Splitting Hairs: Men Talk and Women Yak?

03/27/2008 03:54 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

From his hometown and mine---Chappaqua, New York---New York Times columnist Peter Applebome recently chronicled the impact of the Bear Stearns crisis (Metro Section, March 20, 2008) on the local folks. With great sympathy, he described the economic woes of the predominantly male commuters boarding the 6:13AM Metro North train into Manhattan---those affected directly and indirectly by the downtown on Wall Street.

But then his comments turned nasty. He wrote, "At Donna Hair Designs in Chappaqua, the financial meltdown barely registered on the yakometer when compared with the embarrassment of riches from the political world....," referring to the discussions taking place all over the western world about the Spitzer sex saga.

I don't know why Applebome's vision of what women talk about is so skewed and limited. Perhaps, his foils were hanging too low over his ears while he was eavesdropping on our conversations.

Yes, men accuse women of "yakking," a condescending term (oddly enough, derived from the long-haired ox of Tibet). But when it comes to clinching hard-to-get appointment at a hair salon, it isn't simply about getting your hair done. Just like old-fashioned barbershops once were for men, contemporary hair shops are vital epicenters of in-person communication for women. Sometimes, the wash, cut, color and highlights are ancillary to other reasons for the visit.

Women truly connect in a hair shop. They form close emotional ties with their stylists, male and female. Like dating, if the personalities don't click, the relationships break up quickly and the client moves on until she lands "the one." When stylist and client do connect, the relationship is likely to be meaningful and long-lasting. Clients move out-of-town but they come back to Donna's to get their hair done. Donna has blow-dried three generations in some families. She's attended their weddings, christenings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals.

The hair salon is one of the few places (other than a blood bank) where multi-tasking women finally get to sit-down, think about the important issues on their minds, and talk about them to someone who is ready to listen. The stylist hovering over a head is in a perfect position (except for the din of the dryers) ---to question, counsel, and provide advice and information.

What do talking heads---reds, blonds, brunettes, and grays---talk about? They discuss marital and sexual problems (not only Spitzer's, but also their own). They talk about their health problems, some of which are too embarrassing to talk about to their boyfriends or doctors. They ask where their friend undergoing chemotherapy can get a natural-looking wig and where they can find a financial advisor or lawyer.

They complain about unfair teachers in the elementary schools, bullies in the middle schools, and high school kids gone wild. They solicit recommendations for finding a responsive pediatrician for their children, a therapist for their kid sister, or a compassionate geriatrician for their parents. They whisper about husbands who have been laid off or who work incessantly, and network with other successful career women---often finding serendipitous ways to enhance each other's careers. They confess when they haven't been a good friend or when a friend has dumped on them.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, especially in Paris, many sophisticated women gathered regularly at a "salon" in the home of a gifted hostess to learn from one other and refine their tastes. The same traditions of the "salon" of yesteryear bring women together at hair salons today. It's place where women can let their hair down, talk, and share accumulated wisdom on a range of topics affecting them and their families.

Some balding men just don't get it.

Irene S. Levine, PhD is writing a book about female friendships that will be published by Overlook Press in January 2009 .