Prickly politics at the nail salon is an unwelcome nail-biter

 By Deborah Gastfreund Schuss

My cherished visit to the nail salon is a rare opportunity to unplug completely and contemplate nothing less palliative than whether Flamingo Flip-Flop is a bold enough color for my fingernails.  

But this transformative pampering was disrupted recently when an indiscreet discussion between the manicurist and client beside me was ripe for eavesdropping – and intervention. Someone had fallen on an uneven sidewalk outside the salon, the manicurist noted. Sidewalks are in dire need of repair, both agreed. Client wondered aloud where the city’s money is going. Manicurist blurted out, “The Republicans took it.” No volume control, no joke. 

No matter that this city is in Massachusetts, the second most liberal state in the United States, according to data from Gallup U.S. Daily tracking interviews throughout 2016. And no matter that this city has a Democratic mayor and a City Council consisting of 23 registered Democrats out of 24 members, which recently voted 16 to 1 to become a “welcoming city” that protects all residents regardless of their immigration status. 

The client and I chimed in to gently point out the illogic of her fact-free punditry, for which she offered an apology. But it got me thinking, is there no safe space these days from triggers of any political hue? Has our heightened caustic dialogue corroded the protective barrier that once shielded customers from such party-line prattle? Imagine the optics if I vote with my feet and flee when I feel marginalized by a pedicurist turned spinmeister. The outcome could be pretty ugly, for my freshly painted toes and the salon’s floor. 

Christine Porath, author of “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace,” has studied the fallout from customers’ exposure to negative interactions involving employees and found such encounters tend to undermine an organization’s brand and consumer loyalty, ultimately striking the bottom line.  

“It really does pay to be very civil, and I think in this particular case, the idea of being respectful about political allegiances certainly falls under that category,” said Porath, an associate professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business

In my quest for clarity regarding tolerance for politically charged conversations in business settings typically regarded as oases for the soul, I surveyed the salon’s area competitors and expanded my inquiry to nail professionals in the invective-filled U.S. capital. I also took the pulse of Beverly Hills, arguably the country’s primping capital, where nail salons might even outpace its population. 

“Two things you don’t talk about are politics and religion,” said Kitty Dinh, manager of Beverly Hills Nail Salon, adding that most patrons, including celebrities, just want to close their eyes and relax. 

Potentially combustible narratives also are eschewed at Angelo M. Nails, a short distance from the White House and Capitol Hill. “The president, the senators, it’s their job, not my nail technicians’,” manager Kathy Nguyen told me. 

In suburban Boston, Chrissó Studio co-owner Christina Pavlou has observed an uptick in clients’ hunger to share “very strong” opinions about current events. But Pavlou sidesteps such conversations, she said, recalling how she lost a loyal client after she shared her political views while working at her mother’s salon as a teenager. Her response to persistent patrons is, “I’d be happy to take you out to coffee if you want to pursue this further, but this is a topic I cannot discuss in this shop.” 

Retaining customers across the ideological spectrum likewise motivates Kathy Phuong Luu to employ an assortment of escalating strategies in her Washington, D.C., salon when partisan commentary emerges that could disturb other patrons. “I don’t offer any opinion – I just smile and change the subject,” says Luu, owner of DuPont Nails, part of Spa Logic. “When clients talk about politics on and on, I tap them on the shoulder. With staff, we pull them to the side or email them.”

Salon owners everywhere, take note. Political trash talk may be all the rage these days, but your colleagues’ secret sauce for winning over clients in this era of extreme divisiveness is to refrain from turning the beauty bar into a bully pulpit. Toxicity doesn’t always sell well. 

Forget the polemics and engage around the trendiest nail shape, not the shape of our world. Particularly with our political discourse so heavily polluted, fortifying these boundaries is sound policy all businesses should adopt universally. It would send a powerful message to your customers, even if not delivered via tweets or talking heads.