How we talk about our experience of scents

I wish I had a better handle on an objective way to express my experience of scents.

I can easily tell you what I like or don't like, and I can usually tell you why, if I confine myself to talking about the elements of the scent, its proportions, and the overall feeling tone I get from it.

But then sometimes I find myself bogging down in descriptions that speak about a scent metaphorically. I say it's "classy," or "elegant," or "playful," or "masculine." Of course, the scent is none of those things; but perhaps I think the people who wear it will appear to be. Oops, am I coming off as "classist" by these remarks? Here I'm getting into the world of assigning social or cultural values to a scent, and while many people who share my middle-class Eurocentric worldview may resonate with what I say about it, those who don't may find my remarks to be way off.

Outside the circle of my own cultural sensibilities these descriptions make less sense. Perhaps a fragrance I call elaborate seems pedestrian to someone from another land. What smells a tad feminine to me may be the height of masculinity to an Arab or an Indian.

Even worse are the things I might say about a fragrance I don't like. The metaphorical comparisons I make of a scent to put it down may put down some people as well.

For example, if I say a scent smells old-womanish to me, am I saying "I believe only old women would wear a scent like this," thereby stereotyping old women; or am I saying "I'm not old and I'm not a woman, so this is not for me," which must then be based on the stereotype; or am I saying "I think that this scent is not attractive, so I associate it with old women, who in my mind are also less than attractive," which might be my true feeling, but which I might not want to admit even to myself? If the last is true, I might be declaring something to the world that I won't admit to myself about my own feelings. I believe that a condemnation of the scent reflects to some extent a condemnation of the people I am explicitly associating it with.

By the same token, if I say a scent I don't like smells "gay," am I also saying, by implication, that I don't like gay people? Or am I stereotyping the people who might like or wear that scent, in effect saying that a straight man who wears that scent is somehow "suspect"?

I think when I give my criticism in terms of my own social or cultural values or those of my associates, I am betraying my social prejudices as much as my taste in fragrance.

The truth is, when I was a good deal younger I worried a lot more about agreeing with my pals, and about not "crossing lines" in ways that might alienate them. As I got older and saw more of the world, I began to become more my own man and started to have more faith in my own tastes and opinions.

I guess I want to try to be more objective about expressing opinions and ratings of fragrances. I would like to rely more on analysis of internal evidence, such as ingredients and proportions and perfume genres. And at the same time, I would like to think of the artistry of perfumers, of their brilliant innovations and their inspired interpretations of past traditions toward contemporary tastes. I would like to make allowances for iris having once been considered a masculine note, for example; and I would want to see the revival of that as at least an interesting idea. I would like to see the rose in Montale Black Aoud or Attar as a potential badge of cosmopolitan tastes among western male connoisseurs rather than as something to be afraid of. I'm not saying every guy is going to want to wear it, but at least not come off, even unthinkingly, as putting down people who might enjoy it.

I don't think that we ever really get that far beyond our own cultural and social prejudices, so maybe this line of thinking is moot. Yet I have the definite feeling that a lot of what gets said in terms of associating things we don't like with certain groups of people has to come off as offensive to those people, and I would like to see that stop. I need to monitor myself in this regard, and that is really all that I have in my control.

Still, I hope sharing this idea may cause some of us who love scents to think a little more about the effect our casual speaking and writing about our tastes and opinions may have on others. If we are truly a community united in our love for scent, then I feel we ought to respect and appreciate each other enough to give some attention to how we participate in dialog with those whose life experience may be different from our own.


Blog Comments


Well-known member
Apr 14, 2007
Excellent post, and very interesting observation about what our descriptions can reveal about us ... sometimes to ourselves!


Well-known member
Mar 9, 2005
This is my first time here, and already do I find the key to what's magic in some of your posts. It's not just the solid knowledge and information you give. There is an aura of warmth, like from the logs in a fireplace. Philosophers are willing to step besides themselves, look at their own limitations from a distance and neither be appalled nor become overly narcissistic. I love the thoughtfulness of your writing, your easy stile and the absence of vain and hurtful remarks.
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mr. reasonable

Well-known member
Jan 1, 2009
Thanks for this - beautifully put. I'm new to this world of fragrances and totally new to anything like an online community - still finding my way around (hence chancing on these blogs). Actually the book you mentioned in your most recent post was what drew me into investigating life after GIT and AdPC. (Followed not long after by pure chance - the local bookstore had Chandler Burr's book and The Guide - no looking back huh? Dzongkha and all points beyond here I come!)

Like ecerub above I enjoy your reviews and writing style a lot - thanks for sharing your impressions the way you do. And I take the point that some care in expressing one's thoughts about a scent (or anything for that matter) is one to be conscious of. In the few months I have been visiting basenotes and enjoying everything on offer I have had a sense that this is a good place to be. Genuinely courteous, on the whole. I've been around long enough to see youthful enthusiasm for what it is - my son is 21 - and tend to gravitate towards certain members writing as anyone does. Great place with some great interesting people - and it's fun! Cheers.

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