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More Than a Haircut: Finding Social Connection in Unexpected Places

“In quarantine, a manicure would have been reminiscent of some kind of normalcy. It was the most stagnant thing in my life that I could rely on happening every few weeks at an exact place with my nail technician,” says Abby Lamdan, 21-years-old. Lamdan’s manicurist, Lucy, has quietly watched her life over the four years they’ve done business together: transferring universities, friend breakups and relationship status changes. Lucy is a grounding point for Lamdan – one of few consistencies she holds when she returns to Long Island on breaks from school at NYU.

“I am desperate for those little interactions with people,” says Lamdan via Zoom. “I will never forget the day the man in the little bagel cart in Astor Place offered me an umbrella in the pouring rain. I could count on him being so smiley however shitty my morning was. I would be surprised by his kindness every time. And I'd think, ‘I absolutely have to match man's energy.’ I want those interactions to be back with familiar strangers, as much of an oxymoron as that is.”

Familiar strangers are the people that you see on a regular basis – anywhere from daily interactions with your barista or doorman to monthly meetings with your hairstylist. Even though these relationships are more surface-level than those with family and friends, they are no less important contributors to a joyful and healthy life.

Acknowledging the value in acquaintanceships has changed the way Melinda Blau, an award-winning journalist whose focus is on relationships, walks through life. People outside of your social network add novelty, opportunity and surprise to life, and to Blau, those are the things that make life worth living. Blau says that hairdressers and manicurists often play these roles in people’s lives.

“I remember when my hairdresser brought her son in a baby carriage and now, he’s in college,” says Blau, 77-years-old. “My hairdresser in New York was at my daughter’s wedding. And I remember when my manicurist in Florida died. I cried. I heard she got cancer, and I watched her get skinnier and skinnier,” she says as she packs her belongings in boxes for her move to Paris. She’s not elated about moving her life from New York City for her partner’s job, but she is comforted by the knowledge that she has familiar strangers from previous stays in Paris.

These people outside of one’s network are called “weak social ties” or, as Blau calls them, “consequential strangers.” Blau has found joy in chatting with strangers ever since her college days. This eventually led her to study those social connections in her book “Consequential Strangers: Turning Everyday Encounters into Life-Changing Moments.”

“Our intimates finish our sentences because they know what we're gonna say,” Blau said. “Consequential strangers don’t. They don't come with preconceived notions about you. You tell parts of yourself that you might not tell an intimate because the intimate is going to judge you or try to change your mind. It’s advice without strings attached.”

One 2014 study, “Social Interactions and Well-Being: The Surprising Power of Weak Ties,” shows that social interactions with strangers and acquaintances have an influence on our social and emotional wellbeing and can increase happiness and feelings of belonging.

Because of the aspect of vulnerability that comes with letting someone alter your appearance, this feeling of belonging and trust in beauty salons is vital. Respect, trust and belonging are all developed in long-term relationships between stylist and client, also called “commercial friendships.”

Anne*, a marketing executive, struggles with alopecia and its resulting self-consciousness. (*Name has been changed to respect the individual’s privacy.)

“When I had normal hair, I loved going to the salon. It was one of my favorite things to do because I used to have fabulous, thick, wavy hair. When I lost two-thirds of my hair, then suddenly it became a trauma to go because every time I looked in the mirror, I saw something that upset me.”

Six years ago, Anne found something that would make her hairstyling experience better – Connie Corwin. Corwin is a travelling one-woman salon who cuts and colors hair in her clients’ homes.

“A lot of ordinary stylists deal with my kind of hair problem by just blow drying it so it looks voluminous, and they don't cut your hair properly which is really demoralizing,” says Anne. “It's very humiliating actually. All of that is taken out if you have somebody who can come to your house.”

Corwin’s business model, which she has been running for 12 years, means that her customers can sit in the familiarity of their kitchen or living room (or backyard, in the name of coronavirus) while getting their highlights done.

Corwin, whose own hair is highlighted with magenta dye, has found that in many ways, being a hairstylist draws parallels to being a therapist. One sociological study states that hairstylists function as confidantes– extra “emotion work” that stylists provide in addition to a haircut.

“As a hairstylist, you have to remain objective and just listen. It’s a lot of listening,” she said. “They don't necessarily ask me questions; they don't really want to know about my life or my issues. They just want to get it out. They do confide a lot in you. Sometimes information that maybe they have friends that they don't even confide in such things.”

Unlike therapy or a close friendship, Corwin maintains a professional line in stylist-client relationships. Relationships between hairstylists and clients are more often one-sided – stylists usually don’t reveal their deepest secrets. This, alongside the fact that hairstylists are typically outside of a client’s own personal network, allows clients to share details of their lives.

“I have one client who’s like a friend, but she isn't. It's a business relationship,” Corwin said. “But within the parameters of the business relationship, there is a lot of discussion and there's a lot of personal things that she's confided to me. It's reciprocal when appropriate, but there is a line.”

Many of Corwin’s customers lack socialization in everyday life even before COVID-19 social guidelines. She estimates that 40% of her clientele is homebound due to physical or mental disabilities. Many of her clients are elderly and a few clients suffer from multiple sclerosis (MS), dementia, and Alzheimer’s.

“Everybody needs a haircut no matter your mental status or whether you can talk or not,” Corwin says. “I love the work itself, but I also love talking to all different kinds of people. Everybody has a story.”

It is no question that COVID has exacerbated feelings of loneliness.

“People feel isolated, especially now because of COVID. Don't we all [in normal life] to a certain extent?” Corwin asked. “I have a client who gives me coffee, and we chat for an hour before I say, ‘Okay, well, shall we start your hair?’ I think she'd be happy just chatting for another hour. The social interaction makes it a better, deeper experience.”

Jorge Sanchez, a hairstylist at Gina Le Salon in Manhattan, says that clients were elated to the point of tears to come back to the salon post-quarantine.

“Some clients are older. They don't have family. They literally just don't see anybody,” Sanchez says about the pandemic’s effect. “There was this girl who wasn't able to see her family or friends and she didn't have a boyfriend or anybody. Not even a puppy. And when she came in, her stylist and her both cried. They missed each other. It was very touching.”

Sanchez says that not only does conversation build trust and respect in a client-stylist relationship, but it also helps the stylist know exactly what their customer wants out of their appointment.

“Communication is a must,” Sanchez, 36-year-old, says. “You get a feel of who they are. Not just what they want with their hair, but who they are as a person. You can actually be a better stylist by getting to know them on a deeper level.”

The stylist, who moved to New York from the Dominican Republic in 1999, has been seeing his own barber for 15 years.

“I was really tired yesterday and I got a haircut and it just really energized me for some reason. I have a nice open relationship with my barber, so I feel like that has you know something to do with it. We laugh and we tell jokes, and he makes me look good. So naturally, I feel better.”

Kasha Ferran, the owner of Swank Hair Salon in the West Village, has clients who have been coming to her for 30 years.

“I have clients who I did their hair at their high school graduation, and their wedding, and their children's graduation, and their children's wedding,” says Ferran. “And they've all watched me grow up, too. I was in my early 20s and now I have a son who is almost 23. They've been through marriages and divorces and children, and life and unfortunately death. You really celebrate everything together. I have a few clients that have gone through cancer, so you deal with them losing their hair and it coming back and the whole process of what they go through.”

Like Corwin and Sanchez, Ferran experiences clients sharing personal information with her. Sometimes, she says, they need to get information off their chest that they can’t necessarily share with close friends or family.

“I have a friend and I started doing her mother's hair. Her mom was telling me that she had a new boyfriend,” Ferran says. “She's like, ‘Don't tell my daughter because I want to tell all of my daughters together.’ So, I'm talking to my friend and she's like, ‘My mom has a boyfriend,’ and I went, ‘Oh I’m glad she told you.’ And she said, ‘What! You know?’ ‘Yeah, she told me, but she told me not to tell you!’”

Hairstylist Gregg Hartnett, who works in Santa Fe, has had to deal with slightly more sensitive information in his 30 years doing hair.

“The worst is when I'm doing couples, and I'm the first one to find out that either one of them is having an affair or there's a divorce imminent. I had a female client once told me everything about the affair that she was having and I had to stop her and go, ‘Okay, now, we both know that I [style] both of you and I really don’t think we should be talking about this.’”

Melinda Blau says that in addition to the value of consequential strangers being outside of one’s social network and not knowing you on a deeper level, they can offer different life perspectives. She says that while people in our own social circles tend to mirror our own demographics, consequential strangers live dissimilar lives than our own.

“You meet people that you never would,” Blau says regarding talking to strangers. “They're not like the people you usually hang out in your world.”

For Blau, she has gained the life perspective of female twentysomethings through her dog park acquaintanceships and the realities of living under communism from her former Russian neighbors. She’s more likely to complain about her daughter to her friends in her dog park circle–who are closer to her daughter in age–than her partner.

“They have a perspective. My partner may have her own feelings about my daughter, but it's like a blank slate again. It's a very valuable thing because you really gain insight into ideas and perspectives. And it's not going to get back to my daughter.”

However, not all consequential strangers are equal, according to Blau. This blank slate and the lack of preconceived notions give some people the freedom to fib about their lives.

“I don't talk to absolutely everybody. You got to have a vibe. This woman sat down next to me in the garden of his building. She proceeded to tell me [about her life] very quickly and it was a little too intimate for somebody who met me three seconds ago. She says she's having an affair with this guy in New York. And she said, ‘I was also the top real estate broker in New York.’ I thought the top real estate broker in New York does not, in five minutes, say ‘I am the top real estate broker in New York.’ All sorts of alarms went off in my head. I actually said, ‘Well, it's nice meeting you. I really have to go and make a phone call,’ and I left. You have to be smart about it.”

But for as many acquaintances as Blau has, the aforementioned bad apples are few. In fact, she believes people are more likely to share their true feelings with strangers.

“A woman told me when she went into a deli and started talking about how she had lost her son. Somehow the guy behind the counter heard, who also lost his son. That was their common ground – very sad common ground,” Blau recounts. “This guy was really not close to her at all, but she could say things that she couldn't say or a husband or the other kids because it was just too loaded.”

Even if the strangers in our days seem inconsequential, they are significant to overall life itself, adding to happiness, knowledge, surprise, opportunity and emotional wellbeing.

“People talk about their significant others as if that's it. But the truth is there are many other significants in your life,” Blau says. “If you take a couple and they don't have friends or consequential strangers, they just have each other. There’s never anything new inserted into the relationship. The virus makes you appreciate your loved ones more, but consequential strangers are even more important now because we are isolating, and they give you an outlet. And you bring that home and it enriches the close relationship. It's just a human exchange between two people without the baggage.”