PARIS - What kind of haircuttee are you? Do you belong to the mute or the verbose category?
At the hair salon, we apparently tend to be rather predictable. "About six out of ten people will just listen to what the hairdresser says. The others mainly need someone to talk to," says Anthony Galifot, hairdresser in Nantes, a city in western France, and author of Autour du fauteuil [Around The Chair].
Although the phenomenon has not yet been documented, these new kinds of confessionals have significantly proliferated over the past 50 years. Goodbye churches, hello hair salons, beauty parlors, bookstores, art dealers, antique shops... And of course, cafés.
The explosion of social networks and all things digital over the last decade hasn’t changed anything. In real life, hundreds of thousands of service providers and shopkeepers find themselves dealing with their customers’ daily pains and woes.
Mothers struggling with teenagers, unfaithful partners, health problems... These wet-haired monologues can last anything from a couple a minutes to over an hour. "For about a year, clients have also started to talk more about work. They are afraid of being fired, or are stressed out because they have to juggle several jobs," says Johanna Cohen, a Paris-based beautician who says that about half her customers share their worries while getting a haircut.
"In these kinds of places, people place themselves in our hands, both physically and mentally," says Soledad Ottoné, who used to be a bookseller in Santiago, Chile.
"It’s important for people to find for someone to talk to– who’s not part of their family," adds Alexander, also a bookseller.
According to these modern-day confessors, sharing personal problems even follows certain rituals. "It’s when we cut their hair that people tend to engage, when our mouth is closest to their ear," explains Alain, a Parisian hairdresser. In beauty salons, it happens “during waxing, not massages," says Ms. Cohen, "when people are lying on their stomach and can’t look at us anymore."
At the bar however, people get talkative "after 11pm, when they can’t sleep because they’re not tired… Or too tired," says Arthur, a bartender who admits that his degree in sociology helps him maintain a certain distance with the customers. He says sometimes confessions can get a bit out of hand: "One day a man sat at the counter and bluntly greeted me with: ‘My father has just died.’"
"Last summer, while she was looking at a painting, a woman blurted out: ‘It’s the kind of blue my mother liked,’ and burst out crying," recalls Françoise Livinec, an art dealer.
These secular confessors can even manage to uncover their clients’ inner dilemmas. "The people who never know what haircut they want usually prove equally undecided when it comes to life decisions. Others just don’t like themselves and will never happy with the way they look, whatever the haircut," explains Gontran Sarret, former hairstylist at Paris’ luxurious Le Royal Monceau hotel, now a mobile hairdresser.
"I told a customer that in all the paintings he’d bring me, the skin of the characters was hidden," says Christian Deleruyelle, a picture framer. "My client was overcome with emotion and said: ‘I was beaten as a child.’ That’s when I knew it had gone too far."
What do the real shrinks have to say about all of this? The multiplication of these intimate revelations in shops and stores "is a symptom of a society that lacks human contact. From the moment it’s born, a baby needs milk and interactions with other people. Humans have adapted pragmatically and found new places where they could exchange with each other," explains psychoanalyst Monique Dechaud. The author of Cet autre divan [The Other Couch] admits that the shrink frenzy of the 1990s and dogmatic schools "might have hurt the reputation of psychologists/psychiatrists."
Françoise Livinec, a former psychologist in a psychiatric hospital, witnesses such moments of intimacy in her art gallery everyday in Paris, where she has created a "place for talking, a poetic museum where everything is for sale" (Ecoledesfilles.org) in Huelgoat, a village in western France. "We are living in a digital age, and friends told me I was crazy, but today where else is there still room for human interactions?" she asks.
Visitors can opt to deliver their confessions on camera, and have the videos posted on YouTube. The cloud is thus becoming the new custodian of confessions -- digital ones, that is.