This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
Small talk with strangers is my definition of hell, and something I try to avoid at all costs. Unfortunately, the hairdresser is where I lose that battle. But beauty is pain, as they say, so every few weeks I sit through the chit-chat for the ultimate prize of good hair.
My self-pity pales in comparison to the empathy I feel for the person standing behind me. For hairdressers, maintaining small talk is pretty much a job requirement. Fascinated by this skill I very much lack, I sat down with four hair stylists and had some meaningful conversations about meaningless conversations.
VICE: Hi Mila, do customer conversations ever make you cringe?
Mila: Sometimes. I hate it when people are silent for ten minutes and then they say, “So… any plans this weekend?” Lots of them feel pressured to keep a conversation going when it’s really not necessary. I’m myself when I’m working – if I connect with a customer, it’s a plus, otherwise it’s not a big deal. It’s like a first date!
But doesn’t silence get boring?
A bit, but there’s always music in the background. Honestly, it’s OK to be quiet. I have customers who shut their eyes and almost go into a meditative state.
What are some of the weirdest conversations you’ve had?
Most are about people’s internal struggles. Someone once told me I wasn’t just their hairdresser, but also like their therapist. If that were true, there’d be a bit more money in my bank account.
Once I worked with an older woman who was constantly on the verge of tears. When I was done, she said, “My son would have loved this hairdo.” Apparently, he had passed away recently. That was hard for me. You can’t ignore the topic, but you’re also not trained for those conversations, you know? I had to comfort her, but I was super uncomfortable.
VICE: Hi Nick, how often do you have awkward conversations with your customers?
Nick: You don’t even want to know. I only do men’s hair, and the other day there was a guy flirting with me non-stop. At a certain point he straight up asked me if I could see myself falling in love with him. I was taken aback. And then I had to spend another 45 minutes with the guy.
The most awkward conversation I’ve ever had, though, was with a so-called marine. He told me a very tough-guy story about a mission in Mali involving knife fights and so on. What he didn’t know was I was also in the military and stationed in Mali at that exact same time, so I knew he was full of it. I thought about calling him out, but I let him finish his story.
What do men talk about in the barber chair?
Women. It’s always a fun and accessible topic. Since I became a father, I also talk about children a lot. I also have a lot of customers with a military background – those conversations aren’t superficial at all. At our salon, you don’t just pay for the haircut but for the experience. Everyone gets a beer or a whiskey and we want our customers to relax. Good conversation is definitely a part of that.
How do you deal with customers who don’t feel like talking?
Sometimes you try a few topics and you only get short answers. That’s fine. I often assume those people are moody or dissatisfied, but when they suddenly tip me €10 it makes me rethink things. Some people really appreciate the silence. Frankly, I’d rather have that than hear someone go on and on about their gym membership.
Do you ever just have a bad day and not feel like talking?
Yeah, if I have an argument with my wife in the morning – but that doesn’t happen often. Usually, I’m more quiet with people who are really weird. I’m also a piercer at my wife’s shop, and the other day a guy came in for a penis piercing. He walked in wearing a collar, with his wife holding the leash. I had no idea what was going on, I just knew I wanted to keep my mouth shut.
VICE: Hi Iris, what’s the most awkward conversation you’ve ever had with a customer?
Iris: One of my male customers always acts weird. Everything’s fine at first, but as soon as he sits down it gets awkward. When I ask him a question, he starts giggling and can’t answer seriously. Maybe he fancies me or something.
Do you ever find the silences painful?
At first, I thought it was rude if someone picked up the newspaper or just answered "yes" and "no", but those people keep coming back, so I think they’re satisfied. Being completely silent isn’t so bad, I’ve been talking all day anyway.
Do you have bad days when you'd rather not talk at all?
Of course, but I think that should be allowed. Sometimes stories just don't interest me at all. What do I care about how you put together your new rabbit hutch?
VICE: Hi Michael, how do you handle the small talk?
Michael: I don’t. I’m not one of those hairdressers who talks about the weather. I want people to feel at ease when they enter – I take their coat, pour them some coffee and really listen to what they want for their haircut. That often sets the mood right. Then I’m usually focused and super quiet.
What happens when customers don’t enjoy the silence?
It can get awkward. There are people who come in early in the morning just to talk. I usually listen, but when they start asking annoying questions, like, “So, how long have you been working here?” I either cut it short or say it’s my first day.
How do you deal with rude customers?
I have a few tricks to brighten people up. If it’s a new customer, I always ask them where they’re from. It’s not too personal, but a good starting point.
What is your number one advice to avoid awkwardness?
Don’t talk! There are plenty of people who thank me for being so quiet.