Exploring the cultural appreciation of scent.
In his 1966 book The Hidden Dimension, anthropologist E.T. Hall states that when it comes to olfaction, Americans are culturally underdeveloped. He attributed this deficiency to the extensive use of deodorants and the suppression of odor in public places, a cultural norm that has resulted in a land of olfactory blandness.
This neutrality – brought about by the suppression of and aversion to odor – exists in other first world countries as well where it is described by the Bororo people of Brazil and the Serer Ndut of Senegal among others as “the smell of death.”
Because odors have been repressed, they’ve never been coded by our culture; there’s no model in place to organize our olfactory life experience and, as such, our response to smells is measured in terms of relative pleasure. Simply put, we only react to odor. By contrast, cultures that attach symbolic meaning to odors like the Suya people of Brazil and the Onge of the Andaman Islands are said to think in smell.
Of the five senses, smell in Western culture has gotten a bad rap. In the English language there are fewer positive equivalents for the sense of smell than there are for the other four senses. You might sniff out a deal or smell a rat but the terms for nose in our vocabulary particularly as they relate to wine are more often than not derogatory (snobby, snooty, snotty, etc.).
Our struggle to describe scent is described by Avery Gilbert, author of What the Nose Knows, as the verbal barrier. Given there’s no lack of words for smell in the English language, Gilbert defines the verbal barrier as a cognitive problem. Because smell evokes much deeper memories than either vision or sound, olfactory blandness works to obscure memory.
Imagine the rich olfactory landscape of the Onge, a tribe that defines everything primarily by smell. Their calendar is dictated by the nose; seasons are named after particular scents, largely depending on what types of flowers are in blossom or fruits are in season. They personally identify according to scent and their scent-centered culture is expressed by emphasis on the nose in their language. Even the Onge greeting “Konyune onorange-tanka?” which is the English equivalent of “How are you?” translates as “How is your nose?”
The Onge aren’t the only culture that holds scent in high esteem. In Algeria, the nose is called “nif” and synonymous with honor while in India, greeting someone by smelling their head is the equivalent of a hug or a kiss in the West. In many cultures, the symbolic links between scent and emotion makes the sense of smell the most powerful of the five senses.
As wine professionals, we operate in a culture where odors have been coded largely through the use of rubrics like the Wine and Spirits Education Trust Systematic Approach to Tasting (SAT) and the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Tasting Grid both of which are decried as insufficient for being analytical. In response, let’s look beyond language and shift our cultural norms by creating a richer olfactory landscape that encourages us to attach meaning to scent.