Etiquette of Saying Someone Has Bad Breath

What is the proper etiquette for telling your friend the embarrassing truth?

Businessman using breath freshener outdoors, low angle view
Be gentle when telling a friend an embarrassing truth. Shannon Fagan/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Have you ever found yourself in the position of knowing an embarrassing thing about a friend but didn’t know how to tell her? You don’t want to hurt her feelings, but you know that not saying anything could be worse in the long run. Should you come right out and say, “You have bad breath”? Or should you just ignore the situation and hope she figures it out on her own?

Whatever you choose to do about this situation, remember that proper etiquette is needed now more than ever.

You need to put yourself in your friend’s position and consider the ramifications of what you say and how you say it.

Make sure your friend knows that you are on her side, and if you have ever had someone tell you an embarrassing truth, let her know. If this friend is also a coworker, be extra sensitive because you don’t want her to be embarrassed every time she sees you at the office. Never discuss this with other coworkers because that would be gossip.

Unaware

Whether the problem is bad breath or body odor, keep in mind that your friend probably doesn’t know. Most people can’t smell themselves. Or if your friend constantly looks disheveled with rumpled or dirty clothes she might not realize how bad she looks.

Put yourself in her position and think about what you would want. Would it be better for a good friend to mention it, or do you prefer a stranger saying it? Or worse, how would you feel if no one ever told you but avoided being close to you?

Gentle Approach

If your friend has bad breath, you may try avoiding discussing the topic but using the option of constantly offering breath mints or gum. She may take the hint and start bringing her own. However, this doesn’t always work. She might turn you down or not realize that you are doing this for a reason.

A gentle approach to telling your friend she has body odor might be to mention a new deodorant that has hit the market. Bring up a commercial you saw and ask if she’s ever tried it. Say that you’ve found that you have to change deodorants periodically because after a while they lose their efficacy and hope she takes the hint.

If your friend’s clothing always looks rumpled, you can bring up how difficult it is to find a good dry cleaner. Mention that you’ve invested in a steamer that freshens an outfit in a jiffy and that you don’t know how you ever managed without it.

Stating the Obvious

At the risk of short-term pain, it’s best to find the best time and most sensitive method of letting your friend know the embarrassing truth. Show respect and do it in a place where she can react without others watching.

If possible, invite her to your home, prepare her a cup of coffee or tea, and gently inform her that you’ve noticed that there are times when her breath doesn’t smell fresh or that she has body odor.

Show her a steamer that you purchased when you realized your clothing didn't look as crisp as you wanted.

Be Prepared for a Reaction

You can pretty much count on some type of reaction from your friend. She may hang her head in embarrassment, make excuses, or deny it and say everyone has bad breath or body odor at times. Whatever she does, try to stay positive and know that this may take some time for her to internalize what she just learned.

The Oh-by-the-Way Approach

If you don’t want to be so direct, try an oh-by-the-way approach. Wait for the right moment to help your friend, such as after she finishes smoking, after a spicy meal, at the end of a long day at the office or gym, or if she complains about not having enough time to get ready in the morning. Have a couple of solutions that you’ve rehearsed for such a time and use the appropriate one.

If the cause of your friend’s bad breath is obvious, you might use that to break the news. For example, you might say something like, “In case you don’t want anyone else to know you smoked, here’s a mint,” or, “Let’s hide the evidence that we had garlic for lunch.” Adapt it to suit the situation with your friend, but let her know that you are on her side.

Your friend might only smell bad after a long day. If that’s the case, mention that you’ve discovered a deodorant that lasts 24 hours, which has turned into a lifesaver since you’ve started putting in long hours at the job. Then tell her the brand.

When your disheveled friend joins you for lunch with a wrinkled blouse that is half tucked and half hanging out beneath her jacket, smile and ask if she’s had a rough morning. Offer a solution to looking cool and calm. Perhaps you can recommend a brand of clothing that she can wash and wear and still look great all day. End with a we’re-in-this-together-girlfriend comment such as, “I always felt like such a mess until I discovered this rayon-cotton blend. Now no one has to know that all I do is toss it in the washing machine on the gentle cycle and then hang it on the shower curtain rod. It dries overnight.”

More Serious Condition

Sometimes bad breath or body odor is the result of a more serious condition. If your friend has chronic bad breath regardless of what she eats or body odor right after a shower, ask if she has had a dental checkup or physical lately. She might get mad at you initially, but you might save her from more heartache later.