My half-day at TEDxSomerville on Sunday was full of interesting talks, covering topics from the meaning of locks in society, to musings on computers and music, to what happened to all those Patriots Super Bowl t-shirts when they didn’t win (they were sent to Africa, and it’s not as good as it sounds).
But the talk that resonated most with me came from Clarence Smith, Jr., a local writer and publisher, whose topic was “barbershop knowledge.” He talked about his weekly trips to the barbershop (not always the same one) as a ritual, one that refreshed him both physically and mentally. You can learn a lot about a community, he said, by listening to, and participating in, the conversations in its barbershops – and you can spend that knowledge as currency long after you leave the chair.
As a guy who’s tried out his share of barbershops in an effort to find someone who can turn my vague instructions into consistently good results, I know what he’s talking about. The best barbershops have a vibe that you can’t quite replicate elsewhere, and offer a window into a cross-section of the community with which you might not otherwise interact.
It’s that interaction part that gets me, though. I’ve never been much good at the kind of idle talk that comes standard in most barbershops – and the more personality the shop has, the harder it can feel to break in, especially as a new customer. When it feels like everyone else knows each other and has been trading jokes and sports talk for years (as it does in my current barbershop), you don’t want to mess with the equilibrium.
The conversation topics aren’t typically the problem– though it’d help my current situation if I were a bigger Bruins fan, I’m generally comfortable talking sports, tv, and music (a popular topic at the pompadour-friendly barbershop I settled on in Chicago). But while I wouldn’t hesitate to offer fantasy football opinions to a friend, a coworker, or a new acquaintance at a party, I have more trouble doing it for the guy who’s cutting my hair, even if he’s loudly sharing his thoughts with anyone who will listen. The best I can do is offer a few vague answers about my plans for the weekend when engaged directly; mostly, I’m thankful that we’re not both sitting there in awkward, scissor-punctuated silence.
I could paint this passiveness as a positive thing, and say that the listening in itself has value, and that I’m really just soaking up all that sweet barbershop knowledge. But that’s just an excuse, and I know that I can’t claim to be a part of a community that I don’t really engage in. You’ve got to bring something to the table in order to take something away.
Beyond that, I recognize the ability to engage with anyone, regardless of your differences or the awkwardness of the situation — and to draw value from the experience — is something that many people I admire seem to have. It’s also a valuable career skill that I’d be wise to develop, and what better, low-stakes practice ground than a Friday afternoon at the local barbershop? Worst case, I end up feeling a little self-conscious, and maybe get a sub-par trim (it wouldn’t be the first time for either). More likely, I get a bit of a new perspective from someone new – just as I did on Sunday.
P.S. Kudos to all who put on TEDxSomerville, and for treating your volunteers so well. For five hours of my time, I got a front-row seat (speakers, that was me pointing an iPad timer at you), a sweet t-shirt, and a free lunch. Sign me up for 2013.