“Would you like to chat with us, or would you prefer us to keep it quiet?” A new client questionnaire introduced publicist Odette Barry to the world of silent salons – hairdressers giving people the option to ditch the chit-chat.
Despite being a “bit of a needy extrovert”, her interest was piqued. From then on, she opted in to silence every couple of appointments.
“I actually quite liked having the option to be checked in on each time that I came in,” she says. “It also made it more comfortable to bring my laptop and work and not feel like I was being rude.”
Hairdresser Ash Boughton runs AB Colour, working out of the beauty co-working space Salon Lane in Sydney’s Surry Hills. She’s experienced a big uptick in clients requesting a silent appointment over the past few months, and says that because of the pandemic, “the need for calmer experiences has become essential”.
“The constant talk of the … pandemic really had such a negative effect on salon ambience, and the lack of positivity was draining for both clients and staff,” Boughton tells Guardian Australia.
“Some people just don’t want conversation. It’s really their time to zen out.”
Boughton explains that while some clients request silence ahead of their appointment, it’s also up to the hairdresser to display emotional intelligence when a client is in the chair.
That’s easier when interacting with a longstanding client with whom she already has rapport. She knows how they like their hair cut, or styled, or coloured. They trust her. “They might say something that makes me realise they just want to sit and work, or just close their eyes and be still. Once the initial consultation is done I take my cue from them.”
Redmond Cliff, a salon manager for hairdressing group Edwards and Co, agrees: “Hairdressers are very good at reading people’s vibes.” He says while hairdressing is usually a “very chatty industry”, salons are also inclusive spaces, which means some clients want, and should be able, to “stay silent and relax without talking”.
In fact, despite her extroversion, staying silent in the salon chair alleviated guilt for Barry. Since a hairdressing appointment doubles as a therapy session for many, she can feel uncomfortable about “unloading everything on a hairdresser, who has to be not just a talented hairdresser but also a counsellor for everyone who comes in”.
As Boughton notes, it also gives the stylist the chance to “focus on our art”, because hairdressing is “a craft that needs precision and patience”. She says it isn’t strange at all for hairdressers to dial the small talk up or down as they switch between clients. Sometimes, some peace and quiet is just as beneficial for the hairdresser. “It really works both ways.”
Barry suggests thinking about how you’ll occupy your time if you’re veering away from a chat. For her, it’s podcasts, a book, or work emails. “You have to have something to do to make it not awkward, because just sitting there staring at yourself in the mirror can be a reasonably off-putting experience.”
Barry’s husband, who she describes as an introvert, has also experienced a silent haircut. But knowing he could be quiet if he wanted to made him feel more chatty.
Boughton said that’s not an uncommon experience. “I find it interesting that some clients say ‘I’m all talked out, I’m really looking forward to some quiet time’ and then proceed to tell you their life story over the next 45 minutes, or every intimate detail of their most recent drama.
“We really do hear it all, but a good hairdresser keeps everything in the vault.” The next salon visit, then, is a choice: stay quiet, or divulge secrets, knowing they’ll be kept in the cone of silence too.
How to ask for the ‘silent treatment’
Take comfort in the request’s popularity: “The language [of a silent experience] is common knowledge within our industry now,” Boughton says.
Let your confidence dictate your communication choice: Boughton urges clients not to feel strange about it at all. You can call to book an appointment and ask on the phone, choose silence on a questionnaire, or “send a message to your salon [in advance] if you’re uncomfortable voicing it”.
Be honest: Cliff from Edwards and Co makes the point that “it’s not what you ask, it’s how you ask it”. So ask directly, but kindly.
Don’t feel guilty: “Don’t feel pressured into random chit-chat if you’re not in the right headspace,” Boughton says. “We all want everyone to have the best experience possible. It might seem unusual to a client asking for the first time, but at times it’s greatly appreciated by us too.”