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What Do I Tell My Barber When They Ask What Kind of Haircut I Want?

I had just sat down in the barber’s chair when the familiar, old anxiety crept in: What the hell am I going to tell this guy when he asks what kind of haircut I want?

My usual hairstylist was out sick, leaving me at the mercy of a new barber, one unfamiliar with the particularities of my hair. I was certain she would give me the most embarrassing mop chop since the bowl cut my dad gave me back in the first grade.

Despite having lived on this Earth for damn near 30 years, and having had my hair cut at semi-regular intervals in that time, I’m still at a loss when it comes to telling my barber what I want.

It’s not that I don’t know what I want. I have a mental image of my perfect haircut. But I have no idea how to articulate it. I sit in the chair, and words escape me. The best I can proffer up are some vague, semi-contradictory instructions:

“I’d like to keep some length. But shorter. I mean, I still want it cut, obviously. But it should also be long. So, like, shorter, but still long. Short-long, ya know? Also, I’d like for it to be cool. But not too cool, either — like I’m trying too hard or anything. I still need to wear it to weddings and stuff. So, yeah. Short-long, and semi-cool. That’s what I’d like.”

Barber plunges scissors into his throat to spare himself from having to listen to me anymore.

I don’t mean to whine, but getting a haircut from a new barber is a fraught experience. You want to get your money’s worth and walk out looking fresh. But you also don’t want to say the wrong thing and end up with a haircut you don’t like, and be in the awkward position of having to criticize the person’s work to their face—that’s what the internet is for.

Fortunately, I’m not alone in this anxiety. “We deal with it all day,” says Benjamin Veloz, owner of the World Famous Venice Barber Shop in L.A. Matthew Stremple, owner of Handsome Devils barber shop in Hollywood, adds that 30 percent of his male clients don’t know how to describe the haircut they want either.

This is a problem considering a man’s hair is central to his aesthetic (and overall attractiveness). Luckily, the fix is simple. A man needs to know only a few basic pieces of information to get a good haircut, according to several barbers interviewed for this article.

Their advice for the follicularly illiterate are below.

Just Show a Photo

A photo says a thousand words about the kind of hairstyle you hope to achieve, so Peter Lopez, a 60-year-old barber in L.A., suggests you whip out your smartphone and pull up that Facebook or Instagram photo of when your hair was on point. This visual reference will do more for your barber than words ever could.

Know What Length You Want

Most haircut anxiety can be solved by simply knowing what length you want, Veloz says. As a general rule, hair grows a quarter-inch a month. So if you’d like your hair to be at the same length it was two months ago, then ask for half an inch off.

If you use a clipper (or “buzzer”) on any part of your hair, it helps to know what clipper guard you’d like to use. The shortest is a “zero,” which is essentially down the skin. A “one” is one-eighth of an inch, and the numbers go up in 1/8 inch increments to a “six” (or three-quarters of an inch).

Once you know this, your instruction can be as simple as, “I’d like a four on the sides and a little longer on top,” according to Veloz.

Err on the Side of Slightly Too Long

In that vein, it’s always best to err on the side of “slightly longer than you think you want,” Lopez says. Your barber wants you to leave happy, so odds are they’ll leave your hair a little longer than you ask for, especially if you seem unsure about everything. “When a guy doesn’t know what he wants, I always cut off less than he asks for,” Veloz says. “And eight times out of 10, they like it.”

Veloz says many men ask for a full fade, for instance, without realizing that a full fade means tapering the hair down to a zero. Instead, he’ll give them a two. Because you can always take more hair off, but growing it out takes a little longer.

Just Let the Barber Do His Damn Thing

One common piece of haircut advice for clueless men is to just find a well-respected stylist and let them use you as your canvas. They’re professionals, after all, and if you’re unsure about what you want, odds are they know what’s better for you than you do.

Veloz says the best way to ensure a good haircut is to find a good barber — one who can identify the natural lay of your hair, and style it accordingly. “A lot of the onus is on the barber himself. … If you have a good barber, he’ll guide you through [the process].”

Lopez has been cutting hair for 40 years now, and he says many men tend to stick with the same uninspired haircut for years, never working up the courage to get that truly killer coif they saw on the newsstand the other day. “Try something different,” he urges. If you don’t like it, “in two weeks, it’ll be long again.”