How To Deal With A Chatty Barber
Illustration by Mr Giacomo Bagnara
Five tips to help you make your haircut more enjoyable.
For at least a decade now, we have been living in the era of Ye Olde Barbershop. Go to any major or even minor city, and you will find at least one haircuttery with taxidermy on the walls, vintage copies of magazines in the waiting area, and decor of exposed brick and reclaimed wood. The barbers are pomade enthusiasts, and sport what might charitably be described as creative facial hair.
To be fair, these men (and they’re almost always men) are quite skilled in their craft, but they often assume an intimacy that the situation does not warrant. He will offer you a beer, perhaps, or ask how your wife, kids, and/or job is going. (He may do this, mind you, whether this is your 30th time in his shop, or your first.) I’ve had doctors who seemed less interested in how I was doing.
Some of this friendliness is surely the nature of the business – a certain level of guy talk to mask the fact that a strange man may soon be running his hands through your hair. But once you are perched helplessly in the chair, you are at risk of being talked at for 30 minutes or more by a man with a straight blade in his hand. Worse, he may also pepper in the kind of personal questions – about your political views, say, or which New Order album you prefer – that some of us choose not to discuss with those outside our immediate circle of intimates, and certainly not with an electric razor buzzing dangerously close to our ears.
Here are some suggestions on how to navigate such a situation with dignity and grace.
01. Keep it short on the top
If your barber is the questioning type, make like Mr Tom Hardy in Mad Max and keep the dialogue to a minimum. Supply enough one-word answers, and you will have made your preference for quiet loud and clear. “Are you married?” he may ask. “Yes,” you’ll respond. “What does your wife do?” “Work.” “Where does she work?” “Uptown.” Dead ends are your friend.
02. Lower your ears
For a certain type of chatterbox, the real audience is not you, it’s him. When encountering such a barber – a tendency toward loud storytelling, sometimes aimed at getting the attention of his fellow barbers, is a dead giveaway – simply focus on something else, and tune him out. I’ve listened to a barber describe, at length, a recent fishing trip. (Turns out you had to be there.) I’ve feigned interest as a barber revealed, at length, his take on how best to raise a child. (“Take lots of video.”) I’ve endured lengthy soliloquies on the catalogue of Mr Willie Nelson. (Conclusion: it’s all good, and who am I to disagree.) In each case, my mind wandered to more pressing matters. In each case, the barber didn’t notice. Or mind.
03. Ask away
In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the romantically inept Mr Steve Carell is advised that women respond well to asking questions. He takes this advice to its logical extreme with a bookstore clerk played by Ms Elizabeth Banks, throwing her every innocent query back at her. She asks “Can I help you?” He responds with “I don’t know. Can you?” She asks if he’s interested in do-it-yourself books. He asks “Do you like to do it yourself?” And so on. Channel Mr Carell in this way (and only this way), and you will exhaust your questioner. (“What do you do for a living?” “What do you do for a living?” “...”) It’s conversational rope-a-dope – after a while, your barber/opponent will tire of your questions, and relent to your unspoken wish for silence.
04. Talk shop in another language.
It might seem, at first, that seeking a language barrier between you and the person who cuts your hair would be a dangerous game. But unless you’re the type who radically changes hairstyles like a 1970s Mr David Bowie, you can probably get across what you need to without difficulty. Turns out the universal hand gesture for haircut is extending your first two fingers, Mr Winston Churchill-style, rotating your hand sideways, and pressing your fingers together as if imitating the lips of a hungry shark. If you know the number of the clipper guard you prefer, even better.
Getting lost in translation has other advantages. For many years, I went to a barbershop staffed by Ukrainian barbers. The conversation was boisterous but indecipherable. The haircuts, impeccable. The experience, foreign yet familiar, charming and efficient. And just as important: it was very reasonably priced.
05. Take matters into your own hands.
Cut your own hair. Or grow it out. Though if you’re inclined to take such drastic measures solely on account of how chatty your barber is, perhaps the problem is you, not him.