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What the Hell Do I Talk to My Barber About?

Three barbers on how to make small talk with them while they take a sharp object to your head

The American barbershop has traditionally been a place of commune, where no topic is off-limits. It has more specifically served as a hotspot for discussion within black communities in America: As Kentucky State University professor David Shabazz notes in his Journal of Black Studies article “Barbershops as Cultural Forums for African American Males,” “African American barbershops are discursive spaces, where identity is shaped as young men are initiated into manhood and African American culture.”

Barbershop chat, in other words, is traditionally kind of a big deal. But with America now more divided than ever, some barbershops are changing their policies in the hopes of avoiding controversy within their walls. Vinny’s Barber Shop in L.A. is one such establishment, with its website displaying the shop rules in large, bold font:

“No Religion. No Politics. No Phones during service.”

“We put that up there because we don’t want anyone getting into it,” says owner Omar Romero. “There’s so much disagreement, especially right now.”

To be clear, this doesn’t mean your beliefs make you unwelcome. “It’s just bad for business,” Romero explains, referring to arguments between colleagues and clients. “We don’t want to isolate anybody. We don’t give a crap what you believe in, what you think or what you feel. This is just a place for you to come and relax—that’s it.”

Of course, as the customer, you can still technically say whatever you want. But most barbers will do their best to avoid contentious topics: As Romero says, this is now one of the first lessons taught at barbering school. “Don’t talk politics or religion or any hot button issues of the day,” the Salon Success Academy writes in a recent blog post. “You don’t want to lose a client because they don’t like what you say.” And you presumably don’t want to lose your barber because they don’t like what you say.

All of this is moot, however, if you’ve been going to your barber long enough to know that they share your opinions on controversial issues.

Politics and religion aside, every other topic remains on the table. “The juicier the gossip, the better,” says Troy Hugie, barber at the Blind Barber in New York City’s East Village. “Some guys treat you like their personal therapist, telling you everything—where they went on vacation, or whether they broke up with their girlfriend.”

But if you don’t want to talk about yourself, try directing the conversation toward your barber. “If you want us to actually get excited to talk to you, ask us about our lives,” says hairstylist Cleve McMillan. “How’s my day going? Do I have any good stories? That kind of thing. Because I definitely do.”

And if you don’t want to say anything?

That’s cool, too.

“Some guys like to treat it as their personal spa day,” says Hugie. “They want to relax, close their eyes and get their hair cut.”

None of which can happen if you’re busy arguing with your barber about whether it’s time to arm high school teachers.