I always forget how much I hate making small talk until I need a haircut.
I can tolerate people weeping openly, can engage in conversation about disturbing thoughts or memories, and manage to stay pretty calm when someone presents in crisis, but try talking to me about the weather and I become almost useless. Can’t swing it. You’ve got exactly four minutes to discuss how humid it’s been and then I’m going to start asking questions about your childhood.
Because of this aversion to small talk, I avoid beauty treatments at large, and put off the necessary ones (like haircuts) until my locks have become so raggedy that the ends start begging for sweet release. I really knew I needed a cut when last week one of my sassier clients looked at me curiously and asked: “Why is your hair not sexy today?” Shortly after that comment she asked when I planned to bring cookies into the office again. I can’t reward this behavior with baked goods. But I can get a haircut.
<Modeling my resting bitch face, circa 2011>
Anyway, my hair was “not sexy” because the last stylist I tried to make small talk with didn’t really put in the layers my thick hair demands. His touch was too subtle, too sparing. He was a young, handsome guy who’d just moved here from Serbia a few months prior, so our conversations actually had a bit more heft to them since I married into a Croatian family. Still, once I shared my impressive knowledge of the language (Sretan Bozic! Sretan Uskrs! Bog!) and my affection for Eastern European pastries, we pretty much ran out of subjects to cover. Plus, his English wasn’t great and my Serbo-Croatian repertoire consists only of Merry Christmas, Happy Easter and goodbye.
So Friday, after an impressively short workday, I popped into a salon I pass everyday on my way home from the train. It is a bare bones, no-frills kind of joint that mostly attracts very old ladies with steel walkers and names like Esther. The walls are painted an unsettling shade of green and the lighting is so harsh it’s like every crease in your face has been put under a veil of magnifying glass. When I walked in and asked for just a haircut, the receptionist seemed relieved they wouldn’t be preforming another weekly wash and set.
I was quickly sent over to a teensy Asian woman named Susie, who was eager to understand why I had never come see her before if I lived on this street for seven years. She wanted to know where my hair had been and who’d had their hands on it. A lot of people had–I’m a notorious salon jumper. She critiqued its color (the left side was too blonde), its shape (she agreed with my client–not sexy. needed more layers) and its ability to keep my husband’s attention (don’t worry; by the time I’m done with you he won’t be able to keep his hands out of it!).
I found Susie pleasant. Just enough talk to make me comfortable and get the information needed to meet my beauty needs, but not so much that I felt pressure to endure endless conversation about my hair or anyone else’s. Mostly I was just relieved that she never asked me what I do for a living. When you work as a therapist, sometimes this conversation can be really weird, and I’ve had some awkward exchanges with past stylists: (PS: All quotes verbatim)
“Who would want to work with crazy people?” (Perhaps there’s a more tactful way you’d like to ask this question.)
“So my boyfriend does this thing where he hides out in the bedroom for days playing video games and not showering. He also never wants to have sex with me and has to count to 20 before doing anything. What’s his problem?” (As much as I’d love to diagnose your partner without ever having met him, I think I would rather sit quietly and read this magazine on my lap.)
“Everyone comes in here and tells me their problems. I’m pretty much a therapist too.” ( Super! Would you consider yourself more Gestalt or Jungian in practice? )
But Susie was a pro, and she appeared eager to have me settle down and commit to a regular stylist as my hair had clearly already made its way around town. She was kind of cute, and kept pointing out what she considered her assets as a stylist. After sharing a particularly useful bit of information (“Never keep your hair parted the same way all the time. It thins your hair. Flip it to the right one week, then wear it on the left the next week”), she exclaimed, “See! Susie shares all the best tips!” Susie did share the best tips.
<Doing what Susie taught me and flipping me hair to the opposite side. Hello volume! That Susie!!>
After making an unmemorable statement she thought was funny, she said, “See! Susie makes all the customers laugh. I’m funny, right?” Susie was funny, actually. Right after cutting my long bangs she sang, “Snip, snip! Just the tip!” and the pre-pubescent part of my brain almost exploded.
By the end of the cut and dry, I was pretty much sold on Susie, especially as the tally for the event was only thirty-five bucks. I was happy with her handiwork and so was she. As I left the salon she called out, “Make your husband take you out to dinner tonight. I hope he recognizes you!”
So we went out to dinner, and by sheer coincidence, the restaurant was next door to the last salon I visited. The weather was lovely, so we ate outside on the sidewalk in front. As luck would have it, out comes my Serbian hairstylist for a smoke break. He was looking in my general direction, so I gave a friendly, slightly awkward wave. Based on the furtive look on his face, I’m still not sure if he thought I was some random girl flirting with him or, as Susie predicted, I had become wholly unrecognizable.
Either way, I was just relieved he didn’t come up to the table and start talking about the weather.