There’s a sort of prevailing wisdom that a chatty barber is good. Or helpful. Every man needs a barber to confide in, is what people say. It is the barber as confidante, life coach, sex expert. You tell them your woes and they sort you out. They dip your troubles in barbicide and they emerge all shiny and disinfected. They are the person we are closest to, apparently. Able to open up to. With their sharpened blades pressed to our faces we become intimately entwined; our personalities meshing, our souls one.
Then you have to tip them a fiver or whatever. And they only take cash. But you don’t mind because, on your way to the ATM, wind stinging your freshing shaved nape, you’re like: Wow, I feel refreshed, fulfilled, joyous, overcome with emotion, my problems assuaged. This doe-eyed man in an apron, this darling, clipper-wiedling therapist, is the salve I have so desperately needed.
It’s nonsense, though. If it works for you, great, well in, but it is my own personal hell. I want a barber who never looks me in the eye, a barber who doesn’t say a word. I want someone who does their job and allows me peace and quiet. I want peace of mind and a decent fade. Why do we deify a chatty barber as some sort of necessary tool, but abhor a chatty cabbie, who just wants to tell you about the new road closures around Bank station? Sure, the barber indulges in our narcissism, that’s what he’s there for: we have paid this person to make them make us look better, more handsome, more socially acceptable, while the cab driver just wants to vent. But it’s more than that: that men need to ‘open up more’ is fine, but the ‘barber as therapist’ fallacy is one that has always rung false to me.
When I first started getting my hair cut without parental supervision, around 13, I was asked all sorts of questions. Where you going on holiday, then? What you doing this evening? What you doing this weekend? I’m 13, mate, I thought, legs kicking at my chair. Stop asking me stuff. Thirteen years later, and nothing has changed. Stop asking me. You don’t care. You are just playing a role. And yet I always play along, gritting my teeth, ever polite, chatting away, wishing I could be anywhere else.
Sometimes you just don’t want to talk and that’s OK. Every year around days dedicated to male mental health we’re told there is inherent value in asking someone if they’re alright, and there is, but it is not something that works for everyone. Sometimes trying to force someone to open up and share with you is not helpful, even if well intentioned. Not all silence is bad. It is like trying to pry open the shell of a pistachio: sometimes they open up and it’s great. Salty, delicious. Sometimes they don’t. Pop them back in the bowl. Don’t crack the poor bastard’s shell with your teeth and eat them anyway. Some nuts just need to be left alone.
I spend my life having to talk in an open plan office: asking questions, answering questions, over email or face to face. I mostly like it, if I’m honest, being someone who enjoys talking shit. But, on occasion, I just want meditation: it’s something I can’t often find at work because the disabled bathroom is always engaged by someone shitting their heart out, or at home, either, because my housemate is always playing FIFA next door and that is much more fun than shutting myself down and leaving my brain on standby. The idea of spending an hour in a chair once a month to have someone buzz 15% of my hair off while not saying a single word is my idea of heaven.
It’s not impolite, it’s not antisocial, it’s a small ocean of calm in a world dominated by racket. The white noise of the clippers lets me zone out… I have this new barber who says “Hello” and then “What do you want?” and then nothing for 30 minutes. He just looks at my hair and does his job. It’s bliss. Sometimes he’ll occasionally reference something playing on the radio. Just the other week ‘West End Girls’ by the Pet Shop Boys was playing - a song I love - and he paused almost imperceptibly and said: “Pet Shop Boys.” That was it. Ten minutes later, he said “All done”, and I paid him, gladly. It was the best. I came out of the shop beaming, strutting. I was walking on air. I can only hope everyone is afforded the same service.
Just like gobby Addison Lee drivers have finally allowed those of us on early morning rides to the airport some gentle, fleeting respite, if I’m drifting off in the padded-leather chair of the hairdresser, don’t then force me into some kind of questionnaire straight out of the Big Book of Pop Culture Barbers Tropes for a little bit of quasi-psychological analysis. Some quiet, please. Just for a bit.
Now here, mate, keep the change. See you next month.