Once upon a time I worked with a gentleman who had body odor. I didn't have to work with him often, mind you -- or for very long. But when you're cooped up in a radio studio barely bigger than a broom closet, 30 minutes once a month can feel like a whole lot longer than that.
So when it was his turn to be on the talk show -- he was one of my regulars -- I got teased by the rest of the staff as we waited for his arrival.
"I'm going to talk with him about it," I announced one day. The reaction was unanimous: "Don't. Just don't."
The people who insisted I let the man be weren't in that studio with me. They only caught whiffs in passing, or imagined my discomfort with a pane of glass between them and us. Wasn't it more fun to complain about something, I wondered, than to talk with the person who had the power to change it? For them, maybe. Not for me.
So that morning I closed the door of our little studio, took a breath, and let it out: "I'm really sorry for what I'm about to say," I told him. "And I'm not doing it to make you feel bad. I think you're the sweetest guy and I don't want you to wonder why I'm practically hugging the wall to create more space between us when we're doing a show. It's just that, well, you have..." I lowered my voice to a whisper, then. "Body odor."
"No," he said. "That's impossible..."
I don't remember what happened next. I do remember the discomfort, the sudden quiet, and how much I ached for the guy. It hurt to tell him the truth. I'm sure it hurt a lot more to hear it.
But you know what? The next time he came in to do a show, he smelled great. The time after that, the same. I never again caught the slightest hint of anything unpleasant, and that wasn't the best part.
The best part was how much fun we had during his monthly appearances from that point forward. When my daughter and I would see him around town -- this was back when she was a toddler, "helping" me gather news reports on my morning rounds -- he lit up as if I was his favorite person in the world.
We never spoke about what had happened, but I doubt if I was the only person who suddenly found working with him a genuine pleasure. Maybe deep down he knew I'd done him a favor. It hadn't been easy. But it was a whole lot easier than avoiding him, or wondering if he was wondering why I was.
He did me a big favor right back, though he probably doesn't realize it. Every time I hear something that stings -- constructive criticism, that is, as opposed to whatever you call what you get from anonymous haters -- I think of how difficult it had been to share it. Then I thank the person for having the courage to tell me the truth, and respecting me enough to know I deserve it.
I can't always fix whatever's bothering someone, but I'm always glad for the insight -- and the opportunity to see myself more clearly.