Thursday, April 21, 2011

How to Be a Good Salon Client

A pedicurist sees this all day long—and I guarantee it ain't always this pretty.

Part of why I don’t engage more beauty services—mani/pedis, facials, etc.—is because I feel acutely aware of the weird power dynamic inherent in many salons. I, a middle-class white woman born in America, am paying a probably not-white person, likely an immigrant, less than I make to do the sort of beauty labor on my body that I’m unwilling to do myself—I’m outsourcing my own grooming, essentially. Most often I just choose to opt out. But in talking with Virginia Sole-Smith of Beauty Schooled and hearing about what it’s like on the other side of the waxing table, I started to see that simply opting out isn’t the only way to handle that dynamic: As a client, I can engage with it responsibly, in ways that go beyond just tipping well and smiling (though do that too). Here, her tips for being a responsible salon client.

1) Tip. Always. “I don’t care if you didn’t like the service—you always have to tip out. The most fundamental injustice in the beauty industry right now is that the salons are all based on a tipping model, which means that workers’ wages are too low. Salons underpay their workers and pass the responsibility for making up the difference over to consumers, so they can advertise lower prices. So think of the listed price of your haircut or bikini wax as a fake price tag and add 20 percent more. That’s pretty much across the board—definitely in discount nail salons. It’s a little less true if you go to a really high-end salon; if a hairstylist works on commission and you’re paying $150 for a cut, the stylist is probably getting 40% of that. So she’s doing fine. But remember that the shampoo girl and her assistant who does your blowout aren’t making that. They’re making, like, $8 an hour. People often tip hairstylists 20% and give the shampoo girl $3; I’d rather give the shampoo girl $10 and scale back a bit on the stylist. Better yet, tip everyone well. I usually tip more than 20%; for a $35 pedicure I’ll tip $10, because I know those workers are often only paid about $50 a day. If you can’t afford to give a tip, you can’t afford to get a pedicure.”

2) Make it mutual. “Make it a point to ask their name. If you make conversation, don’t just go on about what you want—have a conversation with them as you would any other person. I hate when I go to a nail salon and I see women talking on their cell phone while there’s a woman scrubbing her feet. I know you’re there to relax, and that’s fine—you don’t have to talk through the whole thing. If you’re getting a facial, you’re paying to basically take a nap. But recognize that this is a human being who is working on you; don’t pretend she’s a robot, because she’s not. She’s touching you and being physically intimate, so it would be nice to ask how her day is going. Pay it back a little bit. That can be tricky to do, because you’re paying for the service and she has to give that service. But keep the fundamental respect.”

3) Be an advocate. “If you’re going into a place that’s awful with fumes and not enough ventilation, ask for the windows to be opened. You can even encourage salons to give their workers masks and gloves — or if you notice workers wearing protective gear, make a point to tell the owner that you appreciate them making worker safety a priority. The owners aren’t going to do that unless they think that the customer wants it, because they don’t want to lose business. So anytime you say, ‘Wow, these fumes make me sick,’ and talk to a salon manager and say, ‘Hey, can you open more windows or put a fan in here?’—particularly with the really toxic stuff, like the Brazilian blowout and acrylic nails—the manager is at least listening to you. They need to hear that from customers.”


  1. This is so very important -- thank you for bringing it up.

    I've had my nails done at the same salon for over three years, and I've come to love the men and women who work there. It's a family owned and operated business (and, just like you said, it's an immigrant family) and I feel like I've become part of the family. They've shared their meals with me when I've been the only person in the salon. I visited the daughter-in-law in the hospital when she was having problems with her pregnancy and brought a baby gift with me to an appointment later when everything turned out alright. It makes me so mad to see other clients treating my friends like chattel.

    You made me think in a new way about tipping, though. I always try to tip well for any service, but I'm ashamed to admit I've dropped to 15% on a couple of occasions when I've really needed a fill but couldn't afford at least 20%. You helped me see that if I can't afford to tip what they deserve, then I simply can't afford the service. I won't let it happen again.

  2. I always have a heard time with #2 because I'm agoraphobic. Just going to get my hair cut or my nails manicured takes so much out of me that I know I'm not a particularly warm client.

    BUT I try to make up for my demeanor by tipping well. I try to make 35% my baseline for everyone. If I have to sign a receipt, I try to add a note of thanks as well.

  3. Thanks for your thought-provoking post, especially regarding mandatory tipping. I rarely respond to posts, but had to in this case: I invariably tip 20%+ for any service (not just at salons) that ranges from acceptable to great. (And I'm friendly and polite, tho typically more quiet.) However, if I don't like the service, I will not tip 20%. Why should I encourage someone financially to continue doing something unpleasantly or incorrectly? In those cases I say something as it's going on to address the situation, but if the service doesn't change, I certainly don't tip well. I understand salon workers are not paid well--but they need to do their job well to be well compensated by my opinion.

  4. Recently discovered your blog, and appreciate it greatly.

    My big sister went to beauty school and worked as a stylist for awhile, so I can never see a beauty worker without thinking of her.

    I'm too low-maintenance for manicures/pedicures, but I've often said Virginia's tipping rule regarding restaurants; if you can't afford a decent tip, you shouldn't be there.

  5. Allyson, Katie, Rebekah, and "Anonymous": Thank you for reading! A pleasure to meet you.

    Allyson: That is fantastic that you've cultivated a relationship with the family that operates your nail salon. You've transferred the intimacy that can evolve--an intimacy that can easily be fake, as Virginia pointed out in her long-form interview--and make it something genuine. I was going to say that that is probably more important to the workers than the occasional 5% drop in tips, but I think that's something that I fool myself into thinking. I remember befriending a cyclo driver abroad who said that it was the people who he befriended who were often liable to tip poorly, because of the illusion that they were equals and that tipping well might mar that friendship--but of course in the context of the work being performed, you're not fiscal equals. (Not that you're tipping poorly by any means, just made me think of that anecdote.)

    Katie, I hear you (I'm not a talkative client either)--and I don't think that being Chatty Kathy is necessary. I think that doing what you're doing is great--you're letting the workers know within your comfort zone that you recognize their humanity.

    Rebekah, a big YES to the same rule applying in restaurants. Every so often a person I think of as otherwise reasonable will want to cheap out on a tip by saying "oh but it's so expensive to eat out" and it drives me bonkers. I feel like with beauty work there's another thing going on because we have a complex relationship with beauty (I mean, certainly we do with food as well! But that's more about *food*, not so much dining out). Like, I wonder if women who see getting a manicure as something they "have" to do are less likely to tip well? Hmmm.

    Anonymous, I hear where you're coming from, and I'm glad that you try to correct the situation first. I make it a rule to always tip 20% unless the service is downright rude--not indifferent, not lazy, not poorly done, but rude. Because that 20% isn't a reward; it's literally their pay. And in a salon, if a person isn't trained enough to do their job correctly that likely means that the salon owner is using under-the-table labor. That is a management issue, not an issue with the worker. Rudeness, however, IS a problem with the worker--but I've never had a rude salon worker. (Rude waiters, on the other hand...)

  6. Question for you: How is it appropriate to present a tip to the people other than the stylist? I'd really like to present a tip to some of the other workers around, like the shampoo and towel ladies, but I'm not sure how to present it. Usually my family would just leave the tip in the stylist's area (I think they thought handing money over directly would be rude).

  7. Hi Sunset--Great question! I checked in with Virginia and here's what she had to say:

    Some salons make it easy by supplying little envelopes upfront — you can put your tip inside, write the person's name on the front and the receptionist will collect them for you, easy-peasy. (She can also help if you didn't catch someone's name.) If you're at a salon that doesn't do the envelope thing, I would head back to the shampoo area, and simply hand the money over directly. Smile, make eye contact, and say thank you. It becomes more awkward when customers ball up the wad of cash and try to furtively slip it over like you're doing something illegal. But there's nothing to be embarrassed about — you're compensating a service received, that's all.

    Thank you for reading!

  8. I don't like the tone of this article, because it makes a discretionary, relaxing activity stressful. The point about customers asking to turn on fans and open windows is fabulous, but stop berating your audience. It's ineffective. If I pay for an eyebrow wax and the person doing it is surly, rude, ignores my wishes and messes up my eyebrows, I will not tip more than a dollar.

    Signing a petition for better wages for spa workers is something I'd be willing to do, but I wouldn't want to read another article basically yelling at me.

  9. To follow up on my last comment, I would like to point out the irony in this part of your article:

    "I don’t care if you didn’t like the service—you always have to tip out. The most fundamental injustice in the beauty industry right now is..."

    It's a fundamental injustice if I feel like I HAVE TO TIP someone who treats me like crap. Look, we should all tip well for good service/people who listen to us, even if the outcome isn't perfect. But, really. Shift your tone please.

  10. Hi Anonymous--

    Thank you for your comments. I think part of the point here is that it's NOT a relaxing activity for the people who are performing the service. It's work! There are plenty of ways to make it a better experience for both parties. Listen, if someone is downright rude, that's one thing. But I've never had that happen.

    I never intend to yell at my audience, and I don't think Virginia does either. I'm happy with the tone in this article--it's the tone of The Beheld--but I do appreciate you coming by.

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  16. I really connected with your first tip because it's true that they don't pay the hairstylist a full amount since they expect the customer to tip out at least a little bit. If a customer tips how they should, the hairstylist will be making a decent amount of pay. How many tips would you get in a night, and also, how much would an average tip be for haircuts? I'm just trying to figure out some numbers as I apply for cosmetology school.

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