DEAR MISS MANNERS: I work in a profession where I meet with clients for an hour or more in a small conference room. I have severe asthma triggered by fragrances and smoke, especially cigarette smoke.
I send a polite welcoming letter to new clients, asking them not to use scented products before coming to see me. Some ignore my request, while others try, but they use so much fragrance regularly that their clothing still reeks of it, even if they did not apply it before coming to my office.
Today, I’m having a severe reaction to cigarette smoke that’s clinging to my clothing and hair after I met with potential clients who are heavy smokers. The only physical contact I had with them was shaking their hands, but hours later, I’m still wheezing and coughing, my eyes are burning, my nose is running, my throat is scratchy and I can still smell it. This can cascade into a serious asthmatic illness.
I don’t know a polite way to tell them I can’t accept them as my clients. I have a specialty that very few people in my profession have locally, and they consulted me for my particular expertise. I feel terrible telling them I cannot accept their case, but this is affecting my health and ability to work. How do I politely tell potential new clients that I cannot work with smokers or people who wear overpowering fragrances?
GENTLE READER: Etiquette has not yet devised a way to decline a potential client for smelling bad. This may be a failure of imagination, but it is immaterial as one can instead claim that their case is too difficult (it would require more commitment of time than you currently have), too simple (and could be handled by someone without your skills), or too something else.
These are merely examples; Miss Manners relies on your expertise in the field to find ones that will fit. It does give her pause that such non-explanations have been misused historically to turn people away for reasons that were less understandable (race, gender and politics, to name a few).
And it makes her wonder -- not only for the customer who is otherwise left without your services, but also for your business -- if there is not a solution involving a larger conference room, a better air filtration system, or an open window. Or telecommunication?