The relationship between you and your hairdresser

Image maker - Hairdresser

Ever wondered why you develop a lifelong bond with your hairdresser? We spoke to hairdresser and certified trichologist Jane Davies about sharing cancer diagnoses, pre-empting client pregnancies and the bonds that develop in the chair.

A hairdresser’s relationship with a client is based on satisfying their self- image aspirations. Beyond the skills required to cut and colour hair, mastery requires taking into account the client’s objectives, lifestyle and physical characteristics and then managing their expectations. The trust in the relationship is based on these factors. Once trusted, a client will feel that confidential information can be shared. It’s more like a confessional at first, but when the relationship ‘clicks’ it turns into friendship. Clients wouldn’t feel confident taking advice on personal matters from someone they are not friendly with or respect. I can’t say we mentor clients, but sometimes friends can be mentors when the gap of life experience is significant. The opposite is also true – hairdressers can be mentored by clients.

If you spend an hour within a person’s personal space, it becomes intimate. If you spend that time sharing life stories, it becomes personal. If you know more about them than their friends or family might know it becomes deep. When it becomes a habit it is magnetic. A client only sees you for an hour or so every six to 10 weeks, so they naturally feel the need to catch you up on their lives and ask about yours. They treat you specially, you listen carefully and they expect you to remember. Until you become their ‘best friend’ they can say things they won’t say to best friends because they feel you won’t judge them, offer advice or be too subjective. They can drop the mask of mum, sister, wife, daughter or friend from yoga and just be themselves, or at least who they are not. That leads to an investment in emotion. Sometimes being in the chair is the very short time they get to be themselves.

“Clients share very personal, detailed and highly confidential information. Sometimes it can be very upsetting. Imagine a client telling her hairdresser that she has terminal cancer …”

Clients share very personal, detailed and highly confidential information. Sometimes it can be very upsetting. Imagine a client telling her hairdresser that she has terminal cancer … or that another is having an affair (and her husband is also a client), and he is also having an affair. Hairdressers can carry the secrets, but sometimes it can be deeply upsetting. The opposite can be true also – a client announcing a pregnancy after years of trying can be a shared moment of absolute joy, but how much you share in the moment depends on the closeness and length of the relationship. Hairdressers get emotionally close to their clients, probably uniquely so, because of the physical proximity/intimacy that cutting brings, on top of the trust invested in sustaining a self-image.

A lovely client of mine, who I’d been looking after for years, told me she was dying. I also looked after her husband and daughter. She came for an appointment a few weeks before she passed. It was devastating for the family, and being their hairdresser I felt intimately involved – but not – at the same time. I cried for many nights after work thinking and feeling for them all. The lady was heroic in her position. I’m welling up again even remembering.

The pregnancies, engagements, marriages and career successes are all a privilege to share – especially with long-term clients who have been working and hoping for a long time. The emotional investment is shared. You cannot be a great hairdresser unless you are an empathetic person. I got married last year and had a dozen clients as guests. Each one of them I consider friends because we’ve shared our lives, both highs and lows. Hairdressing is a special job like that.

I’ve had clients fall asleep in the chair mid conversation. They are so relaxed and in such a ‘good place’ that they drift off – especially those whose work is busy and demanding. It’s sometimes the only chance they get to unwind.

‘Sarah’ had been trying to get pregnant for the few years during which I’d been doing her hair. The night after one of her appointments, I dreamed she came in and told me she was pregnant. The next time she came in I told her. She was shocked because she had only just found out she was pregnant, but counting back the days to the last appointment confirmed she would have been two weeks pregnant at the time. I’m convinced the way her hair behaved was subconsciously absorbed by me, and my brain unravelled the data in my sleep. Yes, she was a little spooked, but it actually made our bond closer. Sarah was one of the guests at my wedding.

I believe we can see changes in the body through clients’ hair. The hair records data from the body, and follicles react to changes in nutrition, hormones and stress. When a client presents with much ‘fuller’ or ‘finer’ hair than usual, it ‘behaves’ differently, so something changed in one of those areas. When a woman gets pregnant, the hair growth cycle changes and hairs that might normally be shed do not. I’ve seen this and asked clients, ‘Are you pregnant?’ on many occasions when they have only just learned, and on one occasion where they said ‘no’ only to later find out they are. I know hairdressers who have spotted changes to the scalp and asked clients to go and see their doctor and it’s later been diagnosed as skin cancer.

I have dozens of friends who were first clients. I recently flew for 33 hours to Las Vegas to attend the wedding of a very, very good friend who was originally a client. It starts with a shared sense of humour, the sharing of aspirations and troubles, and builds into socialising and the closeness of friendship. I have clients that have been friends for longer than any friends I met at school. They are adult friendships, where you know who you are, they know who they are and you are very similar.

The rare cases I’ve experienced of crossed boundaries have been male clients feeling emboldened to ask for a date or clients sharing intimate details of their relationships. With the former, a polite ‘I’m in a happy relationship already, but thank you,’ or humorous  ‘I think that’s TMI’ and smile or change the subject usually works. Having good communication skills and your own strength of where the line is helps tremendously.

But friends don’t reach the boundary, and ‘customers’ certainly shouldn’t.

The usual result of any ‘inappropriate’ conversation is the client doesn’t return. Sometimes a client can feel they’ve overshared and that makes them reflect and not return. That can be upsetting – as it can be when, as a hairdresser and confidant, you feel there is a relationship and they just disappear without explanation, leaving you wondering what was done or said.

“I believe we can see changes in the body through clients’ hair. The hair records data from the body, and follicles react to changes in nutrition, hormones and stress.”

I think people are attracted to people similar in personality, values and especially sense of humour. I’m quite outgoing and have an opinion. I have a sense of humour and really enjoy life. It doesn’t matter whether a client is young or old; rich or poor; male or female; straight or gay. If you are outgoing, have an opinion, enjoy life and share my values, we can be friends. Some people that don’t meet those traits can still be more of a ‘client/service provider’ type of relationship. I have very trusted and comfortable relationships with clients that hardly speak, and certainly don’t share. But that’s fine too. It’s knowing when to listen and when to talk that takes years of experience.

I categorise clients into A, B, C and D. A for awesome: they’re my ambassadors. B for basic, they ask for little, get what they need and go. C is for casual, they see me infrequently, see other hairdressers and don’t invest in a relationship. D is for delinquent, they come in once, or twice and disappear. If you make it to ‘awesome’ you’re in a relationship and become a friend. I have lots of awesome clients that are even more awesome friends.

Jane Davies owns Jane Davies Hair in Perth. 

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