Deviance in the Barbershop: on NOT smoking on the Job

Posted in Barbershop at 5:08 pm by Benjamin Ross

In common parlance, the word “deviance” has connotations of immorality and criminality. For sociologists, deviance has a wider definition: behavior that violates social norms. In the Chinese context, this could include not supporting your parents in old age, or sticking your chopsticks upward in your ricebowl (major faux pas). One form of deviance which I am dealing with regularly among hairstylists is my general disinclination to smoke cigarettes. Smoking (among men) in barbershops is so commonplace that not to do so is not only awkward, but a potential sign of disrespect and violation of social norms. In short, deviance.

Smoking in China is a communal activity. When one smokes, they will often pull out their pack, and offer a cigarette to all other males within the vicinity. To not accept a cigarette is awkward…not terrible, but potentially interpreted as a sign of disrespect. Once the cigarette is accepted, the offering party will usually light it for the other. It is then a sign of respect for the receiving party to put his hand over the others’ as his cigarette is being lit. It’s a simple ritual which permeates all strata of Chinese bro-mance, regardless of income level or social class. Generally speaking, women are assumed not to smoke, and thus excluded from the ritual.

Imported smokes serve as props for the exchange of valuable social capital.

Smoking is especially well-tailored to the hairstyling industry, where the rhythm of the workday provides constant stoppages in action, allowing for constant smoke breaks throughout the 12 hour shift. Smoking becomes just another way to pass the time between customers. And because of this, and the communal nature of smoking, it is almost impossible to work in this industry without developing a tobacco addiction. Of the hundreds of male hairstylists, students, and teachers I’ve been in touch with over the years, I know of only one who does not smoke, a 23 year old teacher from Hunan who doesn’t speak much, and is an outlier in just about every other facet as well. For women in the industry, it is the opposite. Among students in the school, some as young as 16, I have yet to encounter a male who does not smoke. Other than Sister Xie (the middle-aged shareholder of the school who smokes 130mm slims at a rate which outpaces most barbers) I have yet to encounter a single female smoker in the industry.

As a guest at the barber school, Li Wen Zhong (the headmaster) is constantly introducing me to visiting dignitaries of the Fuzhou hairstyling industry who drop by for quick business talks. As we sit in his office, drink tea and eat watermelon seeds, the inevitable cigarette ritual ensues. Often as a sign of respect to Li Wen Zhong or as a precursor to a business deal, the cigarettes offered by visitors are either imported, or an expensive Chinese brand. For me not to accept one myself would be a major party foul.

Thus far, I am trying to limit my cigarette consumption to a maximum of 3 per day. I’m often able to use my master status as “foreigner” to absolve some of the awkwardness. Since me being a foreigner is in itself deviant to some degree, it is more expected that I will violate social norms than would be the case for a Chinese person. This is a double edged sword however. Since I am not Chinese, and therefore a “guest” whenever I am in the country, I am offered cigarettes more frequently than the average person.

Fortunately, people who know me around the school are starting to catch on to my reluctance to smoke. However, the constant flux of new students and visitors means the offers will never stop. Li Wen Zhong, who I am in most constant contact with, has stopped offering me a cigarette whenever he smokes, and now usually just offers me one in the morning when we meet in his office to chat and have tea.

As a researcher though, all this smoke and mirrors does put me in a bit of a pickle. When living in the US, I do not smoke. Smoking in America is an individual activity. People who smoke buy their own and smoke their own, and with packs costing upwards of $10 in some cities, sharing the wealth can be expensive. But in China, and especially in the hairstyling industry, not smoking can be a signal of opting out of an important relationship building activity. There are indeed situations in which my entrée into their community would be thwarted to some extent by refusing to smoke. And for members of the community itself, not smoking would be an almost unheard of state of affairs. It is in fact, deviant NOT to smoke. I’d love to know what it’s like to be a non-smoking male hairstylist in China, but as of now I have yet to find anybody who can tell me what it’s like.


  1. Rome Jette China said,

    March 31, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    I am a western deviant pipe smoker in China and I smoke a pipe most of the day in my factory office. But still, when a group of more than 2 or 3 assembles, and someone starts handing out the cigarettes, I am still offered one – even as I am puffing away at my pipe. So I can relate to your awkward feeling when passing up these offerings as the ritual appears to be at least as much about bonding as smoking…

  2. Jin Gang United Kingdom said,

    April 3, 2014 at 8:50 am

    When I quit smoking in China, I noticed that many people just assumed I was trying to father a child (though I was single, they didn’t know that). I started to use that as an excuse and it worked. Likewise, when I stopped eating meat, some assumed it was buddhism (or some other religion), which they could accept. It’s hard for Chinese people to accept that someone has made a personal decision to change some aspect of their lifestyle, and that they’re really going to stick to their decision, but if you pretend “hey, I’d love to have a smoke, but….” that you’re powerless in the face of a stronger force imposing a rule on you, they don’t criticize or ask further questions. When offered a smoke, I shrug my shoulders and say “baby”. When offered chuan’r, I shrug and fold my hands in prayer. It’s like saying “mei ban fa”. Works like a charm when I need it.

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