On Small Talk

On Small Talk


The shop was small, tucked away underneath an apartment building on Sixth Avenue. I ducked my head as I walked down the steps, and a small bell chimed as I stepped out of the frosty wind and into the linoleum-floored barbershop. My fingers burned as they defrosted near the furnace.

I checked my watch one last time, making sure I was right on time for my appointment. 11:30 on the dot. “Hi, I’m Maxton,” I announced rather loudly. “Hello, Maxton, come on over,” Emanuel said, not even glancing up from his table of tools. “You can set your stuff right over there,” he added after seeing me fumble with my tote and Sherpa coat.

I took a breath, reassuring myself that it was perfectly fine for me to scramble to pick up the loose change that fell from my coat. I timidly made my way to his chair, placing my feet on both sides of the footstool before sitting down to show Emanuel that I knew how to get into a barber’s chair.

“So. What are we doing today?” He asked, staring at me through the mirror. I rambled on about tapers and fades and keeping my hair long on the top. He raised an eyebrow, and I took that as my cue to let him ask his questions for clarification. “What do you normally start with on the sides?” he asked, his Italian accent coming through. “Uh, a two normally. I think,” I replied. I failed to hide the uncertainty in my voice.

“How ‘bout we start with a three? I can take some more off, but I can’t put anything back,” he replied, eliciting a chuckle from me. “A three sounds great to me. I trust you!” I said, trying to convince myself that Emanuel was going to take care of me and the hair on my head.

He started on the sides of my head, the buzzing of his razor was deafening in the silence. I nearly jumped when Emanuel broke the silence; he did so rather loudly in his empty shop.

Emanuel: You from here?

Me: Oh, no, I just moved here for college, but I’m from Arkansas.

Emanuel: Ah. Ar-Kansas. What school you going to? NYU?

Me: Yeah, yeah.

Emanuel: What are you studying?

My eyes widened as I thought about how to explain my concentration at Gallatin. Emanuel seemed cool, and I didn’t want to come off as too nerdy. I rambled on about education and international relations before punctuating my reply with a “So, yeah.”

“Nice, nice,” said Emanuel. I was discouraged by his lack of commentary.

Emanuel, tilting my head to shape the hair along my ears: So, you living in the dorms?

Me: Yeah, yeah.

Emanuel: How’s that all work? Living in the dorm?

I began to explain the different styles of rooms, the pre-semester quarantine, and the lack of social events.

Emanuel: I had some NYU boys in here the other day. They said they can’t get any ladies into their rooms!

Me, laughing: Yeah! Some kids got smart and began swapping ID cards in order to get into other dorms.

Emanuel: Well what else were they going to do? Go into the Washington-whatever Park and pay a crackhead to hold the flashlight after dinner?

I laughed, getting more comfortable in my seat. He put down his clippers and went for scissors.

Emanuel asked about my plans for Thanksgiving, and I told him I would spend my day working.

Emanuel: Oh, you work? In college?

Me: Yeah, I unfortunately am not going to school on Mommy and Daddy’s money.

Emanuel: Where you working?

Me: I work at the Starbucks a few minutes away actually. West Houston and Broadway.

Emanuel, correcting me: House-ton.

Me: Yeah, yeah. West House-ton.

Emanuel, beginning to trim the top of my hair: If I come see you, will you give me a real, heavy drink? With good espresso and milk? Not all that foam?

Me: Yeah, I can give you a killer latte.

Emanuel, waving his hands in the air like a true Italian: A latte! Yes!

Me: Don’t worry, I won’t screw you over and give you a cappuccino.

Emanuel: Thank you! Other coffee places, I’ll go and the barista will just be like “Meh, fuck you! I give you all foam and little milk!” and I’m a pretty nice guy, so I don’t usually say anything. But sometimes I just want a real latte! I want it heavy! With milk! I don’t want foam! I can steam shitty milk at home!

Me, laughing: Oh I know it. If you come into my store, I’ve got you. A real latte, no foam.

He nodded his head and went back to cutting my hair, ending the vibrant coffee small talk. The silence became comfortable. At least I knew we could talk about coffee and steamed milk.

Emanuel: Italians know about their coffee. We know about our coffee and we know that nona will yell at us if we skip Sunday Mass.

Me: I know, I know! My dad is actually Italian, and my nona would never let us leave on a Saturday night. We had to leave on Sunday afternoon and had to make sure to cross ourselves in front of her four-foot statue of Mother Theresa.

Emanuel: Nonas. I’ll tell you. You full-bred Italian?

I breathed a sigh of relief getting off the talk about Mass. I didn’t want to risk revealing the fact that I’m no longer a practicing Catholic and make a dent in the progress we’ve made in our small talk. It was not a line I was comfortable with crossing.

Me: No, no. My mom is German. My nona had a fit when my dad didn’t marry a nice Italian girl.

Emanuel: Well as long as she is faithful, she takes care of her husband, she respects your husband, then she is a good wife. She doesn’t have to be Italian to be a good wife. It’s the respect that matters.

I went back to uncomfortably shifting in the chair at the old-school ideas of a woman’s place being in the home. Yet, another line I was not willing to cross. I figured I probably shouldn’t let him know my parents are divorced.

Me: Yeah, yeah, right! My nona and mom get along great now.

Emanuel: Good, good.

The silence remained heavy throughout the rest of the haircut, between the occasional “How’s this looking,” and holding a mirror up to the back of my head. These were the only times I actually looked up to see Emanuel’s round, stubbly face.

The thirty minutes of small talk and styling ended with a final blow dry and look in the mirror.

Emanuel: You look sexy now!

Me, laughing, not knowing how to reply to being called sexy by a middle-aged man: Thank you! Thank you!

I made sure to leave a good tip, and I was on my way. Emanuel gave me a wave through the window, and I turned my back on his shop.

I thought about my thirty minutes in Emanuel’s shop all the way back to my dorm room, and I kept staring at myself in the mirror, recalling his almost aggressively enthusiastic thoughts on local coffee. Trips to the barbershop have always been quite an experience in my eyes—there’s an environment unique to each store and to each barber’s chair, but Emanuel was the only barber in his shop. He was the owner and sole barber. Everything about the shop was his: his tools, his designs, his energy.

I remember the environment and our small talk than I actually remember Emanuel’s face. I would not be able to recognize him if he walked into my Starbucks. Any tall, balding, middle-aged Italian man could walk up to me in my store, and I would wonder if it was Emanuel. Despite our proximity to each other, there was little to no face-to-face interaction. Between the face masks and limited chances for eye contact made in the mirror, there were no facial expressions to read, no body language to interpret. We were just talking at each other, filling the silence as Emanuel cut my hair. This is also why I chose to blend play and prose, to demonstrate the way we were talking at each other, while also including the thoughts and feelings I was experiencing throughout the encounter.

I was paying him for a service, yet we were attempting to create a basic bond. After all, Emanuel wants my business, and I want a barber I can rely on, so the small talk is meant to create just enough of a bond to keep me coming back.

It’s odd how uncomfortable making small talk is, yet all relationships bloom out of small talk. Every relationship has to start with the awkward introductions, questions, and extended silences until a level of comfort is reached that deepens conversation. Small talk is quite an intimate endeavor when it comes to barbershops. A near stranger, who is largely out of direct sight for the duration of the haircut, is in control over quite a large part of someone’s appearance. In a way, small talk aims to ease the fear that can come with trying a new barber or hair stylist.

The small talk I experienced in a New York City barber shop was unlike small talk I have experienced anywhere else. The lines between conversational and cultural boundaries were blurred extensively. In Arkansas, a barber would never ask the race of a previous barber. However, Emanuel had no hesitation in asking if my old barber was white, Black, Asian, or Latinx. I was almost visibly surprised by his question; I had never had that boundary crossed before.

Emanuel’s passionate coffee commentary was the clearest indicator of different conversational norms in the city, as such an outburst of emotion would likely make most patrons uncomfortable in an Arkansan barber shop. However, here, these outbursts are a normal part of small talk.

The previous barber I had tried in New York City, for example, went on a charismatic rant about quarantining and Covid-19 safety precautions, including his opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement. Small talk like this in Arkansas would certainly be crossing a boundary. I was thoroughly uncomfortable, and it deterred me from returning to his shop again.

Though the content of Emanuel’s passionate small talk varied from that of my first New York barber, they both demonstrated the cultural norms of conversation in New York City. The boundaries can easily be shocking and unsettling for people not accustomed to or raised in a similar environment. Despite the regional differences in boundaries within small talk, small talk still serves a similar purpose across varying norms, as it unveils possible sources of similar experiences and opinions that can foster meaningful relationships.

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