I’m notoriously bad at small talk. More than feeling awkward or stumbling over words, I have the ability to abruptly end conversations with a single sentence. When a neighbor in our apartment building lobby offered to push the elevator up button while my hands were full of groceries, I wanted to tell him “thanks, I got it,” but instead I shouted: “I can do it – I’m not an invalid.” I then laughed out loud at myself to reiterate that I was joking, lest he thought I was actually concerned with being perceived as bedridden. It was one of the more tense elevator rides in which I’ve participated.
I’m at least aware of my dreadful conversation skills, so I avoid opportunities for chit-chat whenever possible by moving to another aisle upon seeing an acquaintance at the grocery store, wearing earbuds while walking around the city even when I don’t have music playing, and similar wimpy moves. But of course there are times when no amount of preparation or staring at my cell phone can get me out of casual conversation.
Getting my hair cut is a stressful time. For starters, I care about my hair too much and often choose to scrutinize my barber’s every move rather than start a conversation. I don’t ever have a clear idea of what I want my hair to look like, so eventually I get a bad haircut or the atmosphere gets too awkward and I move on to the next barbershop or salon. I went to one stylist who worked in a shopping mall several times in high school just because he would ask me about theatre and was great at filling in awkward pauses without my assistance. However, he wasn’t the most proficient stylist; I’d often leave his salon with cuts all over my scalp. My parents refused to take me back there after the third bloody haircut. “But he was going to help me with my audition monologue!” I whined.
I thought my anxiety in the barber’s chair was an idiosyncrasy until I heard a recording of Michael Schur, creator of Parks and Recreation, speaking at a writer’s panel earlier this year about his personal fears that found their way into his television show: “I’m terrified of getting my haircut. What I’m afraid of is a barber trying to talk to me and not being able to hear the barber because clipping is happening. I’ve stopped going to many barbers because they want to talk too much.”
The epiphany I experienced listening to Michael Schur talk must be what people raised by wolves feel when they first spot another human: “You’re…like me?”
Still, a comrade-in-phobias does not make my behavior any less irrational. It’s time I cracked the code of one of the archetypal manly communities – the barbershop.
The barbershop, even more than the cigar stores or gentlemen’s clubs, is a place where men can embrace their true selves and talk freely without outside influence. It might just be the closest assimilation of a Socratic seminar we have left on this earth. I posit that the boys who grew up in a barbershop have become great orators who can command rooms, just like those who grew up in a church chanting hymns seem to have effortless singing voices.
My cousin Marc, a fine public speaker in his own right, encouraged me to learn to love the barbershop with his help. He has had many wonderful conversations about business, sports, and the mysteries of life with his Jamaican barber Sly and his barbershop’s regular customers, and Marc thinks with just a bit of preparation, I’ll be able to find my groove too.
I call up Marc early in the morning and after speaking with him for an hour, I venture out into my neighborhood to visit my local barbershop, my head swimming with advice from my own Cyrano de Barber-ac.
As I near the red and blue striped pole, my heart races and my hands perspire as if this were a first date. The fact that I feel anxious makes me worry I’ll come on too strong which only makes me more anxious. Marc told me to establish a good mood by appearing easygoing as soon as I enter the shop, but that seems about as likely now as finding a hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk. But before I know it I’m standing in front of the barbershop, and since the alternative of lingering outside while staring through the window seems worse, I decide to walk in.
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