A cut and blow–dry . . . and a lecture on my drinking, please

If you think it’s intrusive enough when your hairdresser asks you about holiday plans, then brace yourself. They could soon be giving you impromptu lectures about your drinking habits.

Inspired by research showing that hairdressers can be the perfect delivery mechanism for public health messages, a local authority has begun to educate its trainee beauticians and barbers on the dangers of drink, with a view to passing the facts on to customers.

“This training is a novel way of promoting healthy advice and lifestyle tips,” said Faisal Shoukat, Calderdale council’s cabinet member of public health, who helped to introduce the scheme at the college in Halifax.

“Working in the hair and beauty industry, the students would have the opportunity to provide lifestyle advice outside of a clinical setting, hopefully having a positive impact on their clients.”

The idea has split the council, with James Baker, leader of the Liberal Democrat councillors in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, calling it sinister and Orwellian. He said: “It seems really creepy to me that you’re training people to influence conversations with other people, who are unaware. This feels manipulative.”

Mr Baker said that he had taken up the issue with his fellow councillors, and was told: “Hairdressers are just being asked to give accurate information about alcohol and not collude with a narrative about getting hammered without thinking of risks.”

This worried him even more, Mr Baker said. “So having a conversation with your hairdresser about the office party and getting a bit drunk is now colluding?”

The councillors do have science on their side. A growing body of research has focused on the use of hairdressers to promote public health, because they see a large cross section of the community in a less formal setting than a clinic. Studies have shown that they can be effective in, for instance, encouraging women to have cancer screening.

Paul Butcher, Calderdale council’s director of public health, said: “Chatting with a hairdresser or beautician could be the first step in people recognising they have an issue with alcohol.”

Whether this was true was beside the point, Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs think tank, said. “This is a sneaky way for councils to lecture residents about their private lives,” he said. “It abuses a bond of trust and turns hairdressers into agents of the state.” He added: “I expect hairdressers will refuse to go along with this Orwellian scheme, but not before the council has spent thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money pursuing it.”

Conversational etiquette at the salon
Hairdressers Journal International suggests fallback questions every stylist should learn when making small talk:

  1. Have you been on holiday?
  2. Any plans for the weekend?
  3. Where did you last have your hair cut?
  4. Did you see The X Factor/Big Brother/Strictly Come Dancing?

If these seem superficial, This Ugly Beauty Business, an online magazine for beauty workers, says that is inevitable. Hairdressers should always be aware the conversation can be overheard, so “Keep the conversation clean. Do not ask overly personal questions.”

There is evidence that this has been a challenge for millennia. The Roman jokebook Philogelos contains an exchange with a barber. “How would you like me to cut your hair?” asked the barber of his client. “In silence,” came the reply.

Stella Turner
Stella Turner

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