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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Ask the Matriarch: Scents-itivity

Hard to believe it is Dec. 20 already. But here it is.. and time for Ask the Matriarch!

I have a parishioner who is so sensitive to scents, perfumes, fragrances, etc. that if anybody is wearing very much of a certain scent, she has to move to an entirely different part of the sanctuary before breathing becomes difficult for her.

And of course, there are two other women who tend to wear a heavy scent and/or wear it in mass quantities, usually because they have a decreased sense of smell due to past cancer treatments or simply advanced age. The sensitive parishioner has approached them both, explained her difficulty with scent, and asked them to not wear as much perfume--but it doesn't seem to be making any difference. She's now playing musical pews in order to find a place that will allow her to breathe properly. (This becomes more of a problem during church meetings, or when we are meeting in a smaller space like the chapel.)

I take perfume allergies seriously, to the point where I wear nothing stronger than deodorant on Sundays to avoid setting off someone's allergies. But I can't seem to think of a way to ask these women to back off on the perfume without causing offense. I've considered putting something about it in the bulletin as a way to enhancing hospitality to guests, but I'm sure these two women will realize that they are the primary targets of such a request. To complicate matters further, the allergic woman has a reputation for being a bit demanding, so everyone's tension levels are a bit elevated just because it's HER.

Any suggestions on how we might create an atmosphere of hospitality for all without targeting a few individuals?

We have lots of tips from the matriarchs. You can start by acting as a mediator of sorts.

Ann sympathizes with those who cringe at having to play mediator. "These situations call up all my conflict avoidance traits. The first line I would encourage is for the injured party to approach the others and say something like 'when you wear perfume, I have an allergic reaction' in a non-accusatory way." Offer to practice the "intervention," and encourage her to talk about her specific health issue (does it trigger daylong headaches? asthma?) with the offending party so that it doesn't come across as "griping."

If that doesn't work, says Peripatetic Polar Bear, you might want to delegate this to your vestry/session/board of deacons, etc. "I think when you have individual personalities involved in the situation, it's harder to be sensitive." No pun intended. "A scent-free zone could help ameliorate this—my childhood church had a scent-free zone in the balcony, due initially to a child that had a severe allergy," she continues. "If your congregational governing body agrees to try a scent-free zone, it may raise awareness as to how many people in the congregation have an issue with it."

It's important to note that this isn't a perfect solution, PPB adds. "Nobody wants to feel like they are relegated to a certain corner of the sanctuary, but it worked."

Ann also suggests bringing the governing body in, but goes a little bit further in terms of what guidelines you set. "Take the issue to your vestry or parish council. Have them talk over the issues and make a decision that will apply to all equally. Somewhere along the line smoking was probably banned from your church; how did that decision get made?"

Ann talked to her daughter, Kristin, who is also sensitive to scents, and got an interesting piece of feedback. "As someone who is allergic to most perfumes, I know that I feel very awkward asking someone directly not to wear perfume," Kristin writes. "I will stop going to an event rather than talk to someone about my needs."

PPB agrees that you don't know who else feels the same way that your squeaky wheel does. "I think you may be surprised how many people are allergic or sensitive, and just not able/willing to talk about it."

If you do create a rule that no perfume is allowed in a particular setting, be sure to explain why. "Create the rule, and make clear that the reason you have the rule is that scent allergies make people just as sick as food allergies," says Kristin. "It doesn't create a welcoming space if you make people sick."

Karen worked in a church where there was a sign in the narthex that said something along the lines of:

In order to welcome members of our community who have severe allergies to certain perfumes, we respectfully request that worshippers refrain from wearing heavy aftershave, cologne or scented lotions.
It didn't always work, but it at least cut down on the offending scents.

Have you had to handle this problem in your parish? If so, please share with us in the comments!


  1. We had the very same thing come up here a couple years ago. THe Board decision was to request that people cut down on scents and to put up a couple signs.

    Given our size and architecture a scent-free zone would have to be the whole building. So the BOard didn't want to go that far.

    At teh first UCW meeting following my making of the announcement it hit the fan, so I heard afterward. THe Board person who was at the meeting left swearing she would never go again. It is hard to do anything that asks people to change sometimes.

  2. And then there is the question of incense - beloved by many in some churches. A warning that there will be incense at a service helps - also using high quality incense is less allergy evoking --

  3. Bear in mind that it's more than perfumes, for example, I'm the one in the sanctuary on the Saturday before Easter cutting the stamens out of all the lilies. My Mom just doesn't go to church on Easter.

    We have specifically asked the choir not to wear perfume/cologne -- but that's a more collegial environment.

    In this circumstance, If initial courteous requests didn't work, I think I would approach the offenders and specifically tell them that they were making it physically difficult for their sister to worship. This isn't about preferences but about physical limitations. Would they knowingly block aisles to a wheelchair? or carelessly place things in front of a blind person? This is no different.

  4. I have a horrible allergy to anything with bergamot in it. Certain lotions or perfume just make me hack. (If I wear them I break out in a rash.) It's no fun to jump from seat to seat trying to avoid heavy perfumes and colognes. And yet, you don't want to sound heavy handed and dictatorial. Rather than a policy, I'd vote for an invitation to care for those who have allergies.

    I used to have a bergamot wearing colleague. When she knew I was allergic to her hand lotion, she simply stopped wearing it. She wasn't offended. She cared enough about me to find something not so smelly.

  5. I am one of these people with allergies to perfumes. And I have to tell you, it is hard to deal with... because people don't believe that you really have a problem with it. They look at you and say, "oh, well I am not wearing very MUCH"


    Two suggestions:
    - yes, be direct. It is a fact. There are more people with life-threatening allergies these days. Most major airlines don't serve peanuts any more (or they can have a peanut-free flight.) Most schools have peanut-free zones (or no peanuts at all!) Fragrances are much the same. We can be hospitable as a church -- unless we don't want people with said allergies to come back.

    - Be sympathetic to the person with allergies. If you are the person who feels as though your breath is being sucked out of you it is a terrifying place to be.


  6. If my memory serves me, every single choir I have ever sung in has had a no perfume (and sometimes, no b.o.) policy. In college, it seemed we always had one or two guys who never learned about showers and soap. Even if you don't have an allergy it can be difficult to breath deeply in a small confined space when someone smells strongly. And on Easter, those in the choir who have problems with lilies know to tank up on the Claritin that morning. The florist knows that lilies are not acceptable in any other arrangements throughout the year.
    I think if people were properly informed about the effects of perfume on many people fewer people would wear it. I would think it would be more effective coming from someone in authority (session, vestry, pastor, etc.) instead of from one person (especially if they are usually seen as 'demanding')

  7. I convinced the Altar Guild and powers that be (aren't those the same? LOL) that azaleas would be so much more festive than lilies - color and you can plant them in your garden rather than letting them rot on the porch by the trash bins. Lilies make me nauseated - not a happy state for a priest although it will shorten up the Easter service.


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