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“How would you like me to cut your hair, sir?” “In silence.” That quip first appears in the Ancient Greek jokebook Philogelos; Plutarch attributes the same line to Archelaus, King of Macedon from 413-399 BC. So the widespread male distaste for tonsorial small-talk has a well-established pedigree.
I can’t bear it, personally. I like my hairdresser but I’m not interested, not deep in my heart, in whether he has been on holiday, or whether he’s enjoying the weather. And so for me — as for King Archelaus — the trip to the hairdresser is a chore rather than a pleasure, typically undertaken (at my wife’s insistence) two or three weeks later than would be ideal. I resent the cost, the time it takes out of the day. So the chief purpose of a haircut, as I see it, is to remove enough hair so you don’t have to have another haircut for ages.
And how do you do that? As well as the chat, there’s the agonising moment when you are asked how you want it. “You’re the professional!” you want to wail. “You tell me!” The women I know seem to speak fluent hairdresser — “feather” and “volumise”; “lowlights” and “undercut”. The men gape like fish. What they want is a magic word that means: please could you extrapolate back from how it is now to what it would have looked like nine or 10 weeks ago and make it look like that. What they seek is not a look but a return to the status quo ante.
Only over many years have I acquired the rudiments of a vocabulary. I still don’t know what “choppy” means, but I’ve learned that it’s what I should be on top. I encourage the use of something called “thinning scissors”. I like wax, not gel. I know to ask for the back and sides to be clippered because scissors take ages. And I never figured out whether “squared off” or “tapered” is what the back should be, but I can’t see the back so whevs.
Yet, of course, the male haircut does matter. In my late teens and early twenties, like many a tragic gap-year public schoolboy, I grew mine to shoulder length. Great way of avoiding the barber; also, I thought it looked cool. In my last year at university I cut it off and realised only then why I had been having such trouble getting girls.
We’re funny about our hair, men. Many of us mind very much about the idea of not having it — as our transplants, weaves, miracle thickeners and awkward comb-overs testify. Yet we are noticeably (sometimes even ostentatiously) reluctant to be seen to take any interest in what it looks like when it is there.
That said, making a show of being uninterested in our hair is not the same as actually being uninterested in it. Luke Hersheson, a second-generation hairdresser who owns a chain of salons with his father, points to a long history of peacocking male haircuts — “Teddy boys, then Mods; 1980s curly perms and 1990s grunge curtains . . . In my experience men are even more sensitive about how they look than women.”
Indeed, he even seems to suggest that the find-a-haircut-and-stick-to-it tactic is one rooted not in not caring about your hair but in caring too much. “Men go through evolutionary stages. Women will cut their hair to make a change: they’ll jump on a trend. Men are much more scared to do it. A haircut is a huge statement. A haircut can show what you belong to and what you don’t belong to.” And — witness the excitement when George Osborne appeared with a new, butch-looking crop; or the way Joey Essex and David Beckham have shaped latter-day metrosexuality — men’s styles do get noticed.
As for how you go about asking for what you want, Hersheson is reassuring. “Don’t get too hung up on the technical vocabulary. Most people don’t really know what it means — even hairdressers often don’t know. If you ask for a short back and sides, it just emphasises a bit of length on top. ‘Choppy’ just means a bit messy — separated texture. It’s often more useful, actually, using old-school movie stars: you could ask for a Steve McQueen, for instance.”
Still, our hesitation in the face of the technical vocabulary and our anxiety about things going wrong can push us towards a certain conservatism. It feels like vanity to fuss too much about it — and a disdain for vanity is, as I always think, the way male vanity expresses itself. Also, if you want to be in and out quickly, you don’t want to spend ages humming and hawing over styling decisions. You find a haircut that’s easy and works, and you stick to it.
The quality of a haircut for me can be calculated by a formula whose main inputs are brevity and cheapness, with results scarcely factored in. A previous girlfriend threatened to leave me if I went again to the £3.50 barber near my flat in Brixton. Only then — and only reluctantly — did I upgrade to somewhere where the cafetières contain coffee rather than combs and Barbicide.
Am I alone? Apparently not. In keeping with modern polling practice, I have combined online and offline data sets (ie Twitter and the pub), and have discovered that approximately 78 per cent of non-facetious respondents view getting a haircut as a pain in the neck. And two of the few who did have positive things to say linked haircuts to alcohol; in one case as “always followed by a midday pint”, the other paying tribute to London’s Pankhurst barbershop, where you can get your hair cut “whisky in hand”.
Many respondents complained about small talk. Leaving it too long between cuts was also a common theme: “Start off each eight-week period looking like off-duty Spetsnaz,” said one, “end up looking like Rasputin on his uppers.” “Awful,” said another. “Put it off until I start looking like Chewbacca.”
Sticking with what you know also emerges as a theme. One spoke of the anxiety of moving to a new area and “having to find a new barber”. Another: “Same always, £14, cheapest in area I live in.” Another: “I’ve had the same haircut since 2005.” Another reported: “Once a month, I cycle five miles to see the same bloke who’s cut my hair for 20 years and has adapted himself skilfully to the spreading wastes up there. It costs £20. I live in fear of him predeceasing me.”
Photographs: Rosie Hallam