Hearing what they don’t see and accessing by only what they hear
I didn’t have to be at work till 12noon that day, which granted me time. Time to stay in bed a little longer, there are breakfast sandwiches in the freezer after all or I could get up. I could get up and cook breakfast, sit at the dining room table, eat and enjoy coffee in a cup instead of a thermos. I opted to stay in bed a little longer, maybe my day would have ended better had I chose to get up. There were people already waiting when I walked into the salon. Two stylists (the openers) had customers in their chairs. Kate the Salon Manager and I were setting up our stations to take our first customers of the day. The flow of regulars was steady, typical for a clear day with temps in the 40’s in mid-January. Most were in a good mood expressing their delight for the unseasonably warmer temps and lack of significant snowfall. Kate and I had back-to-back cuts most of the afternoon and into the evening. We received a call from a customer that wanted pricing for a shampoo and blowout service. I gave her the price for the shampoo, and then let her know that the blowout price would depend on the density and length of her hair. She arrived around 5:30 pm and, by chance it was my turn to take the next customer, which was the caller! She was young, around 5’6 counting the 2” heeled black booties, average size, wearing black leggings, black tee and a long black sweater. Her medium blondish brown hair was long, reaching below her shoulder blades. Her hair, from her scalp to her shoulders, was mostly virgin with a few highlights. Her hair from her shoulders down had been lightened and was damaged.
I placed a cape on her and then escorted her to the shampoo sink. As I waited for the water to warm up I asked her what was the reason for the shampoo and blowout. I usually don’t carry on a conversation while I shampoo, as I want the customer to relax. There is usually plenty of time during the cut to have a conversation. However I was only going to blow her out after the shampoo and it’s difficult to have a conversation over the sound of the blow dryer. She replied saying “she was having a dinner with a friend who was moving to Ohio the next day”. I sensed her relax as the soothing warm water permeated through her hair. I asked, “Is he a boyfriend”, she replied with a slight smile “no, he wanted to be a boyfriend and is probably expecting something after dinner but that’s not happening”. As I apply the shampoo and start massaging her scalp I feel her let go and I asked, “do you have a boyfriend?” she replied, “no, all the guys around my age want casual and I want a long-term relationship”. I then asked “ how old are you”, she replied “26”. I then went on to say “that I have the opposite problem, most of the men my age want a long term relationship and I want casual”. As I start to rinse her hair I added: “What’s interesting, I get hit on by a lot of 20 somethings as they want casual, and that’s not happening”. I asked her “do you know why these 20-year-olds all want casual?” She replied, “no”, I said “because they are all addicted to porn, that age demographic is one of the highest viewers of it and they watch it on their phones”. She replied “really?”
As I massage the conditioner in her hair she went on to tell me about a girlfriend her age that is getting married to a guy in his mid-thirties and maybe she should be trying to date 30 somethings. As I am waiting because I want the conditioner to stay in her hair for at least five minutes she keeps talking about whether she could or should be dating men in their thirties. I rinsed out the conditioner, and then escorted her back to my chair. Once in my chair and while I was combing her out, she reiterated how she wants curls at the bottom. With the texture and density of her hair, I felt sure her hair would hold a curl. I proceeded to perform my signature curly blowout, which would give her curls and volume. Due to her length and density, the blowout took around 30 minutes. She was sending and receiving text messages during the blowout, and we talked very little. I did ask her what she was planning to wear to dinner, and she replied that she wearing what she had on. Throughout the blowout, I was holding up a mirror showing her the curls and volume I was producing. I did say in jest but also in self-admiration at the curl and volume I was achieving “once your friend sees your hair he will not want to move to Ohio”.
I finished the blowout, she quickly rose from the chair and while looking in the mirror started running her fingers through her hair thereby relaxing all the curl and volume. I was taken aback by her zealous efforts to undo what I spent 30 minutes doing. She picked up her keys, wallet and earrings and proceeded to the checkout counter. She paid and left me a $10 tip but never said a word. She dropped her earrings just outside the door and a customer picked them up and brought them back in. I called her and told her that she had left her earrings and they would be in an envelope at the front counter.
Kate complimented me on the blowout and was also surprised that the customer took out the curls. Kate asked me if I had noticed that she had increased the price up one level due to the time it was taking to perform the blowout. I replied “yes”. I told the customer while looking at her hair from behind the counter that we will start at level one but once I see and feel the density of her hair the price will probably go up a level. In hindsight I should have started at level two and gone down to level one if it was appropriate.
A couple of days later the customer called. I happened to be working that day. Grace, the other stylist on shift, took the call and spoke with the customer. They spoke for over 20 minutes. About an hour later, when we had a lull, Grace said that a customer called to complain about me. Grace conveyed that the customer told her she felt uncomfortable with the conversation, that I burnt her scalp with the hair dyer, that I quoted her one price and charged her a higher price and that she was upset that she left her earrings. I proceeded to give Grace my side of the story and I said, “It sounds like she is really complaining about the price and adding in the other stuff to make it more than just the price”.
The next day Kate, the salon manager, and I had the opening shift. I told her about the complaint and that I felt she should call the customer sometime that morning. Kate called her and spoke with her and, from my conversation with Kate after the call, the customer added that I was talking about porn, having sex with young men, and that made her feel uncomfortable. The customer also told Kate that the blowout took so long she was late to her dinner with her friend. I told Kate that I referenced porn, but had not talked about porn, and relayed the conversation I had with the customer. Kate replied, with what all managers would have said (and what I would have said if I was the manager), “that I should have kept the conversation about hair”. Because the customer had mentioned her scalp being burnt Kate said the customer would be due a refund, even though she was making the whole thing up.
Anyone reading this account would probably have the opinion that my conversation with the customer was not in good taste and could themselves feel uncomfortable. Some may read the account as benign. I have 35 years of management experience, all in a customer service capacity. Having to develop rapport and build long-term relationships with customers, I have learned that a quick way to develop a rapport and put a customer at ease with me is to listen, empathize with their issue or problem and mimic words or phrases they use. Sometimes I may share that I have had similar issues or problems. Keep the conversation light, open, healthy and, if possible, add a little humor at the expense of myself. Some will have the opinion that referencing “porn” was not light, open, healthy or humorous. The reference to porn was a way to empathize, woman to woman, that the problem that we both had was not due to us and what we want out of life, but the real problem was with 20 something men. The customer used the phrase “that was not going to happen”, so I used the phrase “and that’s not happening” to mimic her phrasing. The customer never said she was “not going to have sex” with her friend, but implied the same. I never said I was “going to have sex with young men, but implied I was not going to have sex, just like she did.
A week later I had a conversation with Julie the Area Manager who also called the customer. Julie told me that the conversation she had with the customer was very different. The customer mentioned that she was a survivor of sexual assault and something must have triggered an episode. She said she felt uncomfortable when I touched her shoulders. She told Julie that she didn’t know if she was talking to a man or a woman and she might have blown the whole thing out of proposition. Of course she said this after receiving her refund. Julie said she appreciates my situation and understands that if I was perceived, recognized and accepted as a woman by the customer that the conversation and who I was would not have been called into question.
I am a 57-year-old trans woman, I visually pass as a cis-woman, and no one suspects I am trans until I utter my first words. I started my medical transition three years ago after being out in public presenting as a woman for 16 years. When I started my transition I decided not to alter my voice because I wanted people to know I am trans. I wanted people to be at ease knowing I am trans and that I wasn’t trying to hide that fact. No tricks no surprises, I am a trans-woman.
After three years I believe my decision not to alter my voice was not a good decision. The belief that as a visually passing trans woman I would be treated/accepted as a woman by society because I looked like a woman was not realistic. I couldn’t just flip a switch, be a woman just because I started living ‘full time’ and on hormone replacement therapy (HRT). It would take time to shed the male skin so to speak and learn and develop more feminine mannerisms and phrasing. Because my 16 years presenting as a woman was always as the customer being served I didn’t think it would be different being the women serving the customer.
The last three years have been an eye-opening experience. Once I started providing services to customers at the beauty school I was attending, I was immediately hit with reality. I was constantly misgendered and referred to as “he”. Granted, I had just started my transition one month before starting school and I accepted that I needed to deal with it because I just started and felt things would get better as time passed. I graduated in 18 months and, in all that time; only two customers (that I am aware of) were not provided services because they did not want me providing the service because I am trans.
As I complete my first year as a working, licensed hairstylist I can unequivocally say that I have been disrespected, misunderstood, and mischaracterized by fellow employees and customers. At a salon I previously worked at I had been marginalized by cis-women in management positions, as I was not given equal treatment in an all-female workplace environment. I have witnessed customers either not wanting to check-in or have services performed by me because I am trans. I had customers intentionally misgender me by referring to me as “he” or answering my questions with “yes sir”. A customer asked me without hesitance and apology “how long I had been doing drag?” A customer actually told me that I had a Sammy Hagar looks about me.
People who I have not met see me as a woman, but as soon as I speak my first words I am then heard not as a woman but as a man. Never mind that what they saw and perceived to be was a woman. Every word, description, phrase, opinion, comment, compliment, and banter said in jest is heard as if a man spoke it. Granted I was raised and socialized as a male and worked as an adult man for 35+ years. I understand and recognize that adult cis-women not only phrase sentences differently but also describe events, places, and things different than how adult cis-men generally do.
As I move forward in my life-long journey of transition, I will continue to learn how better to phrase, describe, opine, comment, compliment, banter and write so as to be heard, understood, recognized, read and judged as a woman.
I not only wanted to live and work as visible trans woman but also be recognized and treated as a woman. I wanted society to see, interact with, and be comfortable being around a visible trans woman. I didn’t want to go “stealth” I didn’t want to hide that I am trans. It frustrates me to realize that society is telling me that they would rather me not reveal my trans identity. Society not only wants me to look like a cis-woman but also sound like a cis-woman. As long as I am an employee of a business my employment status can change or be affect by customers, other employees or management due solely on how my gender identity is perceived, recognized and/or accepted. Currently I have the full support of ownership, management and fellow employees at the salon where I work. That doesn’t mean that the ownership, management and employees don’t have to answer questions, listen to rude comments and hear people disrespect me by addressing me as “he” or “sir” and seeing people walk out because they don’t want me to cut their hair.
I have decided to start the process of learning to alter my voice to a higher pitch and tone. In this current society, no matter how well I present as a woman and learn to phrase my sentences, as long as I speak in a pitch that is recognized as a male voice I will be heard as man. Once I am heard as a woman I will stop referring to myself as a trans woman. Living as a visible trans-woman whose speech is recognized as male, only takes me to the gate. If I want to “pass” through the gate I still have to find the keys to the locks that society places on the gate.