Recently I had an enlightening experience at the hairdressers.

While I was waiting as my husband had his hair cut, I was joined by an older woman. She seemed to be in some discomfort, walking with a limp and a little out of breath. I automatically moved over slightly to make space although it was an unnecessary gesture as there was plenty of room. We smiled and I continued to read a magazine. Shortly afterwards she was ushered away to have her hair styled.

I noticed as she began to chat with her hairdresser that she became more energised and within a few minutes was engaged in a lively conversation full of mutual smiles and laughter.

I took a moment to look around at what was going on near me in the rather noisy and bustling environment. I saw lots of lively chat, engagement, and, what I recognized as a former nurse, caring. Small gestures, taking a coat, the offer of a drink, looking out as those less steady on their feet navigated changes in floor level, taking time and paying attention.

From the senior stylists to the junior apprentices, I noticed accomplished interpersonal skills: active listening, reflections on what the other person was saying, flexibility and patience. These are the kinds of behaviours and approaches that help to make our social interactions more effective.

Now, you may view this a little cynically, after all a hair salon is a business in a competitive environment and facing challenging times, but I don’t think that matters. The little things I noticed had created a warm, friendly atmosphere and a sense of belonging.

This isn’t just good for the clients. In surveys, hairdressers and beauty therapists have been found to score highly on job satisfaction and happiness at work, generally scoring higher than those in health care professions such as doctors, dentists and nurses.

Unsurprisingly, being happy at work is important. It seems that happier, motivated workers are more productive and take fewer sick days (click here to see more).

Of course, I knew nothing about this lady in the hair salon, but that place at that moment did feel like a hub of social well-being, a place where personal relationships were fostered and, for some, a place of social support.

We know loneliness and lack of social contact is bad for our mental and physical health and is an increasing problem in the modern world. In the UK it is thought loneliness currently affects up to 9 million people across all adult ages (click here to see more).

The U.K Government recognised loneliness as one of the greatest public health challenges of our time when they launched their loneliness strategy in October 2018.

In that document, loneliness (rather than just being alone) is described as

‘a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want’.

Because people who feel lonely are more likely to visit their General Practitioner or the Emergency Department, the strategy is promoting the idea of social prescribing. This scheme enables health and social care organisations to refer people to link workers who can help to support social connections through community activities and voluntary services.

Going to the hair salon is normal, it has a purpose. Many of the strategies used to tackle loneliness don’t seem to take into account how we would normally go about our daily lives. I have worked with many older and lonely people who are filled with dread at the thought of going to a day centre and being coerced to be sociable for their ‘own good’.

In the UK, Men’s Sheds provide places for men to pursue practical interests at leisure, to practice skills in making and mending while also providing social connections and friendship (click here to see more).

It is only in recent modern times that we have become so disconnected from each other and we must redress that now. All of us, in our local communities, could be doing so much more to help prevent isolation, just by thinking a little differently.