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Last update on November 30, 2020
Written by Renate Graßtat

It’s something you don’t think about until you’ve been living in a new country for a few weeks: how am I going to get a haircut when I can’t explain what I want? Here are some tips for avoiding bad hair days with practical German vocabulary for getting a haircut in Germany.

Going to the hairdresser involves a risk, no matter which language is used. I must admit I hadn’t been to a hairdresser for years before I started seeing Pam, a student of mine from Wales who got fed up with learning German after a while and one day turned her attention to my hair instead.

She was a professional hairdresser, and it began slowly. When I was explaining something during our one-to-one lessons, she seemed to be distracted, frowned, looked at me critically, and then came up with something like: “Yes, yes, but you should do something about your hair here, you see,” twirling a streak in her hands or brushing it out of my face.

Well, we ended up doing haircuts instead of German, or trying to combine both. A good experience for me, for I had been suffering from hairdresser-phobia forever — whereas she likewise had been avoiding situations with the German language whenever she could. So I felt almost forced to overcome my inhibitions, as she did hers, and I became her client.

I am quite happy with that, too. However, I am not the only hairdresser-phobic person, and I could fill a book with stories people have told me about dreadful experiences like, for instance, leaving the hairdresser’s looking completely different than they wanted to.

Is this a question of failed communication or just about a lack of qualifications — or the extreme assertiveness of the stylist? Pam used to tell stories about clients who kept saying: “Please do it exactly the same way you did it six weeks ago!” — and she has a lot of clients. Her answer always was, “Yes, no problem, if you tell me what you want to have exactly like you did six weeks ago.”

For somebody not familiar with German, this might be a challenge but you will certainly have to accept the logic behind it, so here are some basic words and phrases that might help.

Basic German vocabulary for cutting your hair

  • schneiden (cut), waschen (wash), föhnen (blow-dry)
  • lang (long) – kurz (short)
  • länger (longer) – kürzer (shorter)
  • vorn, vorne (at the front) – hinten (at the back, also, in the neck)
  • am Hals (in the neck)
  • an der Stirn (at the forehead)
  • an den Seiten (at the sides)
  • rechts (right) – links (left)
  • über die Ohren (over the ears), hinter die Ohren (behind the ears)
  • ins Gesicht (into the face)
  • gleich lang (the same length)
  • glatt (straight)
  • stufig (cut in layers)
  • fransig (fringy)
  • der Scheitel (the parting)
  • der Pony (the fringe)
  • der Schnitt (the cut)
  • die Frisur (the hairdo)

German words for tinting and dying (tönen und färben)

  • heller (lighter) – dunkler (darker)
  • Strähnchen (streaks)
  • haltbar (durable)

Special services in German

  • die Dauerwelle (permanent wave)
  • Locken (curls)
  • kraus (frizzy)
  • frech (literally: cheeky, used for a haircut which is not conservative or common)
  • schräg (very uncommon, can be a bit provocative, very fashionable)
  • hochstecken (pin-up)

Typical sentences in German you might hear

–Wann waren Sie das letzte Mal zum Schneiden?
(When did you have your last haircut?)

Möchten Sie selbst föhnen?
(Would you like to blow-dry yourself?)

Möchten Sie ein Pflegemittel?
(Would you like a care product, like gel, hairspray, conditioner?)

–Ist es Ihnen recht so?
(Do you like it this way?)

Möchten Sie lieber…?
(Do you prefer…)?

–Wie kurz soll ich schneiden?
(How short do you want me to cut it?)

Hinten ausrasieren / mit der Maschine?
(Shave your neck?)

And, if you don´t want any more changes, just say: “Lassen Sie es so.”

Choosing a hair salon in Germany

In Berlin and in other bigger cities, there are low-priced ‘Cut & Go’ outlets where you are usually expected to blow-dry your hair yourself. Some of these shops seem to employ very good hairdressers but, of course, time is restricted and you will not receive ‘full service’. In addition, there are sometimes machines issuing a number for the order of the people waiting, thus avoiding the process of making appointments.

There are some really bad salons among them as well, so a good idea is to ask for recommendations. As for the bigger or more expensive salons, it cannot always be said that they are much better but the same applies to them — use recommendations wherever you can.

What to expect at a hair salon in Germany

Besides the technical part of the haircut, you would still have to deal with talking about your life. There are many hairdressers in Germany who completely fit the cliché of being extremely talkative and informative but this obviously is not a ‘must’ for entering the profession.

I have heard Americans complaining that hairdressers in this country were not up to their expectations, working silently for ages and not invading their private lives enough for them to feel comfortable with the situation. I had to explain that I could not imagine the stylist being hostile or even nourishing aggressive thoughts. A cultural difference? Maybe this is just due to the fact that we Germans are no experts in small talk anyway, or that asking personal questions sometimes might be considered too inquisitive.

So going to the hairdresser can be a surprise as far as communication goes, either in English or German or in any other language. But you can be pretty sure that stylists — if they are not completely lacking talent or just starting their apprenticeship — are experts in doing your hair, with educational qualifications and usually three years of vocational training. And if you still feel inhibited about going to one of them and happen to live in Berlin, just let me know — I can still give you Pam’s number.

Photo credit: John Steven F. (photo 1), Elizabeth Allen (photo 2), UrbaneWomenMag (photo 3)