Politica – They smell of garlic

The nose knows? Or, olfactory bias? Some years ago, I read a French crimi which opens with a clue in the nose of prostitute. In the very first paragraph of the first page, she reflects on the fact that her john must be British or American because, "he smells of soap." When I was a child, I frequently heard bias against Italians expressed as, " I can't stand them, they smell like garlic."

Obviously, we take in countless olfactory sensations in the course of a day, but unlike images and words we are hardly ever mindful of what comes in and how we listen to it, unless of course it is a strong danger signal – "I smell smoke!" – and fearfully start searching to identify the source. Or, we may deliberately indulge in the pleasure of "smelling the flowers." Still, though we might enjoy the wafting smells coming from our own kitchen, we may be enticed or distressed by those emitted from our neighbor's pots and pans.

Obviously then what we listen with our nose and its olfactory memories, can be just as helpful or biased, useful information or exclusion of others, as is our auditory or visual processing. When we encounter difference in people, does our nose start looking for information? Then do we consciously or unconsciously ransack our apperceptive mass to make judgments about whomever it is we're sniffing? Is it a tool of confirmation bias – that tendency to reinterpret the present in terms of past information we have already shoved into our mental closets? It's the mechanism that leads us to make the knee-jerk judgment, "X must be true." On the other hand when we are in familiar situations and things and people are cozy and homey, we rarely have the urge to sniff and interpret.

Smells can of course deliberately send messages and create masks, thus the enormous market for perfumes and lotions, deodorants and air fresheners to make things "smell right." In the perfume industry, there is even a professional who is called "a nose", someone who is developed a nose for blending and interpreting the product that goes into the bottle.

In any case, I suspect we can benefit by paying more attention to our cultural nosing about, becoming more aware of the olfactory perspective in our perceptions of difference and the judgments we make about it. Variety can literally be the spice of life, an invitation to appreciate the bouquet of our earthiness.

 

 

 


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