If we can't talk straight in a barber shop, then where can we talk straight? We can't talk straight nowhere else. You know, this ain't nothin' but healthy conversation, that's all.
Recognise the quote? Cedric the Entertainer’s memorable words in the 2002 movie, Barbershop, were as true then as they are today. Put simply, barber shops are more than just a place to get our haircut; they’re where we go to socialise and get stuff off our chest.
In a world where men face increasing difficulty verbalising their problems, barber shops offer an escape: an opportunity to open up to someone whose job it is to make you look your best. If barbers can’t be trusted, who can?
Getting that perfect fade or shape-up is something which many men of African origin hold dear, I myself included. Thick, curly hair doesn’t lend itself well to messiness, so neatness is key. MTV knows it, Hollywood’s aware of it, and the fashion industry hasn’t exactly advanced the surfer look for afro hair. However, barber shops are not strictly the preserve of black men. Far from it.
At least in the time I’ve been going to them. I’ve seen people of all ages and colours arriving for a trim. Some are chatty, some are quiet, and the topics of conversation are broad. Sport often pops up, along with women, work, family and going-out. Occasionally, you get the odd political nut who likes to rant on about how bad society has become. Comedians, educators, showboaters, chauvinists - you name it, they can all be found waiting in line, speaking frankly.
Indeed, the traditional barber shop setting can be held up as a cosy, cathartic space where customers and staff have the freedom to say whatever comes to mind, free from judgement, and confident in the knowledge that someone will listen to them. Finding that same variety of men elsewhere, at least in the UK, is easier said than done. Bar the pub and a couple of other exceptions, there are few social spaces which boast such a vocally diverse bunch. Why, you ask?
Firstly, barber shops are traditionally all-male. So already less restrictions apply as far as certain topics go: chiefly football, cars and sexual escapades. There’s also the unselfconscious mixing which comes with being sat next to random people in a queue. However different you might be, you’re all there for the same reason: to get a haircut.
Some men feel uncomfortable showing their vulnerable side to women. But doing so around other men who also admit their faults too makes it easier for one to follow suit. Yes there's banter and bravado, but there are also sensitive discussions about family, relationships, education, race and alcohol abuse. Every so often, tempers flare or someone breaks down about something difficult they’ve been going through.
It's been said that many a problem can be solved in a barber shop. If that's the case then why are so many men suffering on the outside? Repeated findings show that depression and suicide are two of our biggest killers. It is reported that suicide accounts for 1 in 4 deaths amongst men under the age of 35 each year. Somewhere between acting hard and playing the "provider", we seem to lose sight of our mortal selves. This goes far in explaining our difficulty communicating in certain settings like the home or a doctor's surgery.
So what needs to be done? In February, one Romford barber made waves by offering free haircuts to unemployed men to help them look sharp for interviews. Not only was this hugely generous, but it also showed great vision on his part to assist people in their hour of need.
If there’s one thing we can take away from barber shops, it’s this: being open shouldn’t only happen when your hair is being cut. Those same worries aired in the chair, should be raised at the dinner table or chewed over in bed. Perhaps the answer lies in barbers offering trims on the road, in schools and in homes. Who knows? Or maybe, as members of the community, they themselves need to take up more inspirational roles as teachers, counsellors, learning mentors and motivational speakers.
And if you want to chat, get some advice or you want to join the campaign encouraging men to get talking then visit C.A.L.M, the charity about, for and on behalf of men.