I am sitting at the hairdresser’s, waiting for the colour to seep into my hair. The assistant places a small timer next to me, and for the next 50 minutes, I flip through fashion magazines. No matter how hard I try, I cannot resist the urge to eavesdrop. My hairdresser, Robert (not his real name), is engaged in an intense conversation with a middle aged woman while cutting her hair. “Teenagers are really difficult,” she sighs. “They just don’t listen to you anymore… The other day, my daughter…”
I have been going to the same hairdresser for more than six years. It’s a small salon in a posh area of The Hague, and there are never more than two or three clients at a given time. Every time I come, I am impressed by the conversations Robert has with his clients. They seem to share all kinds of intimate things with him, and he always listens compassionately, laughing at their jokes.
Judging by the dozens of hair salons from all corners of the globe, called ‘Gossip Hair’, ‘Hot Gossip Hair and Nail Salon’, and ‘The Local Gossip’, it is clear that it is not just Robert who has mastered the art. Just read The Confessions of a Hairdresser: Gossip, Gossip and More Gossip by Robin Daumit.
Gossip definitely seems to go hand in hand with the profession.
When my hair is dyed and dried, Robert stands in front of me. “So what shall we do today? ”
“Same as usual,” I reply. “Not too short, though.”
The topic of my hair seems rather mundane, as I am itching to discuss other things: “I can see that your clients speak to you very freely. Do they gossip a lot with you?”
He laughs. “Do they ever!”
Robert quickly tells me that he never gossips about other clients with his clients. “If I gossip with you about someone we both know, you will leave and probably wonder whether I talk about you with other people. So I am really careful not to do that.”
Robert explains that clients usually talk to him about their health, their holidays, their relationships or family issues, and their problems at work.
Wittek and Wielers (1998) have described several patterns (or triads) to illustrate how people gossip. For example, in the constraint triad, the gossiper knows the person being talked about, but the listener doesn’t. The gossiper and the listener usually have a good relationship, but because the listener doesn’t know the persons being discussed, according to the authors, he/she are less interested in hearing gossip about them. I wonder whether the authors have ever thought of examining gossipers’ relationships with their hairdressers.
“People tell me all kinds of things about their work, because it is totally safe. They don’t have to worry that I will discuss their issues with other colleagues,” Robert says. “For many, it’s actually a great way to let off steam! Even if they don’t know me that well, you would be surprised at how much they share!”
“What do they say to you about their work?” I ask.
Robert thinks for a few moments.
“It’s nearly always things about the organisation or their managers. Like ‘the manager is incompetent,’ ‘he has no vision’ ‘he has no backbone’ or ‘I could have done this or that if it weren’t for the manager…’”
Robert tells me the talks are nearly always about a boss or manager, and very rarely about a direct colleague.
He also sees a huge difference between younger and older clients. “Some of my clients have just left university. They start a new job full of enthusiasm and tend to place their organisation and boss high up on a pedestal. But each time they come back for a haircut, their boss seems to have fallen a bit. Usually, by the end of two years, management has sunk to an all-time low. And when they have lost faith in their managers and organisation, they usually go out and look for another job. Since they are young, they usually succeed. ”
It’s a different story for older employees, according to Robert. “They know they can’t easily find a job elsewhere, so they tend to stick to their jobs and wait to retire. They are just frustrated, and you can see that this is not a good space to be in – neither for the company nor for the employee…”
Applying Martinescu’s (2014) categories of gossip, I ask whether his clients ever make comments about their managers’ personalities, peculiarities or physical appearance? Or is the gossip solely performance based?
‘’Actually, I never heard anyone make a comment on their manager’s appearance, or that he was wearing white socks or the wrong clothes. Or that he was fat or weak. No– it’s always about his performance.”
Robert pauses. “Actually… unless the manager is a woman. Or if it’s someone from another culture. The worse is if the boss in question is a woman wearing a hijab. Then people will say something like: ‘She doesn’t listen. It’s probably because her scarf is blocking her ears.’ Or they will make nasty comments about their manager’s skin colour…”.
Suddenly, I stare at my face in the mirror. My hair is way too short.