Social Halitosis at work

I was recently running an Emotional Intelligence course in Abu Dhabi; an experience which I found undoubtedly challenging and ultimately highly rewarding.  The challenge lay in adapting to the local cultural norms, particularly with regard to self discipline and professional etiquette.  There was a huge difference between Western values and those of the local Emiratis, and I found myself managing a constant self dialogue as to when to accept the local norms and when to challenge them in the interest of providing maximum learning for the culturally diverse group I was working with.

It was ironic that the course I was running was in Emotional Intelligence, as many of the “difficult” behaviours in the room stemmed from what a Westerner might consider to be a lack of said Intelligence.  Many of the behaviours fell, in my opinion, into the category of “Toxic”, to use a word eloquently described in Karl Albrecht’s excellent book, Social Intelligence.

Man plugging his nose from odorAlbrecht describes various types of Toxic behaviour (ie behaviour which tends to have people giving the perpetrator a wide berth), one of which presented itself in the room during the course.  It’s a type he describes as “Social Halitosis”: behaviour which is more of an ongoing style rather than one off events (which he calls Social Flatulence, an example of which I talk about in another Blog).  As with bad breath, many of those who have it don’t know it: what we trainer types call a Blind Spot.

The fact that those with Social Halitosis don’t know it is unfortunate for them (because they can’t then do anything about it), and of course a barrier to Win/Win relationships.

As a trainer I enjoy the thrill of having real life examples of the topic we are discussing in the room itself, live and for real.  That way we get to examine our genuine response to it rather than our intellectual response: the two things can be somewhat different!  So when what I’m about to describe occurred during an Emotional Intelligence course, I experienced a whole bag of emotions including excitement and the thrill of seeing reactions to it (including my own).  This was uncharted water for me, or white water rafting more like.

It sounds simple enough, but it brought the course to a standstill and turned into a mental arm wrestle more sustained and vivid than any I have experienced in 15 years of training.

Someone took a phone call whilst I was talking.  I ignored it initially, hoping it was a quick “not now, I’m on a course” type call.  But it went on, and I knew I needed to do something as I was having to raise my voice to be heard.  So I stopped talking.  People looked up, realised what was happening, and I was now on a Win/Lose path which I knew I had to complete.  She kept talking, despite nudges from her neighbour.  I held my ground and just looked at her (she studiously avoided eye contact throughout).

It lasted about 2 minutes, I reckon.  A long time indeed when you’re at the front.  Eventually she put the phone down, and explained that it was a customer.  We then had a discussion about assertiveness, managing customers, the impact she’d had on others and what alternatives she might have used.  It was the last time there were any calls in the room, and I guess I lived to tell the tale.

The whole incident got me thinking about Social Halitosis in a deeper sense, because this lady did not see her behaviour as inappropriate, whilst I did.  Does this mean, to extend the metaphor, that one man’s Halitosis is another man’s Colgate Ring of Confidence?  Was I being Unintelligent to confront the behaviour, and in effect impose my values on hers?  I don’t have a definitive answer on this one, and would love to hear your views.

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© vlorzor –

About Michael Brown Training

I'm a business skills trainer, facilitator and coach. I've been helping people to learn for 16 years, working all around the world on topics such as Negotiation, Conflict Handling, Sales, Leadership, Consulting and Personal Effectiveness. I'm an ENFP, constantly looking for new and inspiring things to do. I love my job for its variety and the stimulation I get from it, and spend most of my time seeing how far we can go with the subjects we work on in the training room. I've recently started a new venture in making video on how NOT to do things, which you can find at
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One Response to Social Halitosis at work

  1. Chris Tighe says:


    I find your final question very interesting… Maybe she did found it rude from you to stop and wait? Maybe we are imposing out “values” onto other people.

    For me, the key learning throughough my career selling / training / coaching / managing / leading has been my “personal intention”.

    Regardless of what values I carry, or the other person considers important, if the intention in any interaction is “right” (but what is right ;-), then it will lead to success. If heading into an interaction I have the intention to come out on top then yes I am acting socially unintelligent. If however I have the intention to do the right thing, then I strongly believe people see this, respect it and will react accordingly.

    Getting back to your story, I guess I would say yes, you imposed your values on the participant and the rest of the class. However to defend you, I would also say that you were doing this with the best intentions. You wanted the class to be as beneficial as possible for everyone involved, and as such it was socially intelligent.

    just my $0,02 🙂


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