How to get a haircut in any country but France

A friendly smile will get you a long way in most places. Saying that kids and dogs are cute helps, too.

yul brynner
Yul Brynner–much more handsome than me, but every bit as bald. Picture source:

I’ve been getting my hair cut every Friday by the same person whenever I’ve been in France over the course of the past two years, but I still can’t get her to cut it as short as I want.  I’m an old man and am mostly bald, and my preference is to have every bit of hair removed.  However, Nadine always sends me out the door with some very short hair left.  At first, I thought it was because my French isn’t good enough to explain exactly what I want.  However, one day I was sitting in the chair.  Nadine cut my hair as we chatted about tout et rien–nothing in particular.  Suddenly I realized that she understands what I want just fine–she just doesn’t agree that I should wear what little I have left that short.  Cutting hair is her métier, and she knows what looks best, right?

In general, you can get what you need in life most places, even if you don’t speak the language–pointing at things and a friendly smile will get you a long way.  Since I like to be totally bald, I need to get my hair cut frequently, and since I’m on the road a lot, that means that I have gotten my hair cut all over the world.  I’ve come across a way to explain what I want without words: I carry a picture of Yul Brynner on my phone, and I just point at it, point at my head, and of course smile politely.  At the moment I’m in a little town on the west coast of Japan, and I was feeling kinda shaggy, so I snuck out at lunch today and walked to a little barbershop down the street.  The interaction went like this–if it’s in italics, it happened in Japanese, which you’ll soon see that I don’t speak at all:

Me, entering empty little shop: Excuse me?

Little old lady comes out, sees me, immediately looks worried, and disappears.  Young lady comes out.

Her: Welcome!

Me: English-language-do know-do question?

Her: aaaah, I’m sorry, no.

Me: pull out phone, point at picture of Yul Brynner, smile.

Her: ah, OK.  あなたが散髪をしたいですか?

Me: Excuse me, Japanese-language-do know-not.

What followed was a wonderful experience.  Getting your hair cut in Japan can be really nice, and I highly recommend it as a non-touristy sort of experience.  The routine can vary, but my haircut today involved warm shaving cream, hot towels, a razor, and a backrub–not an unusual sequence of events in a Japanese barbershop.

Her: Do you like it?

Me: This-do, enjoy-is! 

Her: You speak Japanese so well!

Me: No—skill yet is-not!

(In many, many, many cultures, the right answer to You speak X well!  is always, always, always some version of no, I don’t!  Thanking the person for the compliment just reveals a lack of understanding of the culture.  Japan is one of those places.)

Smiles all around.  I paid, her toddler came out and we waved bye-bye a lot–cute is the case, isn’t it so?–pretty much the most useful Japanese expression I know–and back to work I went.

It amazes me that despite the fact that I’ve spent a grand total of 11 weeks of my life in Japan over the course of the past 15 years or so, I’m able to pretty much get all of my needs met here despite not speaking the language at all, while in France, I remain befuddled by the most basic tasks–getting phone service, keeping phone service, buying a nail file, figuring out how to get to work when there’s a train strike.  I have to say, though: I love the challenges.  Accomplishing the tiniest things in France can give me enormous satisfaction, and really adds to my enjoyment of the expat experience.  Check it out–there can be something liberating about being completely dans le brouillard–“at sea.”

Useful Japanese vocabulary:

  • kawaii, ne!  Cute, huh!  Use it for kids and dogs–great conversation-starter.  Yes, the ii has to be long.

10 thoughts on “How to get a haircut in any country but France”

  1. I love this post as it truly reflects the cross-cultural experience in general, and very specifically in France. I have spent many long hours in hair salons from Paris to Lyon for regular cuts and highlights, and confirm that the coiffeur will inevitably ask you what you want, then proceed to do his or her version of it! Ironically, as a woman I also have often found it hard to get them to cut it as short as I would like – perhaps a bit more hair is just a French aesthetic? Never been to Japan but had lots of dealings with business partners – you capture the importance of politesse very well. As for the Yul Brynner look, wouldn’t waxing be an option?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was offered something that was wax-like, or possibly a cream. The lady seemed pretty disappointed that I demurred, so I gave in to being dusted with some sort of powder puff. Now my head smells like a…well, you know the colorful expression for when someone’s wearing cheap perfume.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Come on don’t drop any hope ! Some Venusians can land on our unfortunate planet and be kind with you .
    I have exactly the same hair situation and I also find it’s better very very short . But as I’m a sort of magician I always manage to get what I want . Your problem is puzzling me . I ask “Do it with a hair clipper, minimal length (0.8 mm)” . I show my Colt Python and I immediately get satisfaction .
    No kidding, ask “avec une tondeuse, longueur minimale” and show your gun if necessary .
    My best memory with barbers was in Brazil . I found a barber who worked like what we see in Western films, with this huge hand razor from horror movies . Lying back with my feet on a stool I felt like Robert Mitchum in Tombstone, and I’ve never been shaved so well in my life . It took two days more than usual for my beard to bother again .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve often considered the razor and do-it-yourself approach. However, there have been periods where the only social interaction I had all week outside of work was getting my hair cut, and I am loath (loathe?) to give that up. Plus, Nadine is coaching me on la bise, and I don’t feel like I really have it down yet!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, there’s another can of worms .
        I thought I’d finally got it; lean in to the right first?
        Not that simple.
        The rules are different in the south too.


  3. This “which side first” question from Anglo-Saxons always puzzled me too . If the person is quick I just follow the movement and if not I choose a side and the other always follows . The question is you never have to feel embarrassed, nobody else does .
    And I never cared how many bises around here either . I remain relax and ready to get the information from the other’s head movement if there are more than 2 bises, but I never impulse anything after the second one . This way you never find yourself hanging like a dummy . And I find 3 or 4 bises perfectly ridiculous . One bise is more intimate and can be a tender invitation and 2 was the norm when I was a child . The act of doing 3 or 4 is a new trend that appeared when the whole national context changed after the Hippies time . I always found it dumb and I always do 2, unless the other is hanging like a dummy . As I’m a nice boy I follow and if she’s a pretty girl I give her a French kiss instead .


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