How Smell Sends Nonverbal Communication

Updated February 21, 2017

The sense of smell is an important but poorly understood factor in human communication. It is hard to define smells and to talk about them, but they can send important chemical cues to those around us. Interpretations of smells vary from culture to culture.


It is thought that smells can affect us at very basic levels, such as moods, emotions, mate selection, immune system health, endocrine system responses and overall health. Some researchers believe that much of olfactory feedback is done at an instinctive level and bypasses conscious thought.


Smell is thought to be the sense that triggers memories most effectively. Determining which smells have positive ramifications for most people can affect nonverbal communication.

Trait Indicators

Fragrance experts have researched which basic smells consistently convey personality traits. Intelligence is signalled by cedar, orange, lime, cinnamon and peppermint. Kindness is indicated by vanilla, jasmine and lemon grass. Pepper, marjoram, basil and tangerine denote humour and playfulness. Safety is conveyed by orange, sandalwood and frankincense.

Cultural Differences

In the United States, personal odours are masked by fragrances and frequent bathing. In many other cultures, such as European and Arabic, body odours are thought of as natural. In Asian cultures, frequent bathing is important, and Westerners are considered to not bathe enough.

Personal Odors

According to Michael Argyle in "Social Interaction," although humans emit signals through perspiration that indicate emotional arousal, Westerners minimise these odours and keep enough social distance away from each other so that these clues are diminished.

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About the Author

Carolyn Csanyi began writing in 1973, specializing in topics related to plants, insects and southwestern ecology. Her work has appeared in the "American Midland Naturalist" and Greenwood Press. Csanyi holds a Doctor of Philosophy in biology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.