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Scent in Global Cultures

Written by Jennifer Dublino, on February 28th, 2011

Man wearing traditional shesh (head scarf), smells sprig of mint, Skoura, Morocco In Western culture, smell has gotten a bad rap. The intellectuals of the Enlightenment regarded the sense of smell as a vestige of man’s more animalistic side, and something to be shunned and denigrated. The society gave much more weight and positive association to the senses of hearing and sight, both of which provide information for logical thought processes that held in high esteem.  Smell, on the other hand, is more associated with emotion and instinct, and as such, has been downplayed to this day.

Regarding body smell, westerners tend to deodorize and neutralize, except when using perfume in limited circumstances. When thinking of environmental scent, most people in the United States call to mind the chemical smells of industrial type air fresheners or deodorizers. Those who are interested in having a pleasant smell in their environment typically use scented candles, which carry health and safety risks. It is up to the industry’s providers to educate corporate buyers and the public about the available scent technology to overcome the inbuilt cultural bias against adding scent.

In contrast to western culture, which largely ignores the sense of smell, many other cultures feature smell prominently. For example, in central Brazil, the Suya tribe classify everything, including animals, plants and humans, according to its smell. Strong smelling animals are considered to be the most important. Similarly, groups of people within the society who have a strong personal smell achieve varying levels of social prominence.

In Asian societies, aroma was traditionally considered a luxury, and the use of precious aromatics was widely used in rituals involving both the royalty and religious ceremonies. Perfume became a high art in South Asia, and trade in perfume and fragranced items became an important part of their economy. The sense of smell and the mention of specific smells are found throughout Asian literature, scholarly tracts and religious texts. Culturally, the sense of smell is held in high esteem, however, body odor is frowned upon and Asians stress frequent bathing.

In India, the traditional affectionate greeting is to smell the other person’s head. Likewise, in Arab countries, breathing on people as you speak to them shows them that you are friendly. If you do not allow the other person to smell your breath, you are considered to be shamefully distant and rude.

In addition to the role that scent plays within different cultures, people raised in different environments tend to have varying scent preferences. For example, wintergreen and rootbeer rank among Americans’ favorite smells, but are considered to be disgusting by the British. The smell of cheese disgusts Asians, but is considered to be a comfort food (think macaroni and cheese) or a gourmet treat to westerners. There is a fruit called jackfruit that grows in the Middle East and parts of Africa that is a delicacy there, but deemed “stinky” to westerners.

There are some odors that you might think would be universally disdained, such as feces, but that is not the case. The Masai tribe in east Africa use dung as a hair coloring, smearing it on their heads, and when the US military tried to formulate a stink bomb to disperse crowds, it was unable to come up with an odor that was reviled by all ethnic groups.[1]

Within societies, of course, there are individual preferences. The brain is amazingly adaptable, and research has shown that familiar smells are frequently considered to be pleasant. Thus, the British love of frying bacon and fish & chips and the Japanese preference for nato, a fermented soy bean dish. Similarly, people dislike scents associated with negative events and situations. For example, the scent of cloves associated with a particular dental cement was considered to be unpleasant only by those who are fearful of dental procedures, and not by those with less anxiety.

The best way to ensure that your proposed scent will be well received is by segmenting your target “smellers” by culture and then testing different fragrances.


[1] “I Know What I Like: Understanding Odor Preferences,” Rachel S. Herz, Ph.D., Sense of Smell Institute, June 2004

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