Ask Ariely: On an Odorous Obstacle, Great Gift-giving, and Dealing with Dimes

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

How would you handle a community college student who—bluntly put—just smells absolutely horrendous? My other students are complaining that they can’t focus in the classroom. I think that the student should be made aware of her smell so that she can try to resolve it and avoid jeopardizing her social and professional future—but I’m not sure how to broach the topic.

— Kelly 

Sharing this information isn’t going to be easy, but doing so could create many long-term benefits for the student, the community and maybe even yourself—which is why you should definitely tell her.

It might be tempting to convey the information anonymously, which would save you some awkwardness, but it isn’t in the student’s best interest. Some research shows that it is particularly nice to get an anonymous love note because the uncertainty lets us imagine that we are adored by many people. The opposite is likely to be the case with an anonymous note about a negative trait.

My advice: sit the student down and break the news to her. You could start by saying that some people are more sensitive to smell than others and that you suspect her sensitivity is below average. Next, tell her that she has an odor that is noticeable to others and add that you worry that this is making interactions more difficult for her. Finally, offer your ongoing help as she tries to figure out what works for her and what doesn’t.

One last point: A while ago, I decided that every time I see someone with something in their teeth, I would tell them about it. Making this a rule was very helpful for me because now I don’t even need to consider whether to raise this potentially embarrassing point—and 100% of the time, people have thanked me for telling them.

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Dear Dan,

What’s the best way to give a guest speaker a gift they would truly love and appreciate?

—Wilma

Not long ago, I gave some lectures to a very nice group of people. At the end of the retreat, they held an auction of all kinds of souvenirs, and I bid on a homemade blanket that I particularly liked. Later that night, I discovered, they took the blanket out of the auction after I bid on it and gave it to me as a gift.

This was particularly nice for three reasons. First, I clearly liked the blanket because I bid on it. Second, I assumed that other people also wanted it. And finally, it didn’t have a real market value. All this made it a wonderful, highly appreciated gift without a specific price tag.

If you’re willing to be a bit manipulative, you could take this approach a step further: What if you held a live auction, and when you saw something that the guest speaker was interested in, you got other people to dramatically outbid him or her (offering, say, 10 times more than the speaker would)—and, at the end of the night, gave the item in question to the speaker? This process would make clear that your guest coveted the item, as did other people, and that its value was very high. Clearly an ideal gift.

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Dear Dan,

Why will many people not stop on the street to pick up a dime but would certainly stop to pick up a dime if it fell out of their pocket? Isn’t the value of 10 cents the same in both cases?

—Baruch

These might seem like the same case, but they aren’t. When we pick up 10 cents, we add to our wealth (just a bit), but when we reclaim a dime that we dropped, we prevent a loss—and preventing a loss is much more important and valuable.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.