Here’s the scenario: You are having a great conversation with a new friend. Both of you smile and laugh as you recount a story about your latest workplace misadventure. The room is loud, so you lean in a little closer to deliver the punchline when...wait a minute. Are you imagining things, or did your friend just flinch and cover her nose?
The association between bad breath and social rejection stands the test of time. Long before we humans figured out that bacteria causes most bad breath, we understood that we needed to do something about our malodorous mouths — if only for the sake of those around us. The ancient Egyptians are thought to have invented breath mints around three thousand years ago, and according to religious scholars, Talmudic law listed bad breath as grounds for divorce.
Bad breath is one of the fastest buzz-kills in any social situation. No one wants to be known as the coworker with halitosis, or the new girl who tells great stories as long as you don’t stand too close. But why exactly is your bad breath such a problem in social settings? And what cues might the people around you use to clue you in?
The Bad Breath Paradox: Why We Can’t Smell Our Own Halitosis
One of the reasons we fear bad breath in social situations is because we usually can’t self-detect it. Here we go, living our daily lives, totally oblivious while we slay everyone around us with our dragon breath.
A study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association called this the “bad breath paradox.” Researchers found that study participants almost always scored their own bad breath— for better or worse — according to preconceived notions. Even though participants seemed physically capable of detecting their own bad breath, their ideas about how their breath should smell skewed their ability.
Other theories suggest it is a matter of evolution. If we had to smell our own foul breath all the time, our poor brains would be overwhelmed and miss out on detecting other odors more important to our safety and survival.
Whatever the reason, humans just plain stink at noticing our own stink. When bad breath strikes, you can only hope a trusted friend, or even a benevolent stranger, clues you in. But what if no one steps up? It might be time to take matters into your own hands and pay attention to the clues around you.
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Social Cues for Bad Breath
Psychologists spend a lot of time studying body language. And for good reason. Much of our communication is done non verbally. What a person does with their body often conveys a whole lot more than the words they speak. If you suspect you suffer from bad breath, look for these nonverbal cues:
Leaning out or away
Although cultural and social norms help dictate how close a person stands to you, leaning out or away during the middle of a conversation is rarely a good sign. So if you notice someone leaning out when they should be leaning in — Houston, we might have a problem.
Touching the nose
One of the most classic signs to watch for is a conversation partner discreetly touching or rubbing their own nose. True, the person in question might have a legitimate itch, but if it happens more than once, take notice.
Popping a breath mint
If a person casually tests their own breath, or pops a mint then offers you one, they might just be politely sharing. On the other hand, they might be trying to tell you something. Either way, it’s a good idea to play it safe and just take the mint.
DIY Bad Breath Detection
If all social cues point to bad breath, it’s probably time for a good old smell test. One of the easiest ways is to ask a friend or family member for help. According to Dr. Steven Lin, for best results the person should hold off on coffee, alcohol, or aromatic foods like garlic for twenty four hours before performing a smell test.
If you’d rather DIY bad breath detection, Dr. Lin recommends one of these methods:
- Lick the back of your hand, let it dry for a few seconds, then smell it.
- Floss the back of your teeth, then smell the floss.
- Scrape the back of your tongue with a clean, plastic spoon and smell the saliva it removes.
If Bad Breath Persists, See a Dentist
Most bad breath is only temporary. A good brush and floss usually does the trick. But if you suffer from bad breath more often than not, this might be the sign of a larger issue. Make an appointment with your dentist to help detect and tackle to cause of your bad breath.