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The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Aroma Cue


Calvin Klein's Escape contains apple, litchi, black currant, mandarin, plum and peach; Oscar de la Renta's Volupte contains melon; Ellen Tracy and Rose Cardin have peach. --Linda Dyett (Lear's, Nov. 1992, page 95; see FRUIT SUBSTITUTE)

Scent signal1. Incoming: A chemical sign received through the nose or mouth. 2. Outgoing: A chemical sign emanating from various natural sources, including scent glands (see, e.g., APOCRINE ODOR), flowers, resins, herbs, and cooked foods, as well as from synthetic substances found, e.g., in deodorants, room fresheners, and vinyl.

Usage: Aroma cues are powerful triggers of emotion and memory. Though our sense of smell is weaker than that of most animals, we still recognize some 10,000 scents (Axel 1995:154), many of which can subtly alter moods. Manufactured aromas (see, e.g., NEW CAR SMELL) can influence decisions to buy consumer products.

What's that smell? --Kramer
Nobody has BO like this! --Jerry
Mutant BO! --Elaine
Like a punch in the face! --Jerry
I love horse manure! --Elaine (Seinfeld rerun, May 4, 2000)


Anatomy I. The surface of a newborn's skin is covered with apocrine scent glands, which give off an identifiable "baby smell" (Panati 1987:254). Later these are replaced by mature scent glands in the adult's arm pits, breasts and groin areas. Hair in these regions helps broadcast the scent by increasing its surface area. A human's underarms have the largest apocrine scent glands of any primate.

Anatomy II. About 65 body hairs sprout from a square inch of human skin (Wallace et al. 1983:254). Each hair follicle gives off a scented (Kent 1969:100), oily substance known as sebum, secreted into the hair shaft by mammalian sebaceous glands. The oiliest parts of the human body are the nose and forehead. Sebum evolved originally as a waterproofing substance to protect fur from over wetting (Stoddart 1990:49). Despite sparse body hair, human beings have more sebaceous glands than almost any other mammal (Stoddart 1990:50). As the young become sexually mature, the output of sebaceous glands may triple (Stoddart 1990:55).

Evolution I. Smell is our oldest nonverbal channel, and aroma cues can be traced far back in time to the first chemical messages sent and received by single-celled creatures.

Evolution II. "By learning the [molecular] language that cells use to speak to one another . . . we will be able to listen in on their conversations and, ideally, find ways to intervene when the communications go awry and cause disease. We may yet reduce 'body language' to a precise science" (Scott and Pawson 2000:79).


Evolution III. The olfactory sense evolved as an "early warning" system to detect food, mates, and dangers (e.g., predators) from a distance. As eatingmating, and warning signs, therefore, aroma cues are taken very seriously by the brain. Smell is a volatile, "thin-skinned" sense because scent receptors lie on the bodily surface itself (i.e., on the nasal cavity's olfactory epithelium), rather than beneath layers of skin as in the case of touch. Few changes have been made in aroma receptors since the time of the jawless fishes (ca. 500 m.y.a.), making smell a conservative, compelling, and trusted sense.

Evolution IV. About 1,000 of our ca. 100,000 mammalian genes (one percent) encode our ability to detect approximately 10,000 scents, from the diallyl disulfide of garlic to the furans of broiled steak. Smell accounts for the largest gene family yet discovered in mammals (Axel 1995), and through its unconscious code we savor the most intimate secrets of Nonverbal World.

Media1. "'Aromatic engineering', as it is called, is a billion-dollar business in the US, pumping designer smells into offices and shopping malls to make us feel better, work harder, and spend our money more freely" (Burne 2000:II). 2. "The magic machine contained a cassette with a 'palette' of 128 chemical odors that could be combined to generate an almost infinite number (actually, 10 to the 120th power) of smells by software programmed with mathematical models of specific odors. Users, by clicking on a mouse, could manipulate the mixture of scents to create a signature perfume, or simply create new, weird smells (and e-mail them). Or they could summon up a specific smell corresponding to an image on the screen. Or they could passively receive the smells encoded in, say, a game. Computer game companies have jumped at the chance to do deals with DigiScents, which plans to start selling i-Smell early next year for $50 to $200" (Grimes 2000). 

Perfume1. As consumer products, perfumes mingle scent and taste in a synesthetic blend that appeals to the chemical senses. Their crystal, glass, and plastic containers are colored, contoured, shaped, and textured to appeal to the senses of vision and touch. 2. Chanel No. 19 and Paco Rabanne were the first "FiFi" Awards winners. The official theme of the 2000 FiFi awards ceremonies was "The Scentury of Sensations, Beyond Time and Space." 

Primary odor qualities. At least six primary odors have been identified: floral (e.g., rose), ethereal (pear), musky (musk), camphor(eucalyptus), putrid (rotten eggs), and pungent (vinegar) (Willis 1998B:180). Mint is a common seventh candidate; I would add smoke as an eighth.

Salesmanship I. A man selling himself or a product to a woman should wear baby powder. A woman selling to a woman should use a fruity fragrance. A man selling to a man should wear a light spicy fragrance. A woman selling to a man should wear no fragrance at all, recommends Dr. Alan Hirsch, head of the Smell and Taste Research Foundation in Chicago.

Salesmanship II. "You can never go wrong without fragrance, but you can make a big mistake by wearing it, despite what the cosmetics companies would like you to believe" (Bixler 1984:207).

Sexuality. "'I am convinced,' says Ann Gottlieb [the fragrance designer who created Calvin Klein scents], 'that men find fruitiness, especially in combination with something sweet and warm--musk, vanilla, or amber, or a combination thereof--very, very sexy indeed'" (Dyett 1992:95).

RESEARCH REPORTS1. The olfactory sense is self-absorbing and narcissistic, while the visual sense is futuristic (MacLean 1973:43). "I discovered that a little smell of horse manure once a week was more effective than a cocktail for quieting something deep down inside of me" (MacLean 1973:20). 2. More than any other sense, smell evokes strong emotional tendencies to approach or avoid (Kapit et al. 1987:99). 3. In fish, e.g., the most primitive reaction to a waterborne aroma cue is a reflexive contraction of muscles, leading the animal toward or away from the source of the scent (Kent 1978:402). (N.B.: Potent colognes have a similar effect in buses and elevators today.)
Neuro-notes I. Our emotional limbic system is tied closely to the sense of smell (see MAMMALIAN BRAIN). Primary olfactory cortexprojects to the amygdalaanterior insula, and medial and lateral portions of the orbitofrontal cortex. Part of the amygdala receives fibers directly from the olfactory bulb. Thus, aroma cues carry information to the limbic system in a remarkably direct and immediate way (Nauta and Feirtag 1979:35).

Neuro-notes II. We smell with our brains. The final interpreter of a smell is the primary olfactory cortex (Pool 1987:48) located on the temporal lobe. Aroma cues travel through the nostrils to lima-bean-sized olfactory bulbs (above the nose), and pass to the limbic system where emotional memories are processed in the amygdala and hypothalamus. One of the earliest smell signals we and other mammals process is the odor of mother's milk (Pool 1987:48).

See also EMOTION CUETASTE CUE.

Photo of "Arrival of Spring" (Ferris Perennial Garden, Manito Park, Spokane, Washington, USA) by David B. Givens (copyright 2008)