Monday, September 9, 2013

Haircut From Hell - The Sequel

About a year ago I wrote a blog post about an uncomfortable moment I had at my local barbers shop. Midway through having a haircut, my elderly barber distracted himself by asking me a load of questions (about being German, of all things!), and in doing so accidentally cut my ear open with his scissors. hurt! And the awkwardness that followed was definitely heightened by the fact that, at the time, my Portuguese skills were poor at best (The blog post on it is here: getting-by-in-brazilwithout-much.html), so I was unable to say to him what I really wanted to! Which on reflection, might not have been such a bad thing, because what I wanted to say wouldn't have been so plesant!

Well the incident I am about to describe wasn't nearly as painful, however it ended up being just as surprising. And again, it happened whilst I was sat in a barber’s chair.

So, let me take you back to a few weeks ago, when I walked into the barbers, only to be told by the receptionist that the guy who usually trims my barnet had moved on to pastures new. As I was being told this a rather strongly built, full bosomed woman popped her head up from behind the gossip magazine she was reading. Seeing the disappointed look on my face, she stood up up to vacate the chair her ample buttocks had been resting on, and announced quite firmly “well I’m free”.

Judging from the husk in her voice I was clearly very lucky to have caught her outside of one of her smoking breaks.

“Where are you from” she asked as she draped a gown over me.

“England” I responded. I'm pretty sure she didn't hear me though, what with her struggling to tame that pretty unruly cough she had going on. My answer prompted her to tell me that she was from the north of Brazil, why she came to Sao Paulo in the first place and also where she lives now. Then after exhausting that part of her life story she asked me; “And how long have you been here?”

“About three years” I responded, which then encouraged her to answer her own question and tell me about her family. I remember being amazed at how for the twenty minutes I was with her, she willingly divulged a whole load of stories about herself without the need to even be prompted.

About ten minutes into me being there though, she abruptly stopped talking at me and began contemplating the top of my head. At this point I'd already become accustomed to the sound of her relentless voice for a good ten minutes and so the unexpected silence that followed was actually a little unnerving.

My gaze moved from watching her cut my hair in the mirror, to fixing my eyes on her deadpan face.

“Well” she began, “there’s not much hair here, is there?”

She said this quite dryly, without so much as a flicker of humour attached to those words. For a few seconds I was genuinely lost for something to say.


I remember asking this more for the sake of saying something than for wanting to hear her repeat herself.

“I said", she responded, as if talking to a slow learning child, "not much hair on top, is there?”

Again I looked at her in surprise; I mean, what was I supposed to say to this!?! It clearly hadn't occurred to her that this was an inappropriate thing to be saying to me, a first time customer!

I mean, I know that my hair is not of a Rod Stewart thickness, but I really didn't expect someone who cuts hair for a living to be so surprised by what I've got going on up on top! And I certainly didn't appreciate someone wearing a green on green tracksuit talking down to me either!

Amused by her rudeness I began to laugh, and instead of her acknowledging me doing so she moved on from talking about my hair to herself again!

So as she continued with her story I started to wonder if I should be offended, or respect her for being so direct. I saw in her face that she clearly hadn't intended to cause any offense though; she was just saying it how she saw it. A little bit like a Brazilian Simon Cowell.

Although having been on the receiving end of his bluntness before, in comparison…well, this woman was definitely something else!
"Nope, never had that problem Andrew!"

The next day, when I mentioned this incident to my students they looked quite surprised. Yet as soon as I told them that this woman was from the north of Brazil, their faces brightened, as if what I'd just told them suddenly all made all the sense in the world.

“Brazilians from the north are quite different to those in the south” said one of my students. “Here in Sao Paulo people are always rushing around, and this is generally reflected in the way people interact with each other here. They're not so friendly in comparison. People in the north are a lot more open though, they have more time to talk and they also have more time to give advice. I guess that they are more personal with each other”.

'Personal', I remember thinking....well that is definitely one word to describe this woman who cut my hair!

And this got me the time I've been here and attempted to get my head around Brazilian culture, I've often overlooked the fact that this culture extends MUCH further north than Sao Paulo and Rio. I am in no doubt that my barber's bluntness in no way reflects how everyone living in the north behaves (or even thinks about hair!) but I'm now quite curious to take another trip north to see if these people really are so different to their southern counterparts. I have one student from the north who is one of the politest people I've ever met, and he definitely doesn't adhere to this generalisation. But now I'm very curious to see if there is any element of truth to what my students told me....even if this means I'm going to feel more comfortable visiting the north of Brazil with a huge hair piece on!

What do you think? Are the people living in the north of Brazil all that different to those living in the south? 


  1. Yes, quite different! More interesting and friendly, I think...

    1. Hey JPO, I have always thought Paulistanos were already quite friendly. So I am quite interested in making a return trip to the north now I accustomed to people in Sao Paulo, to see how much friendlier they are there!

  2. This kind of approach, a brazillian acting like your best friend with less than one hour you met them, is quite common. The behaviour of this lady is the rule. Sao Paulo is the exception.

    I'm from Rio de Janeiro (not far from Sao Paulo) and we cariocas are like this as well. Now I live in Sao Paulo and I'd say sometimes I miss that. It is rare to stay in a long queue in Rio without being approached by someone also suffering from the long wait just to gossip.

    You made me remember once I was in Rio for a visit and went to a barber shop. Next to me was a german customer with a strong accent but a perfect grammar and fluency and obviously he and the hair dresser started talking about their lives and the german told him one of the things he found most unpleasant was the roads. Some of them were too good and the majority had a poor asphalt.

    And even for my surprise the hair dresser started explaining all the historic and regulatory issues that generates this discrepancy between roads, even crossing roads. It was a deep lecture about our goverment, laws, economic cycles, everything regarding roads.

    1. Hey Kurt, thanks for stopping by to comment. As a British guy who moved here straight from Japan, the Brazilians I met being so friendly took some getting used to...and I'm clearly still not all that used to it yet, judging from this visit to the barbers! Ha ha!

      And I enjoyed the story about the German too, my barber didn't give me the opportunity to ask many questions!!!

  3. I'm pretty sure she meant to be funny with that bit about your (lack of) hair. I'm from the north and people around here tend to make jokes with people they don't even know. Sometimes it's irritating, sometimes is hella funny. it just depends on the receiving end I guess.

    1. Her face was expressionless as she said this, but thinking about it, maybe I underestimated this old ladies sense of humour!!! I've had a lot of interesting comments about the north of Brazil, maybe it's time to make plans to go back. Thanks for the comment Romulo, I appreciate it!