As we discussed in Part I, scent is a social and cultural phenomenon. There are deep and lasting ramifications of scent as a biological and psychological experience. Now, it’s apparent that the worlds’ cultures and even the way people relate to each other differ in the meaning and importance they attach to smell. Does this mean that one culture will have dominance in the world of what smells good? Could there be a challenge to the “Smell of Us”?
The battle of the scent cultures could become the battle of the sexes. Women at all ages are generally more accurate than men in identifying odors. Women have on average 43% more cells than men in the olfactory bulb, the number of cells in each brain structure, which is the first brain region to receive olfactory information.
Counting neurons specifically, the difference reached almost 50% more in women than men. In addition, smell cells (along with taste cells) are the only sensory cells that are regularly replaced throughout a person’s life span. This means, not surprisingly, women have stronger sensibilities and are more aware of scents than men.
In France, a culture of the senses, there is a deep appreciation. The majority of Fragrance Houses are based there, culminating in a $40Billion industry. There are even executive positions inside these fragrance companies called “The Nose”. They are very predominantly women. This is best understood in an interview with a very prominent nose.
A Smithsonian Magazine (SM) interview with famous French perfume nose Celiné Ellena is enlightening in understanding the scent narrative:
SM: Evidence of humans creating scents goes back thousands of years. Why do you think we feel the urge to use perfume?
Ellena: At the beginning, I think, we created fragrances to talk with God. Fragrance is mysterious. Now when you wear fragrance, you want to send a mysterious message. You want people to smell you, to be listening.
SM: How do perfume tastes differ among Americans and the French?
Ellena: American people are more romantic than French people. French people love a lot, but they love and forget. American people are very romantic. They love, and it’s for life. Americans like the romantic flower fragrances. In France, those are less in fashion than the sensual, sexy, amber, chypre types. And for young people, very fruity fragrances.
America the land of the Romantic? Could be, yet the differences abound globally. Our sense of smell is the probably the most undervalued of the senses today. Every day, it is growing in nature in modern Western culture, helping us to have emotional experiences and media up from our dependence on visuals and sound. My background as a film director gives me perspective in how we take in media as a culture. Scent as media is on its way worldwide and it will shift the way personal experiences are formed.
Unfairly, throughout time, all the other senses have positive, complimentary associations. We praise people in Western Culture of being “Visionary”. In everyday language, we always hear that “looks” or “sounds” like a great idea and someone is “Farsighted” As ridiculous as this sounds, it does underscore societies lack of appreciation for the sense of smell.
Although talk about business with reference to smell like, The Sweet Smell of Success (which became popular due to the 1957 movie of the same name starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis), it is rare that scent enters the mainstream. A good reporter is referred to as having “a nose for news”. investors sometimes refer to the “smell of money” as a good deal to invest in. Of course, there’s Will Smith’s lyrics from The Fresh Prince of Bel Aire “Smell ya later!”
Yet in other cultures, we find scent is already a dominant force in relation to others. Dr. Kate Fox has done pioneering work into the phycology of scent. Self-knowledge is also defined by… “smell – to refer to oneself, one touches the tip of one’s nose, a gesture meaning both ‘me’ and ‘my odor’.
- When greeting someone, the Ongee do not ask ‘How are you?’, but ‘Konyune onorange-tanka?’ meaning ‘How is your nose?’. Etiquette requires that if the person responds that he or she feels ‘heavy with odor’, the greeter must inhale deeply to remove some of the surplus! If the greeted person feels a bit short of odor-energy, it is polite to provide some extra scent by blowing on him or her.
- The Bororo of Brazil and the Serer Ndut of Senegal also associate a personal identity with a smell. For the Bororo, body odor is associated with the life-force of a person, and breath-odour with the soul. The Ndut believe that each individual is animated by two different scent-defined forces. One is physical, associated with body and breath odor; the other, spiritual, scent is claimed to survive the death of an individual to be reincarnated in a descendant. The Ndut can tell which ancestor has been reincarnated in a child by recognizing the similarity of the child’s scent to that of the deceased
- In India, the traditional affectionate greeting – equivalent of the Western hug or kiss – was to smell someone’s head. An ancient Indian text declares “I will smell thee on the head, that is the greatest sign of tender love“.
While these customs may not spread, many people ask “to smell the babies head” or compliment people on the fragrance they are wearing. Our world is becoming aware of the power of scent. Our experience of the ever changing world is increasing with the respect for scent as a part of our culture.
So, as we reflect on the nose, scent, and culture we look forward to the scent narrative being part of our everyday experience and we may be asking ourselves in 5-7 years, why doesn’t that have a scent?