s not really any room for nuance – like it was either Jane definitely gets migraines and LW is a vain and inconsiderate jerk or Jane is the worst person ever and needs to be kicked out of the company. It also seems particularly bad when managers write in; they seem to get torn to shreds when they’re unsure about a decision or make a human error. I know I wouldn’t want to submit a question to this site if I were worried that I had messed up and were looking for advice on it.

        1. anonnie*

          Out of curiosity why wouldn’t you just submit the question and not read the comments? I ignore the comment sections on most sites I frequent (and think most people do that) so I’m curious about this take.

          1. Ellis Bell*

            Oh no, I love and read every word of Alison’s, but I’m totally here for the comments. If I was concerned that a letter would draw negative comments, I might plan to skip the comment section, but on the day I would absolutely buckle and end up reading them out of curiosity.. (and let’s remember this is one of the healthier commentariat spaces online; getting overly negative about overly negative comments is so ironic).

          2. ADidgeridooForYou*

            Hah yes that’s definitely an option! I suppose because commenters do have good advice sometimes. They’ve definitely brought up perspectives I haven’t thought about before. I guess there are just certain hot-button issues that seem to trigger comments more than others, and I’d likely skip those.

        2. Myrin*

          FWIW, I recently re-read some posts from 2017 and people were already remarking on that phenomenon back then (and I definitely remember it that way, too, but it was interesting to read some actual “contemporary” discussion), so it’s definitely not new; I can imagine it ramped up further like you say, though.

          1. Qwerty*

            I used to notice a trend back then where the comment section would get a bit crabby and negative towards the end of winter. So it wasn’t a huge surprise for thing to take a downturn when we were all in lockdown, but this time it feels like it didn’t really recover.

            There were also bursts where things would get less collegial due to a wave of new comers arriving when a post would go viral or get featured/mentioned on other sites. I do miss the commenters that used to frequent the site back then. It seemed much more lighthearted and conversational.

        3. Distracted Librarian*

          I’ve noticed the same. And commenters’ responses to each other seem more hostile than they used to.

        4. Elle*

          Same here. I’ve had a few issues come up recently that I considered writing in about but ultimately decided to submit my question during a speed round so as to present a smaller target for commenters. I feel like the tone of the comments section can lean especially negative when it’s a manager writing in (which I think at least partially comes from managers having greater power and responsibility than an individual contributor), too, and as a brand-spanking-new one, I am way too tender/hard on myself as it is at the moment. (My brain IMMEDIATELY after writing that conjured up the thought that wouldn’t be a huge surprise if someone responded to that with the sentiment that managers need to be especially willing to receive criticism… Eek, I’m working on it!)

          1. The Other Dawn*

            I agree. I’m a manager, no longer a new one, and I wouldn’t ask a question here either. People more often than not automatically assume ill intent regardless of the question or situation. Managers are human, too, and we don’t have it all figured out. We try our best, but sometimes we still need to work on something.

        5. Anon for this one*

          FWIW I’ve asked a question on here fairly recently (since covid began, if our marker for “when things changed” is the pandemic) where I think Alison’s answer could be described as fairly nuanced (think “There’s definite room for improvement in how you have handled this, but your handling of the situation is not the sole or even main cause of this mess with Jane”). I’ve just gone back to the question and did a quick round up of the comments. My back of the envelope calculations point towards:

          Around half agreed with Alison’s answer – which I must say was incredibly fair
          About one in ten were probably too kind to me, falling into the “Jane is the worst person ever and needs to be kicked out of the company” category
          Around a fifth verged into fanfiction territory, like “OP is an inconsiderate jerk and probably actually caused this mess by doing XYZ – even though there’s nothing in the letter to suggest this and some of what I’m saying even contradicts the letter itself – and Jane is totally innocent”. Most of these were just unhelpful, one was so far out it was entertaining – although one actually did highlight something which gave me a new perspective on the problem (think along the lines of “Oh, I wonder if Jane misinterpreted what I said!”).
          The remaining fifth were just to say thanks for sending the question in or that the commenter had been in a similar situation or to ask Alison a question about the website.

      2. Mayor of Llamatown*

        I agree as well. I’ve seen things go off into the stratosphere of extreme reactions and extreme interpretations very quickly. It’s off-putting.

      3. lunchtime caller*

        absolutely agreed; the way I see it happening so often is that people take one quick step to the side and will thinly pretend they’re still talking about the letter (usually under the guise of “well it COULD be this way”) when really they’re suddenly talking about their own life and insecurities and pain, and so any critique of this hypothetical is incredibly hurtful on a personal level. Sometimes I want to give them the gentlest of emotional shakes and go “you do realize this isn’t your letter, right?? to be clear, this is a stranger that neither of us know! this should not be so intensely personal to you!”

        1. DyneinWalking*

          This. Seriously, this.

          It also sometimes happens the other way around – when LWs turn out to be bad communicators who put unnecessary details into the letter while leaving vital information out. Some of these would get upset in the comments and take all the negative feedback extremely personally; not being able to distinguish the criticism to the story in the letter, as they had written it, from criticism of the actual real situation as it had occurred.

        2. Mallory Janis Ian*

          This is exactly what I think happens — all of a sudden we’re not talking about the actual letter anymore, but all these commenters’ own personal “[lives] and insecurities and pain”, and all the negative interactions and pushback comes from the collision of several people doing this at once.

        3. marvin*

          I don’t know about others, but I think part of the reason I like advice columns is that I have a fair amount of social anxiety and I find it comforting to be able to internalize some “rules” to help navigate a range of possible situations. So when I’m reading, I’m often test driving what I would do in the same situation. I wonder if this is part of the reason it’s easy to get emotionally invested and project all over the letter.

        4. Bubba*

          It gets to be like a game of telephone as the thread grows. One person will say “It could be this” the next reply will be “Don’t assume this, I’ll have you know, from my experience it is actually that! By the end of it all you don’t even remember what the LW said in the said in the first place.

      4. penny dreadful analyzer*

        I’ve definitely noticed it here, but what’s really depressing is that I’m still spending a lot of time here because so much of the rest of the Internet is even worse. I had to quit Twitter because opening it even occasionally was making me feel like I’d stuck my head in a vat of acid, I literally couldn’t figure out how to engage with it anymore in a way that didn’t constitute cyberbullying somebody, and all the good follows had been harassed off the site anyway. Overall I am trying to spend less time online, but I do have a Being On the Computer job so here I am in my downtime.

        1. Mallory Janis Ian*

          I combat this on this site by having a good big handful of commenters who are know rational quantities to me, and I tend to scroll to their comments if things seem to be becoming overheated and irrational. I still read other/newcomer comments, as well — and I’m aware that Alison doesn’t want the site to seem cliquish to newcomers. But sometimes when things are heated, I know which commenters always seem to have a pretty good bead on things, and I seek them out.

    5. NotAnotherManager!*

      Where I believe that the comments delved into the medical side of things was that (1) there was a particularly abrasive commenter who used a heavily-scented product for medical reason and made several unwarranted and rudely-phrased projections of their own medical needs onto OP’s situation, including calling people who suffer from scent-related migraines “evil” for not wanting to get scent-induced migraines – that one drew *a lot* of response – and (2) there are a lot of people who themselves have scent scent sensitivities and could identify with Jane trying to offer a another possibility of her perspective.

      So horses were the more reasonable assumption, but there was also someone running around yelling zebras pretty early up the comments.

      1. Lydia*

        There tends to be a trend for commenters who have an experience of X to comment on the absolute truth of X being what’s happening in the letter. Following the comments down the thread went from asking if it was possible Jane had a medical issue to Jane absolutely had a medical issue and that needed to be accommodated.

        1. Unaccountably*

          I’ve noticed a LOT of straight-up ignoring of the “Don’t give armchair diagnoses” issues, and most definitely in that post. Not everything has to be a medical issue – I can’t stand the smell of sandalwood, but I’m not *allergic* to it, I just think it’s stinky.

          The tendency to pathologize even the most trivial preferences has an unpleasant tendency to drown out otherwise useful advice, lately.

    6. Just Your Everyday Crone*

      That expression means, when you see a fever, think strep, not ebola. Migraines and allergies are NOT “zebras” from a medical POV, and treating people with those issues as freakish outliers (which is what they mean by zebras) is not helpful.

    7. Elle*

      Dude, yes, THIS! I continually find myself having to just close the page and stop reading comments because SO many will be going off into crazy tangents/taking extreme umbrage at something totally beside the point of the actual letter/etc. So much of the time there will be an intense argument with someone passionately insisting that asking for proof of zebras is tantamount to denying the existence of zebras altogether… when it’s been horses Thee Whole Time.

      I wish it were easier to keep in mind that we have to take letters at face value. I get that it’s not easy to do so- we’re all bringing our own past experiences and viewpoints to the table when we read this stuff. But I can’t help but be frustrated when I see a LW write back in with an update and include something like “I was sad to see some of the assumptions made in the comments.”

      1. Bubba*

        I’ve been avoiding reading the comments section too when it becomes like that. IMO it’s exhausting. Sometimes I can get by with just not expanding the comments that have a bunch of replies but, sometimes (like now) I get curious so I expand the thread and can spend all day down the rabbit hole if I’m not careful!

  7. bones*

    I’m so glad this has a good outcome! As someone with a scent-based PTSD trigger, I love that you were able to approach her and find out what was really going on. Good work!

  8. Fluffy Fish*

    “Jane could be both obnoxious AND have a real issue”

    This is such an important approach to problem solving and improving communications.

    People are complicated – things are rarely black and white. While we can all be unreasonable at times, we tend to automatically extend grace to ourselves but not to others.

    Multiple things can be true at the same time. We’d all do better by remembering that.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Billy Joel has a song called “Shades of Grey” that goes into this. And at one point he sings “Black and white once so easy for me/but shades of grey are the colors I see.”

      The world is messy, the folks who want black and white in most things will probably have to accept disappointment.

    2. LB*

      And the corollary that, “Jane can have acted obnoxious in this once interaction and still not be An Obnoxious Person, That’s Her, Forever”.

      1. Fluffy Fish*

        Ooo yes also important. We do that too – reduce a multi faceted person to their best or worst characteristic.

  9. Banana*

    Some of the commenters here are really quick to draw wild negative conclusions. One of my coworkers wrote in once about an issue I was involved in, but not at fault for….the specifics of the letter and the timing were clearly about the situation about my workplace and it was very obvious which coworker it was. I was not at fault, she didn’t blame me at all in her letter, nor did Allison in her response, but a bunch of the comments imagined scenarios where I could be involved and a few speculated wildly incorrect conspiracy theories. I didn’t bring it up with my coworker – I was proud of her for getting outside input on a difficult problem, and Allison’s advice made sense, and I didn’t want to make the situation weirder by mentioning I’d seen the letter. The comments about me hurt to read, in a community where I’d been reading and participating for years, but I didn’t see a point in commenting. Some of the commenting community here uses it as a venting ground to project their own experiences and issues onto things in ways that aren’t actually relevant or useful for the letter writers.

    1. CTA*

      I have experienced commenters doing this to me, too, and be unrelenting when they decide they are right.

      1. Emily*

        Yeah, I’ve definitely noticed the tendency of some commentators to leap to some pretty odd conclusions and/or try to pick apart really minor statements. I’m sorry that happened to both of you.

        1. Dorothea Vincy*

          And sometimes people are trying to make a point about nuance but go straight for language like “inhumane” that shuts the door on nuance. I wish some people here who endlessly nitpick a LW’s language would consider their own more.

          1. Just Another Zebra*

            This is what happened to me when I wrote in – I paraphrased an email I wrote and was torn to shreds for how I worded it. The email wasn’t even crucial to my question, just an example of something I’d tried. I was so taken aback, because the comments here are (usually) kind and helpful. The overall advice from Alison and the commenters was good, but that one thread is what really stuck with me.

          2. Emily*

            What I blame this on somewhat is what seems to me the overuse of therapy words in every day life. I feel like words like trauma, toxic, and gaslighting are way overused. I agree people should be more careful about the language they use and that using extreme language shuts the door to nuance.

            1. talos*

              Fully agree – not every bad experience is traumatic, not every lie/misstatement is gaslighting, etc., and I feel like it dilutes the terms and creates confusion when they’re used so frequently.

            2. SAS*

              Yes, the recent letter about the employee that damaged the work car and lied ended up with so many threads making assumptions that it had to do with an abusive childhood!

              Just ever-expanding discussions on trauma responses with absolutely no attempt to link the speculation back to workplace norms or communication that could even slightly help the LW!

              1. Bubba*

                Exactly! Her childhood *might* have been abusive but how does that speculation help the OP? The OP is not going to ask her “did you have an abusive parent who punished you harshly and that is why you feel you can’t come clean about the car”. In fact that would be wildly inappropriate for the OP to ask! It’s great that going to therapy and discussion of things like trauma and mental health (issues have that I myself have dealt with) are becoming more normal but, they need to be in the right context.

            3. Scarlet2*

              Yes, I find that the armchair psychologizing and amateur diagnosing gets out of hand sometimes.

    2. ADidgeridooForYou*

      Agreed. I feel like the comment section has almost become a bit unsafe (or maybe not unsafe; not sure which word I’m looking for) for people genuinely looking for guidance. People here seem to forget that we’re all human; we all mess up from time to time, and workplace conflicts don’t automatically need to have a “good guy” and “bad guy.” I feel like people also used to be much more willing to have a conversation, whereas now it’s turned into a bit more of a traditional Internet fight.

      1. NYC Taxi*

        Agree with this. Over the Covid era the comments section has skewed towards black/white thinking – no nuance plus leaps of logic – combined with gatekeepers who chastise people for comments they don’t like under the guise that they’re ‘unkind’.

        1. Higher Ed Cube Farmer*

          NYC Taxi, noticing the black/white thinking correalting with the Covid era is a good point. I’d guess there’s probably also a correlation going back a few years earlier than the pandemic, for folks in USA and and other locations that have had increasingly contentious or outright dangerous social or political landscapes.

          It’s well-demonstrated that prolonged stress and feeling threatened predisposes people to black/white thinking, catastophizing/expecting the worst, emotional reactivity and taking things personally.

          We’ve been experiencing prolonged heightened stress and threat, it’s not surprising we should see an uptick in the known symptoms of that.

          1. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

            I also think there’s a link to Covid. At the beginning of the pandemic, I noticed that in matters related to Covid precautions the general opinion here wasn’t the usual “people have very different situations and we can’t know what’s right for them” but instead more like “if you don’t do exactly as I think is right, you’re evil”.

      2. Casper Lives*

        Maybe “unhelpful” is what you mean? I feel like the comments are hyperbolic for both sides of a letter (or sometimes something made up) and less nuanced.

        But I’m not sure it is recent. I remember the norovirus letter pre-covid had over 1,000 comments. It got so heated commenting was turned off & erased! (Anyone who remembers, please don’t relitigate)

      3. Myrin*

        “I feel like people also used to be much more willing to have a conversation, whereas now it’s turned into a bit more of a traditional Internet fight.”
        I’m totally speculating but it just occurred to me that this might have to do with some “key commenters” not commenting any longer; people like fposte, LBK, or Princess Consuela who left thoughtful and nuanced comments on almost every letter and kind of managed to steer the tone in a certain direction or calm down emotional waves cropping up.

        1. Lydia*

          That’s true and their input is missed, but there have been other posters who have stepped in to try to fill that space. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but it has helped when I come across those comments. When things in the comments get to be too much, I find myself thinking to myself, “Maybe the comment section isn’t for me today” and staying away. It has helped!

          1. DyneinWalking*

            I mean… I definitely do that myself, and it does help me, but it’s also what contributes to the problem! The overall tone is set by those who are commenting, and if a specific subset of readers often refrains from commenting, the tone will swing away from that group. Same for voices in politics and all other areas of public space, btw.

            When it becomes exhausting and draining to put your opinion out (and it’s not one of those opinions that want to silence all disagreement), that’s probably a sign that your opinion needs to be heard more.

      4. long time denizen of internet playgrounds*

        I have been reading here and in other internet comment sections for years. I have seen people saying this exact thing here (“it’s changed / it used to be better”) and in other places for years. If you go back and read comments from 5 years ago here you will see people saying the same thing then. I think it is the nature of online comment sections. You have a lot of people who don’t know each other and who have different frames of references and different styles all talking behind the comfort of an anonymous screen. I really don’t think it has gotten any worse, here or other sites, at least not beyond what reflects broader changes in the culture at large. There’s something about internet commenting that makes us all feel this way though.

      5. Risha*

        I agree with you (and the others) 100%. I also was a LW on 2 separate occasions. Alison gave me excellent advice (as usual!) and many of the commenters did too. But there were some who were absolutely awful to me. Like, what is the point of being so mean? I know that’s how it is online since you don’t have to personally own up to your mean comments, but I wrote in to get some advice and differing opinions, not to be told I’m a crappy person and need to self flagellate for eternity over a mistake.

        Many of the commenters here seem to be very argumentative and ready to tear people to shreds….especially if your opinions go against the hive mind, so to speak. There have been times I’ve given advice to a commenter and since my opinion goes against what the majority thinks, they pile on and try to tear me apart. But….the point of the comment section is to give LWs differing opinions and LWs can take or leave opinions that don’t work for them. It seems like no one is allowed to have their own thoughts. On at least 4 separate occasions, my words have been nitpicked, piled on, and torn apart. If you don’t agree with me, fine. But why be so argumentative and insulting? I don’t need to think the way (general) you think, we’re all individuals.

        LW, I’m glad it worked out for you. And FTR, I never thought you were using your cancer as an excuse, I understood you put that in there for context.

        1. Juneybug*

          Speaking from experience, my hair totally changed after surviving breast (from fine to thicker, from straight to wavy, oily to dry). And yes, it was a challenge figuring out what shampoo, styling product, etc., would work well with my new hair.
          So no, LW was not using cancer as an excuse.

    3. Hannah L*

      This tends to happen on the internet in general where someone, usually a celeb of some type, will do something rather benign and people will twist it into some moral crusade to justify their dislike of someone. But it’s okay! It’s okay for someone to just rub you the wrong way or seem cringy or whatever. You don’t need a Good Reason to not like them.

      AAM’s comment section version tends to be “The way OP wrote this letter bothers me so I’m going to wildly speculate about their motivations in the most uncharitable way because I’m projecting my own experiences/biases.” And again, it’s like…you don’t have to like OP but it’s not fair to make baseless assumptions because of it. And like you said it’s not helpful in the slightest.

      Also, I’m sorry that happened to you.

    4. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      This isn’t my original name either. I was almost driven away from here a few years back after being what I felt was unfairly attacked in a commenting thread. I did completely stop commenting for months, and when I did come back it was under a completely different name.

      For some people, it’s easy to vent and attack when they are anonymous.

      1. bones*

        I switch names every few days so I don’t build up a persona that someone can decide they don’t like. Online communities are hard. I have been part of many (non-anonymous ones) that implode on themselves.

    5. roann*

      A friend of mine recently referred to some people “writing full-on fanfiction about the letters!” in the comments, which I found amusing.

      1. You can call me flower, if you want to*

        Haha, your friend is reading my mind. After I read those comment, I often find myself asking, “but how does that change the advice or help the letter writer?” A lot of it isn’t constructive. “It could be x, so you maybe should consider doing y” makes sense to me, but it doesn’t always include the part that tells the letter writer what to do if it is x. Sometimes it’s just a comment speculating about the motivation and that’s not very helpful if it’s not combined with something actionable.

      2. Lydia*

        This is how I refer to those comments, too. I know sometimes we forget details when we’re discussing things and that gets corrected, but other times there’s a whole narrative happening in the response that was not in the original letter and I don’t know where it’s coming from.

    6. You can call me flower, if you want to*

      I’m sorry that happened, and I think you’re right that people think of their own experiences and end up venting. A lot of these workplace issues are more nuanced and less black and white than they appear to be.

    7. bad raincoat*

      I agree with this completely and I wish people would stop speculating wildly like this. They seem to double down when called on it, too, which is extra tough.

      1. Just Your Everyday Crone*

        I don’t see how people raising a very real possibility (migraines or scent sensitivities) are “wildly speculating,” though? It’s always helpful for me to consider angles I hadn’t considered, because I don’t like to start from annoyance if I can help it, and considering multiple possibilities helps that. A rule of “never raise a possibility that wasn’t in the letter” decreases nuance rather than increases it.

        1. bad raincoat*

          Raising a possibility and speculating aren’t the same, no, but the problem is that we have both. “It could possibly be X” = helpful. “I have X, this is a telltale sign of X, your refusal to accommodate X is horrible and biased” = not so much.

        2. Spooky anon*

          Raising the possibility is one thing and makes sense. But a lot of people take it a step further and make assumptions. Or invent stories to vilify OP.

          “Maybe scent gives Jane migraines” is completely valid. “Jane clearly get migraines/has a medical issue and OP is being so insensitive and using their cancer diagnosis as a shield and is a terrible, terrible person” is not. And the latter is what people are talking about in this thread.

          1. Avril Ludgateaux*

            And it went even further. People were being so incredibly uncharitable to OP that at least one thread even denied the real, competing disability of being a cancer patient – even in remission – and the psychosocial importance of things like hygiene and hair care. They were basically telling the OP that her medical and mental health needs didn’t matter, all because they imagined that Jane suffered from migraines that are triggered by OP’s shampoo – and I emphasize “imagined” because as has predictably come to pass, we’ve learned Jane does not in fact have any medical aversion to the scent, but a negative association from the past.

            I didn’t have the opportunity to mention that, while strong scents can be a trigger, many of us migraineurs are not actually triggered by fragrance. Some us, like me, do become more sensitive to scents – ALL scents, even scents of our own – in the midst of an episode, and scents associated with episodes of stress are more likely to be interpreted as triggers, but while migraines are common as far as chronic pain goes (~17% of women and ~6% of men, in the US at least), migraines specifically triggered by strong scents are only a subset.

            (There’s no such thing as a broad “fragrance allergy,” either, although you can be allergic to a specific component that can be hard to pin down. Does not mean you are allergic to all the thousands of volatile substances that we detect with our noses. And if Jane had truly been allergic to OP’s shampoo, I’m sure her response would have been more extreme than pinching her nose and waving her hand in front of her face. She would have been visibly struggling to breathe.)

            The commentariat here has certain biases – both critical, like against fragrances overall, and constructive, like in favor of accommodating disabilities and special needs – and they can get extremely heated and absolutist when these topics are mentioned.

        3. Mme. Briet’s Antelope*

          The problem isn’t that people are raising other possibilities, it’s that people are taking those possibilities as established fact and using them to make sweeping judgements about entire situations. “Jane might have a scent sensitivity, in which case here are some possible solutions for that” is useful (and in fact was part of Alison’s reply!); “Jane 100% has a scent sensitivity, which the OP is ignoring because she is incredibly privileged and a terrible person and only brought up that she has cancer because she knows on some level that she’s in the wrong and is trying to avoid criticism” is not.

      2. Andie Begins*

        It’s wild when you can go from the original letter, to Alison’s reply, to a comment, and see that the commenter has brought their own baggage to their read of the situation but does not realize (and sometimes can’t be talked out of it). Sometimes the unwitting fanfic writers are high up or prolific enough in the thread to skew later comments with invented details.

    8. ThursdaysGeek*

      I try to be very careful what I say, and generally say nothing at all, especially if I disagree.

    9. snarkfox*

      The comments got so insane on last week’s post! There was the comment that anyone who has a scent allergy and asks someone not to wear a certain scent is “evil.” Then there were the comments saying OP mentioning cancer was looking for unfair sympathy. The assumptions get so wild.

  10. That'sNotMyName*

    Yay! It’s a great reminder to people to just bring up potentially awkward conversations before it gets more awkward and…clear the air.

  11. Spicy Tuna*

    I have a negative association with Fahrenheit cologne, which fortunately no one wears anymore!

  12. Justme, The OG*

    I feel for Jane’s emotional response to a scent. I’m also very glad it’s all blown over.

  13. Emily*

    What a great outcome! (I do think it shows Jane’s tendency to be difficult that she stopped by your office instead of calling you, especially because she was complaining about a scent. Phone calls and/or emails are a pretty obvious work around, yet Jane still chose to come to your office).

  14. Miss Suzie*

    They say that scent is one of the strongest senses in terms of eliciting memories. Which is why they sell so many candles that smell like Christmas stuff, and also the whole pumpkin thing. Glad you were able to resolve this!

  15. Nick*

    I still think Jane needs a dose of reality. “I have a mildly bad memory, really more of an annoying experience and in no way actually traumatic, of a single train ride. It involved a specific scent and therefore anyone I ever meet cannot wear a similar scent.” is kinda peak entitlement. That is in no way a reasonable expectation. Really exemplifies the stereotype of either an entitled “Karen” or entitled “millennial”.

    1. Roland*

      Jane apologized. What other action would you have expected from her that would convinced you she was sufficiently contrite?

      1. CharlieBrown*

        Yeah, agreed. People make mistakes. The difference between a decent person and a Karen is that Karen’s don’t feel they ever make mistakes and thus never feel the need to apologize.

        1. Roland*

          Would also love if we could stop using the word “Karen” as a perjorative. We have enough female-only insults already.

    2. bad raincoat*

      Oh, come on, can we leave tired generational stereotypes out of this? We have no idea how old Jane is. “Entitled” is enough!

    3. Madame X*

      If Jane had called (or threatened) to call the police or bring in line management for a minor interpersonal conflict, then she would be Karen. Jane is annoying and possibly entitled as well, but she is not a Karen in this situation.

    4. Lady_Lessa*

      Tell me, how do you react to skunk spray?

      With a shrug of your shoulders that something got sprayed or with immediate negative response to go fix the problem?

      (I’d be a good one to wash the dog, because skunk doesn’t bother me, nearly as much as it does most people)

    5. Laika*

      I’ve had an unreasonable cranky response to something and then not realized it until later. It’s a grace and a kindness to afford people the space to apologize. Yes in retrospect her reaction was disproportionate, but whomst among us *hasn’t* had a moment where they say something only to realize the only reason they said it was because they were hangry/tired/overworked/etc

      1. Distracted Librarian*

        This. We all make mistakes and apologies exist as a means to show contrition and restore the relationship. I don’t like the tendency to define people by a single incident and offer them no way to recover from it.

  16. Piqued Giraffe*

    “It made me roll my eyes and realize that this was not as big of a deal as they were making it or I had made it in my head, and I ultimately just needed to talk to Jane.”

    This is remarkably insightful.

  17. Mrs. Hawiggins*

    Anything that ends in an apology and a good laugh at work is a good thing. I wish it could be more often, but… people.

  18. Saffy_Taffy*

    What a happy outcome, and I’m so impressed by the maturity and finesse you displayed.
    Also, I went to a hippie college and strongly associate sandalwood and lavender scents with body odor, so I really sympathize with Jane’s worry.

  19. Tobias Funke*

    OP, this is a great update and I truly hope all the commenters who were either railing you or railing your colleague read it. We all get wigged out by things and don’t articulate them well and act like an asshole sometimes (Jane) and we all outthink the program sometimes as far as how horrible something will be to confront (OP). I truly doubt the folks here have lives that are straight up black and white as nobody really does.

    1. Not A Raccoon Keeper*

      “We all get wigged out by things and don’t articulate them well and act like an asshole sometimes”

      So, so, so true. Thanks for verbalizing this so well.

  20. MsMarketer*

    Moral to the story – the vast, vast majority of people are reasonable and will come to a sensible resolution if you speak with them. It’s so easy to assume the worst (particularly because some of the wild tales that come through on this site!)

  21. Michelle Smith*

    I love when things work out so well! I hate difficult conversations but you handled this with such grace!

  22. Madame X*

    Glad you wrote back OP! This is the best resolution and really exemplifies how clear communication can address most minor conflicts. I was really disappointed with how uncharitable and downright mean some of the commenters were on the original letter. There were a lot of people projecting their own issues with fragrances and scents. I also noticed fabricated entire scenarios to make the letter into some sort of villain. There are a number of commenters on this website that seem to lose perspective when commenting on letters and forget that there is a real human being who wrote in to ask for advice.

  23. Ellis Bell*

    I love that OP approached her coworker like she wouldn’t be grouchy even though she had been, and that Jane owned up to being grouchy and overreacting, so that OP reflected that they could possibly have overreacted too. What a marvelous virtuous circle!

  24. Hydrangea*

    “I asked Jane to give me a call when she had a spare moment but of course she showed up in my office instead.”

    Jane values face-to-face communication, apparently to the point that she values the face-to-face over her own comfort. You have an opinion about her as a result (“of course”). You show some really good self-insight at the end of your letter. I encourage you to apply this insight to Jane’s preferred communication method. Set aside whatever opinion you have about her preference for face-to-face and try to view her preference neutrally. Valuing face-to-face is neither good nor bad, it’s just one of the preferences out there. It will help you in the future if you want more calls and less face-to-face if you can have a neutral discussion about your own preference.

    1. LimeRoos*

      Oh I don’t think this was about call vs face-to-face. It was more LW giving Jane an option of not going into her office since Jane was complaining about the smell. So the ‘of course’ isn’t really about the communication, just a bit of a funny commentary on Jane hating the smell and not taking the option to not smell it.

    2. NancyDrew*

      What a wild take. Jane doesn’t like OP’s scent…yet seems to not mind smelling it even when she has the option not to. Which is further proof that it’s not an allergy thing. I’m guessing that’s why the “of course” is in OP’s phrasing. But now you’ve chosen to make her use of “of course” a launchpad to criticize OP’s communications skills. Like, what is happening here?? How was this comment helpful or necessary?!

  25. Eff Walsingham*

    This one reminded me of something that came up at my last workplace… There was a young woman (excellent worker, I gave her a glowing reference when she moved on) on my team who wore perfume to excess. One scent in particular was a migraine trigger for 3 of us. It was an allegedly scent-free environment, constantly flouted by upper management but the rule was there, so I periodically strong-armed our somewhat wimpy supervisor into having a word. One of the affected colleagues had tried, and blurted out something really tactless due to youth and inexperience, and then felt really terrible afterwards.

    It didn’t seem to have much effect over time, but the place is an enormous warehouse, so it was pretty easy to physically avoid her on particularly “smelly” days. But to me the strangely ironic thing was that I do have one product, a leave-in conditioner that I used occasionally – like maybe once every 2 weeks at most, if my hair seemed to need it – that she would always comment on. Every single time I used it, she would say something, like, “Oh, you’re using that conditioner again!” As other commenters have observed, these products give off a stronger smell when the hair is wet, and I have “wash in the morning, every few days” hair or it gets problematic. She never said that she thought it smelled *bad*, so I didn’t change my routine. I just thought it was weird that she wore so much perfume “Cotton Candy – I bought it on the internet!” and yet her own nose was sensitive enough to distinguish between my hair products!

    (I will be so happy to finally use the stuff up! It’s really good on my hair, and I don’t want to waste it, but I rarely use it anymore due to the scent issue. I never want to bring it into close quarters with people, or wear it anywhere where there’ll be food, so it’s very limiting. Fortunately it doesn’t bother my spouse, so I can use it if I’m staying around home and no one’s coming over.)

    1. snarkfox*

      She probably went “nose blind” to own perfume, but still could notice scents on other people. It reminds me of the time in college I was sat next to a woman who had just come in from smoking. She’d also just eaten a sandwich, and she apologized and said, “Sorry if my breath smells like ranch dressing.”

      I just smiled but I was thinking… what ranch dressing? Your entire being smells like cigarette smoke!

  26. HufferWare*

    Glad that worked out well! I worked for a scent-free office and was harassed for weeks with anonymous notes about “my perfume” and print outs of the scent-free policy left on my desk, despite the fact I don’t wear perfume or hair products and had switched to scent free soaps and detergents before even starting the job. When I asked my immediate-surroundjng coworkers if I “smelled” they all said no. When I asked my managers, they said they had no problem with my scent but also refused to address the harassment. I ended up quitting because of it. Not that Jane wasn’t obnoxious, but at least she said something to your face and enabled you to have a conversation about it.

  27. WellRed*

    To all the commenters who took this question waaaaay too personally… there ya go! Knock it off.

  28. yala*

    I love this update! And you handled this beautifully, and I’m so glad y’all could laugh about it and clear the air.

  29. That One Person*

    Glad it was as simple as talking it out – feels so rare to see an easy solution work out like this! Also makes for a neat reminder how the senses can tie to memories and responses like that. Ultimately though happy it was just a mix of bad day and unpleasant memory, but otherwise she turned out reasonable.

  30. Octopus*

    Good. Yes, everyone including OP was making it a big deal. OP where it didn’t need to be, and now we learn that Jane was reacting to something else, too.

  31. Marna Nightingale*

    That’s such a great outcome! I’m glad it went so well.

    Scent is so visceral, for good AND bad. Is it possible that for you that scent is associated with recovery and regaining health?

    Because that could have been part of your strong reaction: it literally smells like victory to you.

  32. Kelly*

    Any chance this was a train from Chicago to the American West in the late 90s? and is the scent “cucumber melon”? Because if so…. I was there. and I know the culprit!! (not me. someone in my family.)

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