The social dance of barbering

Written by @breakofdayfilms

Chris Lawrence has been barbering for 2 and a half years at Tooth & Nail in Marrickville, Sydney.

I first met Chris about 9 months ago. I’d had a bad haircut at another local barber and I was nervous about finding someone in my new home town who I could trust to do my hair. I immediately thought that he’s an affable kind of guy, and quite animated too.

I sat down in my ornate old-timey chair in a row of many; and as he caped me up for my cut, I imagined that he was also an actor on the side, or a musician or something.

He’s a handsome guy and his tousled hair sits like he let it dry naturally after a surf. He always looks the part of metro barber; wearing modern plain black t-shirts that are fashionably faded and cut as though they’ve been custom made for him. Despite this, I’ve never detected a whiff of pretentiousness – he just gives off a breezy Hemsworth-at-a-Byron-Bay-café kind of vibe.

Chris Lawrence stands with one arm against a wall in the barbershop he works at: he is wearing a black tshirt, his hair is a relaxed cut that reaches past his ears. The wall behind him has interesting curios hung upon it such as a cow skull and ceramic masks.
Image: Chris Lawrence of Tooth & Nail Barbershop, Marrickville. (c) @breakofdayfilms. All rights reserved.

On that first day, he had asked me what kind of cut I’d wanted as his hands tousled my hair expertly. He looked focused and ready to go to work on it. I told him that I didn’t really know, I just needed it to look tidy and neat, and I liked the traditional barber cuts. I remember immediately feeling bad that I’ve given him nothing to work with; so I told him I’m pretty easy-going about it and I just want to see what he comes up with. I then realised that was still nothing.

After I warned him about my rowdy cowlicks he’d set off to work – that was enough for him to begin sculpting my hair with the clippers expertly whipping upwards in his surgeon’s hands. At the same time, he’d deftly set us on a course of light and easy conversation that felt comfortable even though we’d just met.

By the time he had finished my haircut – a flawlessly executed high fade – I had heard about some of the adventures he’d been up to with his girlfriend (whose name I now knew), and that he has a twin. I’d told him about the course I’m studying, why I’d just moved back to Sydney, and a bit about a good friend I’d been to dinner with the day before.

Image: Chris Lawrence of Tooth & Nail Barbershop, Marrickville. (c) @breakofdayfilms. All rights reserved.

I also learned that the guy one chair over to me was married and loved his kids, while another guy on the other side was quiet.

This whole experience had me thinking about the conversations we have with our hair stylists, hairdressers and barbers, and eventually, I got around to asking him about it.

I wondered about the dance that goes on when new customers first sit down in his chair. How does he know if they want to talk or if they’d rather just zone out?

“Oh you know straight away,” Chris said unequivocally.

“You’ve gotta learn straight away that they’re not giving you much in response, so you don’t have to give them much either, you can just back off. If they want to come back to start a conversation, great, but if they want to shut up, by all means.”

I note that there’s some good perceptive skills required to do this well. He agrees.

“Perception is a big thing about it. If you give them too much you’re going to push that person away. If you’re not social enough with people that are quite social, they’re going to get turned off you as well. That goes for content as well; you have to work out how far you can go with people and where to stop.”

Chris walks from work so he can get out of that mindset before he gets home. “For a long time I wouldn’t listen to any music on the way home from work. But I’ve started listening to podcasts while I’m walking.”

He tells me it’s the best thing to get out of his own head and gets him thinking about something completely different.

I asked Chris if barbering will be his forever career. He was quick to say no. “I don’t know if I want to repeat myself and be on my feet all day every day. It’ll make you mental, reporting yourself, as much as you do. It’s physically hard. It’s also hard to try and psych yourself up for a whole day of ‘putting it on.’ Some days when I’m looking down the barrel of a 10 hour day with only a break for lunch, back to back clients, that’s a long day.”

So what’s next for Chris? “I’d probably like to teach this one day.”

Image: Chris Lawrence of Tooth & Nail Barbershop, Marrickville. (c) @breakofdayfilms. All rights reserved.

I asked a friend, Tim Samuel, why he thinks we find a certain trust is assumed with those who cut our hair. He told me that he is as open with his hairdresser, his good friend since high school, as he is with most strangers who are hairdressers.

“I think it’s because the moment you sit down and trust them to hold scissors to your head, the rest of your trust kinda goes along with that,” Tim says. “Yeah and it’s a lot of trust, ’cause if they do a good job, that’s their job – but if they do a bad job, they can’t really reverse it! You just have to trust them.”

Whether people like it or not, hair is inexorably tied to the sense of identity we possess- whether it’s to our own identity, or how others perceive us. So, when we visit a barber, we are handing over responsibility for something that very deeply defines us. Barbers (and hairdressers) gain a rare glimpse beyond the persona and into the subconscious mind of a total stranger.

That a stranger can directly affect another person’s sense of self, is extraordinary – and goes some way to explain that unique bond that can form for some, with our hair stylists.

Feature image and article: (c) @breakofdayfilms

Edited by Hazel Schweinsberg. All rights reserved.

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