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Linda Raymond

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For Anxious Salongoers, the Quiet Chair Offers a Less Chatty Option

No more small talk.

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I stopped getting my hair cut in 2009. I told myself I wanted to grow it out again — I’d drastically cut it into a pixie cut in 2006, and began the long process of growing it back out three years later. Doing so was initially an aesthetic choice; it was only later, when my generalized anxiety disorder became unbearable, that sitting in a salon chair just to get a trim became an impossibility. It grew steadily, without even a trim, until Thanksgiving 2013, when I chopped it off into a pixie cut again.

As an anxious person, haircuts have always been a source of consternation for me. When I was young, I would go with my mom to appointments and the stylist would cut my hair while my mom’s hair dye was doing its thing. Appointments were filled with awkward nods and fake smiles as the stylist grilled me about school and movies, eventually giving up and turning back to my mom for more than a monosyllabic answer.

Hair salons have long been centers of social life — people return to the same stylist over and over, and part of the job is learning how to make small talk with your clients so they feel at ease while in your chair. But for a few salons around the world, stylists are beginning to recognize that small talk is the very thing that makes some clients uncomfortable. So salons have begun offering “quiet chairs” — an alternative method of getting a haircut, where you simply tell the stylist what you want, and nothing more. No chit-chat. No explaining what you do. No questions about your life. It’s simply… quiet.

The practice began in the UK, with a chain of salons called Bauhaus. Those salons made headlines around the world with the announcement of the concept, with reactions divided between those who felt conversation was an integral part of the salon experience and those who were happy that they wouldn’t have to make annoying small talk again. Indeed, when I posed this question to friends, many felt torn, with some seeing conversation as part of the reason a person goes to the salon, and others criticizing how this demonstrates a millennial disdain for human contact. Others saw the benefits, but felt they’d never be able to put up with it themselves.

In some ways, a trend toward quiet chairs reflects a trend toward constant customization of one’s experience of the world — the oft-criticized barricading of oneself into a “safe space.” But for people with mental illnesses triggered by uncomfortable social interaction, quiet chairs offer an alternative to experiences that often produce a spike in anxiety. Even a casual question can be triggering for people with abusive or problem-filled pasts.

One of the benefits to these practices, radio host and mental health writer Katie Klabusich believes, is that compulsory interaction can be extremely draining for people with anxiety and other mental health struggles. Klabusich says: “We have very few standard, socially acceptable ways to decline conversation when someone attempts to engage us — especially when they have us captive like in a car or, as with your example, in a chair with scissors in their hand.” The struggle to disengage from such conversation is mentally taxing and often exhausting, especially as it often acts a trigger for anxious episodes.

A couple of years after Bauhaus launched its quiet chairs, a salon in Minneapolis followed its lead and added quiet chairs of its own. Fox Den Salons, which has two locations in the Uptown area of Minneapolis, added both an online scheduling system and a quiet chair option. As an anxious person who lives in the area, I decided to try them out.

I arrived at the salon on a rainy Friday afternoon, and it was quiet. There was one other client there to get her hair dyed — Fox Den is known for its vibrant dye jobs and styles outside the norm, which is why I trusted it with my pixie undercut, which has perplexed stylists in the past. I confirmed with the receptionist that I was there for a quiet chair appointment, and the stylist confirmed what I said in my prior email about my cut and got to work.

At first, the silence was awkward. I’m so accustomed to compulsory interaction with the stylist that it first seemed even more rude not to be answering or asking questions. I always come to appointments with a prepared, rehearsed set of answers for the common small-talk questions, and it felt strange not to employ them. But after a bit, I noticed the stylist was absorbed in her work on my hair, and I proceeded to drift into a daydream. I relaxed so completely that the stylist actually checked to make sure I was awake.

Once I grasped that we had both agreed to a complete upending of the social contract, the appointment was one of the smoothest I’d ever had. I moved to the area just this year, and had been struggling to find a place that felt comfortable and calming to get my hair cut. I’ve been going in sporadically, waiting until my hair became unbearably shaggy before taking anti-anxiety meds and bracing myself for the experience.

As a result, I’d been bouncing between cheap salons that take walk-ins, hoping I’d be able to find someone along the way who would know exactly what I was looking for. This method worked about as well as you’d predict — I’d occasionally walk out with something I’d have to cover with a cap for a couple of days until it settled into normal.

Photo: Haosi Chen / EyeEm

Fox Den stylist Sica Dawn told local radio station WCCO that the quiet chairs are meant as a break for people with anxiety: “Anxiety is, it’s nonstop for a lot of people, just to have a place where they can come and zone out and not have to worry about social norms and fitting into social standards.”

Twin Cities family therapist Melissa Tyler agrees: “Although I know some people need social interaction, the quiet chair would allow them to still be around people, but be however they need to be.” It can be beneficial for people with different illnesses that are strained or triggered by seemingly innocuous questions, Tyler says. She continues: “Stylists are often (not always, but often) very friendly and curious about their ... clients’ lives, so being able to ask for a space where they can just ‘be’ sounds soothing. I think it would also benefit people who suffer from PTSD or trauma, have auditory sensitivity, or any slew of anxiety disorders.”

Being able to have a few moments in a day where nothing is expected of you other than to sit up and turn your head a little as needed? That can be a balm to people with anxiety. Klabusich — who is diagnosed with generalized anxiety and ADHD, among other things — says quiet chairs give anxious people the opportunity to go through daily life without having the additional burden of being “entertainment” to other people through casual interaction. “I want a more widespread understanding that the strangers in your vicinity don’t owe you the emotional labor of entertaining you. Not on a plane, not in a bar, not in a line, not in the aisles of the grocery store,” she says.

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