illustration by Tom Ford
Of all the senses, the sense of smell is perhaps the most underrated. In art and literature, sight and sound reign supreme. Touch is often invoked in a romantic sense. But smell? Not so much. Unless the whiff in question is like that of a rose, we tend to steer clear of the subject.
And yet, arguably, the way things – particularly people – smell is far more important than kind eyes or a mellifluous voice or a pair of nice soft hands. Our sense of smell has the ability to send us wild with desire or make us run away gagging with a hankie pressed firmly to our faces.
Smell is the first sense we rely on. Though it can barely focus its eyes until it’s a month old, a baby is able to recognise its mother by her smell as soon as it is born. Smell keeps us from getting ill from eating something we shouldn’t have by helping us recognise when something’s not ripe or, worse, has gone off. Without smell, taste would be nothing more than salty, sweet, sour or bitter. Smell even helps us to find a suitable mate – someone whose DNA is complimentary to our own – in the hope of having strong healthy offspring. It’s not in his kiss, Cher, it’s in the way he smells.
And yet our sense of smell can work against us. There are times when we can’t block out the messages it sends us even though we’re unable to act on them. In the office, for example. Smells are particularly important in an office environment but when we talk about good working conditions, the smell of a place is usually way down the agenda after back-friendly chairs, a properly set-up desk and good lighting. Yet there’s nothing so soul-destroying as having to spend most of your waking hours downwind from someone whose breath can strip wallpaper or whose BO could be classed as an offensive weapon. Especially when you can’t even take your nose to the office kitchen for a break because someone has been heating blue cheese and kippers in the shared microwave.