Kenneth Sharpe

Kenneth Sharpe

Practical Wisdom

What Hairdressers Can Teach Us about Practical Wisdom

What we can learn from hairdressers

Posted Dec 29, 2010

    The term practical wisdom sounds like an oxymoron to modern ears. We tend to think of "wisdom" as the opposite of "practical." Wisdom is about abstract, ethereal matters like "the way" or "the good" or "the truth" or "the path." And we tend to think that wisdom is something for sages, gurus, rabbis, and scholars-for white-bearded wizards like Harry Potter's mentor, Dumbledore. Aristotle's teacher, Plato, shared this view that wisdom was theoretical and abstract, and the gift of only a few. But Aristotle disagreed. He thought that our fundamental social practices constantly demanded choices-like when to be loyal to a friend, or how to be fair, or how to confront risk, or when and how to be angry-and that making the right choices demanded wisdom. The utterly mundane, on-the-ground nature of practical wisdom was brought home to us by Mike Rose's discussion of hairdressers in his insightful book The Mind At Work.

    Vanessa stands behind Lynn as she sits in the small barber's chair in the trendy salon. She moves her fingers skillfully through Lynn's hair, gesturing with her hands to indicate shape and movement, and chitchatting. "How did you like the last haircut" she asks. How did it handle? Was it easy to manage? What's bugging you now? Does it feel heavy up front? Lynn answers these questions, describing what she wants, relying on adjectives that have more to do with feeling than shape. She wants the cut "freshened," wants it "sassy."


    To cut Lynn's hair well, Vanessa needs a certain technical know how. How dense is the hair, what's its texture (coarse, medium, fine), the wave pattern (straight, wavy, curly), its porosity and elasticity-characteristics that can be affected by the client's history of hair treatments-coloring, perming relaxing, styling.


    There are no simple rules for how to cut a particular kind of hair. A client does not simply have wavy hair; she more likely has wavy hair on some parts of the scalp and relatively straight on others. Moreover, says Rose: the variables interact: "both texture and porosity for example affect the way a coloring agent takes in the hair, and the color of the hair will combine with the texture and the shape of the cut to affect the final appearance of the hair, the way light plays off it, its sheen and movement."
As crucial as this kind of practical know-how is, there is something more to good hairstyling. Lynn wants the cut "freshened." She wants to look "sassy." Vanessa needs to figure out what this means. And this turns out to demand a great deal of practical wisdom. Take the problem of figuring out who decides on the cut and style.
"When you first get out of beauty school," one stylist explained to Rose, "you feel like a zealot, looking at everyone with a kind of vampire vision and thinking about what you want to do to them. But you eventually learn that it's not [your duty] to make them as you think they should be." The obvious alternative is to simply give the client what she wants. Vanessa could put her considerable technical skills and know-how at the service of the client's wishes. She could respect client autonomy as medical ethics tells doctors to do, acting as the "hired scissors" of her client. If academic ethicists turned their attention to hairstyling they would start talking about the importance of client autonomy, freedom of choice. Who knows: you might even have to sign a consent form before your hair is cut, permed or dyed. But giving your client such freedom is problematic.


     "Don't assume you know what they want, because they may not even know what they want," explained one stylist. Lynn wants her cut "freshened"; she wants to look "sassy." But what does that mean to Lynn? The client's words and instructions are helpful but only up to a point. Clients may say: "'I want an inch off,' and show you two inches with their fingers." Vanessa has to interpret what all this means, and at the same time that she is interpreting, she is also advising and counseling, to help Lynn figure out what she wants-or maybe even reconsider what she wants.


    You might think that pictures would be the solution: "Here, look at this. This is what I want." How could a stylist go wrong meeting her client's desires if she gives the client exactly what is in the picture? But if you make a client's hair match the model's in the picture, you're likely to disappoint the client, because the client's features and hair are different from the model's.


    What the client is really saying with the picture is that I want "the feel" I see in the picture. The good stylist needs not only the technical know-how to translate this feel into a cut. She also needs the practical wisdom to help the client figure out what this feel is. That means knowing the client, not just knowing the technique. The ongoing conversation, says Rose, fosters an understanding of the client's life, which contributes to the stylist's ability to interpret and enact the client's request. As one stylist puts it: to "discern what the client is truly asking me to do."


    When Rose talked to some of the clients about their stylists they praised them because the stylist was a good listener, "respects what I want," "cuts it the way I like it," "sees what I mean." A word commonly used is "understand"-the stylist "understands my hair."


     The good stylist, then, needs the practical wisdom to do this continual balancing act between her own aesthetics and the client needs. Shandra, the owner of a salon in Los Angeles that caters primarily to an African American clientele, reflects on this balancing act. "You have two human beings, one trying to render a service, the other trying to let you know what [they want]. You two were on separate sheets of music for a minute, and how you're bringing them together."


     There is something else that hair stylists can teach us about practical wisdom: there are pressures in business environments that can undermine it. Hairstylists earn their living by giving service and there is the risk that the service and the business can conflict in ways that drives the wisdom out of the practice. "There are plenty of stylists out there," says Rose, "whose work is dominated by the economic motive and mainstream beauty ideology, happy to push products and costly services." If the salon pressures a stylist to sacrifice quality for quantity-to sell as many services or to make as high a profit on hair products as possible, the pressure can shift the balance from service toward manipulation.


    But Rose says he was struck by the moments when stylists, contrary to their economic self-interest, tried to talk clients out of something that was unnecessary, or unhealthy, or unattractive. They would refuse to wave, relax, or color hair that they determined to be already over treated. They would recommend cuts based on their aesthetic judgment rather than by the dollar amount of the service. Or they would recommend a particular cut because it required less maintenance or would last longer. They would contest mainstream beauty ideals, educate clients about the good products and not just try to sell the most profitable ones.


    Lawyers could learn a lot from good hairstylists-like how to counsel clients and help them figure out their best interests instead of being simply hired guns or zealous advocates. Doctors could learn a lot too: how to balance the paternalism of the expert who often knows best with respect for the autonomy of the patient to choose for herself. And not just lawyers and doctors. All of us.