Ground-Level Social Skill: Don't Have Poor Hygiene Or Do Gross Things

One of the most basic social skills is to not do little things that physically gross people out, like having body odor or picking food out of your teeth in front of everyone.

...And now you might be thinking, "Come on, don't be so condescending. Everyone already knows to shower and wear deodorant. Why aren't you giving your readers any credit? Why are you acting as if everyone who wants to work on their people skills fits the stereotype of the smelly guy at a comic book store?"

I realize this article doesn't apply to most people. Even if they're shy or want to get better at making conversation, their basic hygiene and manners are in order. However, a small subset of, usually younger, people who struggle socially aren't aware enough of their hygiene and unintentionally put others off. It doesn't make them bad people. That stuff just isn't on their radar yet. A few easy corrections can make everyone look at them in a much more positive light. To be extremely trite, if this article can help just one person become more tuned into their grooming and manners, then it will have been worth writing.

Why is having decent hygiene so important? For one, people respond to a lack of cleanliness on a more visceral level than they do to social mistakes. If someone cuts you off in a conversation it's irksome in an abstract sense. But if their clothes smell like sweat, that's a literal physical smell driving others away. Humans also have a built-in aversion to dirt and other people's body secretions. Second, because most people know to stay on top of their hygiene, anyone who doesn't comes across as especially oblivious. It raises the question of, "If they don't even know to trim their fingernails, what else are they clueless about?"

A bunch of habits and behaviors that can gross people out

If your social skills and presentation are otherwise average, and you occasionally, absent-mindedly do one or two of these things it won't hurt you that much. Everyone's habits slip from time to time. If you do a bunch of these on a regular basis it makes a poor impression.

Once more, I realize these will be obvious to most people, but maybe a few readers will go through the list, realize they've unintentionally been doing one or two of them, and know to make a change.

General lack of attention to hygiene and grooming

Inappropriate self-grooming in front of other people

Of course, it's fine to do these things behind closed doors. Everyone acts disgusting when they're alone. It's just that if you have some wax in your ear, no one wants to watch you root around in there with your finger.

Expelling nasty stuff from your body in front of other people

Unappealing eating habits

A reasonable response to learning you've been making a hygiene mistake or two

If you find out you've been doing something considered unhygienic, the best response is to simply stop doing it going forward. It's okay if you feel sheepish, but don't beat yourself up too much for not knowing better. Again, you didn't ignore the rule because you're a horrible person. You just didn't know any better. Maybe no one taught you it wasn't polite, or someone explained it when you were a kid, but you were too young to absorb the message. Most children have to be nagged plenty of times before they even do basic tasks like brush their teeth every day. At least now you know what to do, and better late than never.

Less-useful responses to being told your hygiene could be better

First, don't casually dismiss the feedback. Some people are politely told they need to, say, floss more often, and they brush the suggestion off. Their unconscious attitude is, "I don't think that's gross or a big deal, so it's actually not." The thing is, while ignoring certain practices might not bother you, they can really bug other people. If you learn you're making a standard cleanliness or grooming error, please take that feedback seriously.

Second, even if you feel embarrassed or attacked, try not to get defensive. Some people feel touchy when you suggest they work on their hygiene or stop an off-putting behavior. They'll argue and refuse to change. There are a few reasons they react this way:

One argument people sometimes make when you call attention to their grooming or hygiene is that these things are subjective social constructs. They'll point to countries where people don't wear deodorant, or where it's acceptable to spit in public, or where burping loudly is a way to compliment someone's cooking. They'll claim that no one cared about bad breath before mouthwash ads convinced everyone to worry about it.

Technically they're right. Social guidelines are subjective behaviors we've all just agreed to follow. Things that are considered gross in one society may not bother anyone in another. If you really, really want to, you can choose to not follow most of your culture's basic hygiene or grooming practices. However, you'll also really, really be swimming upstream. Hygiene guidelines are technically subjective, but they're a hair away from being objective. Like I said, most people are instinctively put off by a lack of a cleanliness. For all but the most headstrong, independent types, it's more trouble than it's worth not to follow those rules.

A related article:

How Much Do You Really Need To Improve Your Fashion Sense To Be Socially Successful?