The Shanghai Haircut

(This story actually happened to a friend of mine, and I decided to use it as the inspiration for this post.)

The language barrier in Shanghai was easily the most difficult difference that I had to deal with when I was there – owing to the fact that I could not understand any of the sign-age, read any of the menus, or communicate with anyone about anything.  As time went by (and with the help of a few mandarin lessons) us interns slowly started to pick up a few bits and pieces which we could use when ordering food, or topping up our phone’s airtime, but never enough that could facilitate a ‘give and take’ kind of conversation – where something was discussed or negotiated.  We could only manage simple command driven conversations followed by a courtesy “Xiexie” after they had figured out what we wanted.

Enter the haircut.

One thing that did strike me, was how many hair salons there are in Shanghai.  Without exaggerating, I think in the 2km radius around our apartment – I think I saw at least 9 or 10 different salons.  So a lack of choice wasn’t the problem.  It was what ensued once you walked through those doors and gifted some Chinese man with the honour of sculpting your magnificent mane, after a 10 minute conversation of sign language, desperately trying to illustrate what you wanted done with your hair.  It must have been terrifying.

You would think as a man (my friend), a simple haircut - short, back and sides – would be relatively easy, and wouldn’t take too long.  But after sitting for an hour in the chair, my friend’s hair still wasn’t finished and understandably he was getting quite frustrated.  The hairdresser was painfully cutting his hair inch by inch, and it appeared that he really had no idea what he was doing.  After swallowing as much of it as he could, my friend called over his boss and asked him just to clean it up so he could leave – he had no desire to spend 5 hours in the hair salon.

The boss then proceeded to aggressively reprimand his little apprentice and quickly cleaned up my friend’s hair before sending him on his way.  As it turned out, the salon operated on a public hierarchy system where each hairdresser charged a different amount, obviously depending on his experience, skills and whatever else hairdressing is evaluated on.  Clearly my friend had opted for the rookie of the salon (who was the cheapest) and had paid the price with his precious time.  If he had paid more for the boss to cut his hair, he would have saved himself a lot of time and stress.


After hearing about this over dinner the next night, it occurred to me – I wonder how the junior hairdresser felt after beingreprimanded like that in front of a customer.  Hierarchy in the salon had dictated to him that he was the least able, the least valuable and the bottom of the range choice.

Perhaps that was the reason that he took over an hour to perform a simple cut?

Perhaps he was so desperate to “not screw things up” that he got the jitters?

Of course, I don’t know anything about the man, or the salon itself – but if we look past the mere facts and at the undertones – I feel it may be very relevant to a lot of businesses today.

Every business has a hierarchy system, whether explicit or implicit.  This is natural, to create order and a food chain – which encourages enthusiasm and hard work to get up the ladder.

But when does it become a disincentive?

At what point does the lowly employee start to believe what is being dictated to him?

The hierarchy at the salon was publicly displayed (by way of the price differences) and therefore placed tremendous pressure on those whose work was not considered as valuable.  Do you think that this inspires the employees to improve?  Or does it suppress the employee’s enthusiasm and self-worth?

Hierarchies are a part of life and they keep things in order (relatively).

But perhaps the alarming psychological effects point to the fact that we should be looking at other methods?