INTRO: This week VOA Wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble search for new meaning in the expression, "bad hair day."
AA: A Yale University psychologist recently did a study to learn if a messy hairdo or bad haircut could hurt a person's self-esteem.
RS: In combing for evidence, Professor Marianne LaFrance found it by asking a group of people to recall some bad hair experiences and then measuring their feelings of self-worth.
AA: At the same time, Professor LaFrance may have also untangled the psychology behind the phrase "having a bad hair day."
TAPE: CUT ONE - LaFRANCE/ARDITTI/SKIRBLE (1:39)
LaFRANCE: "It's one of those phrases in which people nod and say `yes, yes, I know exactly what you're talking about."
AA: "What does it mean exactly?"
LaFRANCE: "The way that I think most people understand it is, using that phrase `bad hair day' refers to the fact that that particular day is not going well, things are going badly, things are out of whack, out of sync."
RS: "So what you're saying is, `bad hair day' -- or `bad hair moment' - goes beyond what your hair looks like."
LaFRANCE: "Absolutely. I think the two general meanings of the term `bad hair day,' one is literally you wake up, you look in the mirror and you think, `I think maybe I'll go back to bed, or crawl under the bed.' And then the more general phrase `bad hair day' refers to a general sense that things are not going well."
RS: "This starts really early. When my 10-year-old son looks in the mirror in the morning and says to me, `Mom, I've got a bad hair day,' or 'Mom, do I have a bad hair day?' - how am I supposed to interpret that?"
LaFRANCE: "I think what you're picking up with your son is, physical appearance is something that we are remarkably sensitive to, it occurs very early. Kids as young as 4 or 5 become very attentive to how they look and wanting to be regarded by others as looking good. And when we feel we're not looking our best - either we have something wrong with our complexion, or altogether the wrong clothes or the hair is bad - then it feels like it's going to swamp everything else in our life that day."
AA: Professor LaFrance found that when people are made to think about times in which their hair has been a problem, they have "bad hair minutes, or moments." She says there's no proof that the effects of recalling a bad hair experience last all day. But maybe that's just splitting hairs.
RS: Her study involved sixty men and sixty women divided among three groups. One group was asked to recall bad hair experiences.
TAPE: CUT TWO - LaFRANCE
"So in the bad hair condition we said, there may have been times in which, sometime in your life in which your hair was a problem. It could have been a bad haircut, it could have been high humidity so that it was completely frizzy - you tell us."
AA: Another group was asked to remember something they had bought that had bad packaging: maybe it was hard to open or it leaked. Professor LaFrance says the point was to find something else, besides hair, that would put people in a bad mood. And, the third group was asked to think about nothing in particular.
RS: Afterward, all the people were given psychology tests.
TAPE: CUT THREE- LaFRANCE
"Our hypothesis was, people who were made to think of bad hair would show reductions in self-esteem, we got that; would show heightened self-consciousness and embarrassment and some other negative feelings about being around others, we got that; and would show a greater inclination to self- describe in negative trait terms, and we got that."
RS: Professor LaFrance says the effects were similar with both men and women -- except in the area of so-called "performance self- esteem." That's the feeling that you're able to do what needs to be done.
AA: In that area, she says, men seemed to suffer more than women from bad hair. All of which leads to the question --
TAPE: CUT FOUR - SKIRBLE/LaFRANCE
RS: "What is it about hair, the physical hair, why are we focusing on it?"
LaFRANCE: "You know, there's a lot of interesting mythology about hair, if you think of Samson and Delilah as one example. Almost every society has a lot of assumptions and myths about hair. The assumption has often been that in hair there is virility, there is strength and if people lose their hair, they lose more than just literally the hair on top of their head. There was a musical as you well know, 20-something years ago, called `Hair' and the assumption there was that hair was a great way to represent one's political attitudes. So that if the establishment's hair is short, then the way one indicates one's rebellion is to have it long, and vice versa."
RS: Professor Marianne LaFrance at Yale University in Connecticut, who, in case you're wondering, has curly hair and admits to her share of "bad hair days" -- both literal and metaphorical.
AA: If American English is giving you a bad hair day, or you just need to brush up, send us your questions. We'll try to answer them on the air, and we'll send you a souvenir if we do. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
RS: Or write to VOA Wordmaster, Washington, D.C., 20237 USA. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.