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How to Explain the Haircut You Want to Your Barber or Stylist

Professional hairdresser making stylish haircut
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Few things are more exciting than visiting your barber or stylist to get a cool new haircut. But what should you do when they don’t quite seem to understand what you want?

The classic advice—“just bring a picture!”—won’t always cut it. A photo can provide a starting point, but it won’t answer all of your stylist’s questions about what you want.

If your hairstylist isn’t a mind-reader, you’ll need to learn to speak their language a little bit. Let’s delve into the tricks you can use to get what you want and prevent haircut regret.

Speak Like a Stylist: The Terms You Should Know

Are you using basic hair terms correctly? Here are the true definitions of some commonly misused styling words.

  • Inch: While an inch is a standard unit of measurement, it doesn’t always play out that way in the hair world. If you have curly hair, the inch that your stylish cuts off when your hair is wet can translate to a significantly shorter look once it dries. It’s best to refer to the place on your face or body where you want the ends of your hair to land, instead of the number of inches you want to remove.
  • Blunt: If you ask for a blunt style, you’re getting zero layers. The hair will be cut straight across, so it has equal weight from top to ends.
  • Bangs: Anytime you get shorter pieces of hair cut to fall above your eyes, you’re getting bangs. However, it’s not enough to just ask for bangs, because they come in a wide variety of styles, including blunt, side-swept, and more. If you want bangs, make sure you can describe exactly how you’d like them to look.
  • Layers: “Layers” refers to the shorter levels of hair within your overall cut. It’s a fairly straightforward term, but like bangs, there are many different types of layers. If you go to three stylists and ask them each simply for layers, you’ll get three very different cuts.

Choose Your Words Carefully

stylist coloring woman's hair
Viacheslav Nikolaenko/Shutterstock

These definitions will help you describe haircuts more accurately. But as someone who hasn’t devoted hundreds of hours to studying hair, you won’t be able to “talk like a hairstylist” when you’re in the stylist’s chair.

To account for this, take care with the descriptions you use, and keep in mind that you might be wrong about the definition of a cut, style, or color.

For example, even if you saw a picture on Instagram tagged #balayage, that doesn’t mean the term was used correctly. Instead of trying to use industry terms that you’re not super-familiar with, it’s a good idea to be extremely descriptive. Instead of asking for balayage, you could say, “I want highlights that look as natural as possible.”

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t familiarize yourself with the industry terms that describe what you want. Just make sure to describe the cut or style in visual terms first carefully, and then ask your stylist what that’s called. This will prevent miscommunications.

Once you ask your stylist to define a term, you’ll know exactly what to ask for next time. However, keep in mind that if you change barbers or stylists, they could have slightly different definitions of the same terms.

Focus on Pain Points

Marketers know that to sell a product, they need to focus on “pain points”: the problems that this product will help solve. When you describe the haircut you want, you should do something similar.

Instead of focusing on the final look you want, try mentioning the hair problems you want to solve. These might be styling issues (“It takes too long to make my hair look good in the morning”) or personal preferences (“I don’t like how flat my hair looks”). Then, your stylist can recommend the right cut to help you solve those problems.

Mention Your Routine

Sometimes, the haircut you want won’t mesh well with your daily routine. If you tell your stylist exactly how you style and care for your hair each day, they can help you avoid a cut that takes more maintenance than you want to keep up with.

Bring Multiple Photos

Ultimately, visuals are still your best bet when it comes to getting the haircut you truly want.

However, make sure you bring in different photos of the same style on different people to ensure your stylist understands. Then you can back up the images with verbal descriptions of your ideal length, look, and maintenance levels.

Getting the Cut You Want Every Time

closeup of hairdresser styling teen girl's hair
Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

These tips will help you communicate better with a new stylist (or communicate a new cut to an old stylist), so you never have to dread getting the wrong haircut.

However, keep in mind that you’re paying a stylist for their expertise. When you describe the style you want, they might tell you that it won’t work so well with your current length, texture, or lifestyle. If this happens, trust that they know what they’re talking about!

Listen to their advice, and consider any suggestions they make for alternative cuts instead. When you and your stylist work together, you can make bad haircuts a thing of the past.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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