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What Exactly Are You Supposed to Do When a Hair Stylist Massages Your Head?

Avoid locking eyes? Try not to groan? I’m trapped in a chair with a tiny towel around my neck and I have no idea how to react

As someone who isn’t particularly keen on unnecessary physical contact with other human beings, the pre-haircut scalp-massage offered by some salons is an outright nightmare I’ve learned to avoid. I draw the line at a firm handshake for 99 percent of the people in my life, so when a stranger starts kneading my temples and skull, I’m deep in uncharted territory.

So, what is the etiquette here? You can’t just stare at the ceiling as if you’re getting your teeth cleaned at the dentist, right? And I assume you should definitely avoid locking eyes with your stylist in the mirror? I expect you should acknowledge that it’s happening and report that it feels nice, but where’s the line between guttural moaning and a tangibly uncomfortable, “Thank you that feels nice but, uh, you don’t have to do that”?

First, let’s back up a bit to understand why stylists and barbers massage scalps in the first place. “Massaging offers gentle exfoliation and invigorates the scalp, plus increased blood flow and circulation leads to better hair growth and reduced dandruff, says Fae Norris, a stylist and colorist at the Rock Paper Salon in L.A. 

Plus, because some people can get nervous before getting their haircut, a massage has the added benefit of “reducing stress, promoting relaxation and laying the groundwork for a positive experience,” she adds. “It can also create a connection and a sense of teamwork as you move from the sink to the chair.” 

In her more than 20 years in the business, Norris has learned that almost everyone “responds a little differently to touch.” “The people who know it’s part of the process are usually perfectly comfortable with the scalp massage and just relax into it,” she says. “But I’ve had more than one occasion where someone felt the need to talk to me, maybe because they’re uncomfortable, and have turned their head to do it, which sends water flying everywhere.” 

Thus, Norris believes the best reaction is to simply “close your eyes and enjoy it!” Admittedly, for reasons I can’t quite understand, I feel a bit more comfortable with that option now that I know there is some utility to the scalp massage. While I still feel it’s a gratuitous amount of touching, at least it’s not done solely in service of the paying customer’s pleasure

That said, if you remain unconvinced and scalp massage-averse, Chicago-based hair and beauty consultant Ghanima Abdullah says it’s completely acceptable to skip it altogether. You could ask to forgo the massage “because you’re short on time, ‘just prefer a rinse’ — or don’t give a reason at all — and the stylist will be totally fine with that,” she explains. “It’s understandable that some people aren’t touchy-feely — I’m not myself.” 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is one thing you should avoid doing at all costs. “The one response that can get a little strange comes from the ‘groaners,’” Norris explains, adding that the “groaners” might be the most prevalent response after quiet, eyes-closed enjoyment. “It’s like they forget they’re in public, or that their stylist isn’t their partner,” she says. “I understand that a scalp massage can feel good, but I always prefer ‘that feels nice,’ to loudly moaning with pleasure.”