Sunday, September 28, 2014

Should you ignore the stench in a crowded subway car?

A crowded subway car can bring out some curious behavior.

Not long ago, as the subway train pulled into a downtown station in a Northeast city in the U.S., a group of riders got on board. There were no seats available and little standing room remained. A well-dressed man who looked to be in his 40s got on board with his traveling companion and walked to grab a spot to hang onto in the car. As he made his way in, he looked at the people standing near him and then said in a loud voice to his companion, "That stench. Can you smell that stench? Let's move."

The two passengers moved, but as they did so, the same man repeated, "What a stench. Can you smell that stench?"

Once they'd settled in another spot, the man could again be heard throughout the car commenting on the smell where he'd originally boarded the train.

While it was difficult to determine if the smell emanated from the subway car itself (unfortunate incidents regularly occur on city subway cars) or if a passenger generated the odor, the man seemed to be directing his comments at the people who stood where he originally intended to stand for the ride.

Finally, after yet another loud comment, a passenger standing in that original spot, shouted back, "OK. We heard you." A smattering of laughter and light applause followed. The man curtailed his comments for the remainder of his ride, but his behavior begs the question: What is the right thing to do is when confronted by someone who gives off an unpleasant smell?

If you're in a subway car and it's difficult to pinpoint where the smell is coming from, the question is moot. If the smell bothers you, the right thing to do is simply move to another part of the car. Making boisterous pronouncements solves nothing and risks insulting other passengers who presumably already notice the smell.

But what if it's a friend or family member giving off a bad smell?

Family members might be more comfortable letting a sibling or a child know about the problem, but friends might have more trouble talking about it.

While it may be uncomfortable to alert someone to such a problem, equally uncomfortable is having a friend who later finds out from others ask you why you didn't tell him or her when you smelled on them earlier in the day.

Faced with this problem, the right thing to do would be to find a way to alert your friend. Feelings might be hurt, but the honesty would go a long way toward protecting the friend from embarrassment in among others who might not be so charitable.

There's no need to go into excruciating detail about just how bad the smell might be. Truth dumping, as Sissela Bok called it in her book, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (Vintage Books, 1989), goes beyond the call for honesty and can careen into cruel behavior.

It's highly likely that on that subway car, just as many people were eager to get away from the well-dressed man complaining about the odor as they were from the stench. The right thing is to be honest, but kind. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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William Jacobson said...


This is more a question of etiquette than ethics. It is neither morally right nor morally wrong to either speak up or to stay silent when faced with a perceived offensive odor eminating from someone, be they a friend or other. It is generally impolite to comment on such perceived odor though.

Many would try to rationalize that behavior by saying that they are seeking to prevent future embarrassment but how effective is that when one causes said embarrassment in the process? The man you cited on the subway was most definitely rude and intentionally so. Calling out his rudeness was proper.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

The big mouth should have kept silent. Even if true, nobody can do anything about it and the trip time is short. So hold one's breath for a while and ignore the idiots.
Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma