Accept that the way you are talking now is vague.
"Every guy kinda does the same thing: He has no plan," says Van Capizzano, founder of Tribe Barber in Boston's South End.
You might assume your barber is a mind reader—or knows so much about hair that he can infer what you want. Not true. He needs to hear it, and not in generic terms.
"Saying something like, 'Oh, I like it longer on top, short in the back’—that's every haircut that's ever happened,” says Capizzano, “unless you're Rod Stewart or Ronnie Wood."
Your barber wants to hear a goal, not directions.
Maybe you're the guy who thinks he's helping out by giving the barber an instruction manual (a two on the sides, scissors on top, leave an inch in the front, etc.).
In reality, the first thing your barber wants to hear is the end goal. What is your ultimate hair goal?
"Moving away from that 'short on the sides, long on top' deal, a big difference in vocabulary is expressing a preference for cleaner lines versus a softer look," says Jessica Candia, a hairstylist at Brooklyn's Persons of Interest. "Using words like 'texture' versus 'sharp' makes a big difference."
In fact, one leads to a clipper cut, and the other leaves some length—but she'll know how to get you there.
A picture says what you can’t.
You want to look like Ryan Gosling. But try putting that into a clear phrase. You can’t. So bring a picture. That helps your barber know if you’re talking Gosling in La La Landor Gosling in Place Beyond the Pines.
"A picture isn't worth a thousand words," says Capizzano. "It's worth a billion words. We're visual people."
Feel weird bringing a celeb pic? Bring a photo of yourself with a haircut you once had and really liked. And then say what you liked about it. If it was the only time your cowlick ever lay flat, your barber can use that info.
Timing is everything.
If you really don’t know where to begin, just tell your barber how long it’s been since your last haircut.
"Hair grows a half an inch a month," says Capizzano. "If you say you got your hair cut six weeks ago, I can cut six weeks of hair off your head within a fraction of an inch."
It’s all about your ears.
Pro tip for specifying length and style? Focus on your ears.
"'A little rough around the ears' versus 'clean over the ears'—that gives me a clear idea of where to end up with the haircut," says Candia.
Especially for a scissor cut, it may be all the barber needs to know.
"For a scissor cut, say 'neat around the ears,' 'messy around the ears,' or 'over the ears'—I pull it out from there and go straight up," says Capizzano. "So you don't even need to give directions for the back and sides."
Troubleshoot last time.
If you're seeing your barber more than once, say what you liked and didn't like last time—or tell him if you liked how it grew out.
"A lot of people try not to show any negativity," says Capizzano, "and they'll avoid saying what they don't want to happen."
Related: feel free to give feedback as you go. Once uttered, your directions aren't set in stone. You can say, "Actually, let's go a little shorter." Just don't wait for the barber to finish your entire haircut before you do.
Find a good barber in the first place.
The last and best way to walk out of the barber happy? Find a good barber in the first place.
"If you move to a new city, look at people's hair everywhere you go," says Capizzano. "Stop someone and say, 'Where did you get that haircut?'"
Is it awkward? Sure. But is it more awkward than a bad haircut? You know the answer.