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The SDD: “Can’t Touch This”
30th Jun


The SDD: “Can’t Touch This”

During the last Friends of Goodale Park Volunteer Workday, I found myself standing in the company of three women, friends of mine who were speaking frankly about a surprisingly intimate topic: their hair stylists.  I have known for a very long time that clients (women, primarily) share lots of personal information with their hair stylists, but in those moments I realized something new.  Amidst their informative sharing, my three friends unveiled an insight about our species that was both fascinating and unnerving.

One of the women, Lauren, was talking about needing to get an appointment with her hair stylist, Shaun, before she left for an extended assignment on the west coast.  Implicit in her statement, and tacitly accepted by the other women, was the idea that having anyone besides Shaun work on her hair – even on the fabulous and trendy west coast – was anathema.  It just isn’t done.  Women often follow a particular hair stylist devotedly for years, even decades, as that stylist moves from salon to salon.

My friends leaned in toward each other and nodded in agreement while talking over these clearly special relationships.  I thought about Lauren’s trust in Shaun, and then I thought about the level of trust that I had built with each of the women over the years.  As I pondered, I realized a key difference in my relationships with them: I don’t touch their hair.

Touching hair is an act of intimacy.  We’re not socially allowed to just reach out and touch someone’s hair.  Our arguably bizarre level of trust and emotional comfort with our hair stylists is related to the inherent intimacy in their touching our hair.  “Hair” and “trust” are commingled in that relationship.  It’s the reason why women will wait months to see this special person instead of having their hair cut by someone else who might be more convenient.  You don’t let just anyone touch your hair.  The people whom you allow to do so are special.

I was recently reminded of a similar feeling of trust, experiencing it personally on Black Friday last November.  I was at an upscale bar with my brother-in-law, Andy.   The upholstered leather furniture we were sitting on happened to be next to a group of brand representatives for Goose Island beer who were at the bar for an event promoting their latest product.  Like stereotypical salesmen, they had all mastered the illusion of complete self-assurance and certainty, or perhaps had become deluded into believing the illusion themselves.  I didn’t like them.

Despite my disinclination, in the midst of their affable banter the sales rep sitting next to me, Dave, asked if I had tasted the Bourbon County Brand Stout they were introducing at the bar that day.

I was drinking Bone Snapper Rye whiskey, but conveniently Dave was holding a pint of the stout in his hand, and he encouraged both me and Andy to gulp a healthy taste of it from his glass.  “Go ahead!” he urged with a friendly grin.  I indulged.  And in the gloriously tasty moments that followed, Andy and I both felt as though we had known Dave for years.   We effused about how we would need to buy some of this awesome beer on the way home.  At the same time, a feeling in my gut told me that something was “off”.

During our ride home I felt a glimmer of recognition about our instant friendship with Dave.  Something about our experience reminded me of the hair stylist conversation.  And then it occurred to me.  We only drink from another person’s glass if we know them, if we trust them.  We only share sips from people we trust.  I felt that Dave was trustworthy because I had a drink from his beer glass, not the other way around, not the normal way that we experience trust.  Normally I would come to trust Dave first, and then (maybe) enjoy a drink from his beer glass.

This is just like the experiences of each of the women who feel they can trust their stylist because he regularly touches their hair.  Normally we would first come to trust someone over an extended period of time, and then (maybe) let them touch our hair.  Of course logically we must let stylists touch our hair before we could ever legitimately trust them.  If we didn’t, only family, friends, and neighbors could cut each other’s hair!  So when stylists touch our hair before trust has been established, our mind makes sense of this unthinkable act by rationalizing that we must trust them like the extremely close friend they “must” be.  And soon we trust them more broadly, sharing all the intimate details of our lives.

We trust hair stylists with our personal thoughts because of this subliminal message about hair and trust that our brains feed to us.   Similarly, I kind of couldn’t help but feel that Dave was trustworthy.  These actions (touching hair and sipping from a pint glass) and feelings (trust and friendship) aren’t just related, they are connected through cause-and-effect.  Our actions can create our feelings.

This is not a new idea.  In his 1884 essay, “What is an Emotion?”, William James explored our reactions that we usually think emerge from our emotions.

For instance, we think it happens like this: we see a bear lumber into our campsite, next we feel fear [experience emotion], and then we run [take action].  James argued that the “bodily changes” (our actions) cause the emotion.  He wrote, “…bodily changes follow directly the perception of [some event, like seeing a bear], and our feeling of the changes as they occur IS the emotion.”  In other words, I am afraid because I am running away from a bear.  Or I trust this person because I’m allowing him (or her) to touch my hair.

This is unnerving because each of us likes to believe that we are in control.  We especially want to believe that we are in control of something as elemental as our feelings about whether or not we can trust another person.  And yet given these examples, it seems clear that we are not.

Still, within the very specific context of the original hair stylist conversation with my three friends, I believe that I might have a significant edge in my ability to maintain a level of control over the issue of trust.  Because at my basement workbench, using barber clippers, I always cut my own hair.

(Special salon photos shoutout to Michael Azzaro, Hair Genius) 

The Sesquipedalian Dumpster Diver

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