Respecting the tastes and opinions of others: Is tolerance really the best we can do?

“What do you think of this?” I ask hopefully, as I place my perfume-scented wrist near my friend’s face. When her nose wrinkles and she pulls away, I hear a scale descending into a minor chord. I am disappointed. “What IS that?” she asks, and, as all hope that she will share my pleasure is erased, I recover and describe Dzing’s circus context, its suggestions of animal dung, sawdust and cotton candy. “It’s not for everyone,” I add, and, yes of course, the grown-up in me knows that, when it comes to matters of taste, other people, even those with whom I feel the most affinity, need not agree with me.

The whole truth is far more complicated, though, and I do sometimes feel momentarily jarred, and — dare I confess? — slightly offended, when someone who’s supposed to be on my team curls a lip in disgust, or, worse, drifts away in boredom, when I try to share an experience that has touched me. Whether it’s a song that can move me to tears, a quirkily incisive documentary, or a briny black gem of an olive, I am unsurprised by that pang of disappointment when my tastes are not supported and bolstered by others. Of course, because I am a fully-credentialed adult, I ignore it, confident it will quickly pass. But I also suspect that my craving for company in my aesthetic preferences is neither atypical nor entirely unhealthy.

For starters, the separation of matters of “mere taste” from those of more objective judgment, though useful, is artificial. Though some really basic preferences may comfortably be reduced to “mere taste” of the you-prefer-chocolate variety, richer aesthetic experiences are far more complex, and include matters of cognitive judgment, even if this is mostly invisible. One who immediately winces and covers her ears at the first thump of rap music is expressing a dislike, sure, but it is one based on years of racially inflected social conditioning and associations. One does not, in any purely visceral sense, simply “like” or “dislike” complex phenomena like rap music, abstract art, Brazilian cuisine or Toni Morrison novels; the attraction or repulsion to such things is built up over time by zillions of forces. And, on the negative side, these may include elitism, xenophobia, ethnocentrism, sexism and the like.

But while we may expect others to be self-reflective and even to take responsibility for their judgments in some areas, we often grant and expect a pass in others. And this is probably reasonable and wise. Being required to explain my preference for vanilla over strawberry just feels odd; I’m pretty much left with, “I just like it better.” But often, aesthetic preferences are not so basic, though we may pretend they are to avoid further scrutiny. If I turn my nose up at capers, you may still reasonably ask, “What don’t you like about them?” and I may reply that they’re too tart. While it’s fine if we decide to leave it there, additional, respectful conversation is still possible. You might share how you failed to appreciate capers, too, until you tried them in a lemon butter sauce. But when what “I like” or “I don’t like” is immediately accepted as my TRUTH, I may entirely miss such opportunities to explore and grow. And such growth is possible, in part, because the very act of questioning the habits of perception that underlie many matters of taste can make the tastes themselves change. It’s magical!

It’s disappointing, then, that we often retreat so quickly into our different-strokes-for-different-folks bunkers. “To each their own,” we hear all the time, including in the perfume world, not wanting to appear intolerant or judgmental. In fact, we may be so afraid of appearing to challenge others’ taste that we actually shy away from explorations of the subtle underlying judgments that tend to inspire such positive and negative reactions. This is precisely why skillful, thoughtful perfume reviewers are so indispensable. How many times have I winced and passed over a difficult scent only to revisit it with new nostrils after learning more about its composition and context? Of course, none of that can happen if, like a three-year-old, I stamp my feet, powered by the visceral certainty of “yuck!”

This probably helps account for why, and how much, I dislike perfume review videos in which utterly unpracticed noses — often the gal pals of perfume dudes — are tasked with thumbs-upping or thumbs-downing a stack of perfume-scented paper strips. While there’s clearly something to be said for getting the perspective of Jane Girlfriend, watching someone whose only perfume adjectives are “sweet” or “old mannish” kind of embarrasses me for them. By the same principle, you should thank me for demuring if pushed in front of a camera and asked to share my opinions about opera. So, though we may repeat the mantra that “everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” we appropriately value the taste of some more than others.

In fact, I suspect that much of the to-each-her-own reflex is less about respecting others’ tastes than about wanting to avoid conflict. This generally makes good sense, especially when the stakes are very low. Does it matter if I adore Tauer’s Incense Rose but you find it cloying? Probably not. At a cultural moment when incivility has probably never been more instant and eviscerating, we may well need oases of benign tolerance more than ever. On the other hand, it makes me a little sad that we don’t feel more willing or empowered to respectfully challenge one another’s judgments of taste. Read the Fragrantica reviews of any fan favorite for evidence of how easily and deeply threatened some are by challenges to their preferences. Some of the Sauvage battles, for example, are pretty brutal.

Such defensiveness kind of makes sense, though. At a cultural moment in which many take for granted that we are utterly defined by our consumer style, tastes and preferences, why wouldn’t we defend our tastes as readily as we would our very flesh and bones? Paradoxically, then, taking our aesthetic preferences a little less seriously — embracing the knowledge that we are so very much more than the clothes we wear, the food we eat and the music we like — could open the door to far more serious conversations about those very tastes. Unprotected and undefended, we could more readily open ourselves to a whole new world of preferences and desires that do not already fit comfortably in the habitual stories we tell about ourselves.

I’m curious: Do you ever feel disappointment when someone doesn’t like a taste preference that you share with them? How likely are you to try to share beloved, but difficult, scents with friends and family? What do you especially like about the perfume community’s emphasis on tolerance and affirmation as we share our preferences? Do you ever find the to-each-her-own mantra to be a little limiting, as I sometimes do? Please comment below if you feel like it.

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