Photo: Juancat for wavebreakmedia

10 Things Being a Bartender Teaches You About People

Student Work
by Emma Thieme Jul 22, 2013
1. We’ll tell strangers anything.

You’ll often feel trapped. At work, you live in a 20-foot-long space — there’s nowhere to hide.

Unless you’re slammed, you’ll have no choice but to listen to every customer’s backstory, often from birth to present, and offer the appropriate comments in the appropriate places.

When a 47-year-old man asks you to read (all of) his ex’s text messages and intricately decipher what each one translates to in girl-speak, you’ll have to do that. And seeing as this man is probably a regular, and you’ve watched his relationship crumble in front of you over the past year anyway, you’ll probably be able to do this pretty accurately.

When a hipster nursing his PBR pounder flamboyantly tells you about the time, in the ’90s, when his best friend’s roommate saw Neutral Milk Hotel, you will actually have to acknowledge them. And that will be tough.

Housewives will parade in on their girls’ night out looking for a key lime martini and a person to vent to. Online daters will sit down awkwardly with an eye on the door, searching for a person they’ve only met in invisible land.

You’ll meet a slew of characters and listen to (or overhear) a million stories. There’s nowhere to run, so in turn you’ll play a character too.

2. We want to get personal.

Every shift, some interchangeable out-of-towner will ask you where you’re from. You’ll impress them by answering that you’re from a “small town in Maine” and it’s “on the Penobscot River” just “two hours north of here.”

Their head will tilt slightly to the side as their shoulders drop gently. In their eyes, your reply has shriveled you into a frail peasant girl who grew up milking a goat for her dinner.

You would think that your sudden reveal of your quaint upbringing in Central Maine would secure you a little extra on the tip. But you’re just dreaming — it’s 15 percent all the way.

3. We all want special treatment.

Everyone thinks they’re the exception to the rule. “It’s just 6:15, can’t we get happy hour?” No. “The third drink’s on the house, right?” No. “Come on, I just left my ID in the car.” Absolutely not, kid.

This is a business. Enough said.

4. We never want to be tourists.

At least once a shift, you’ll get an out-of-towner leaning over the bar with a hush-hush way about them. Under their breath they’ll ask you, “So where do the locals go?”

You might think, To my bed. At 2AM. After I eat an entire tray of nachos.

But instead, you’ll rattle off a list of local hotspots. The same ones you rattled off yesterday to that couple from Ohio.

But you might, just to shake things up, throw in that tavern down on Commercial, where your Uncle Steve has been sitting drinking Bud heavy since 1981, it’s karaoke night every night, and the place is lit by one single light bulb.

5. We’re afraid to try new things.

“How’s the Fish and Chips?!” they’ll ask as if they just found a hidden ruby on the menu. It’s fried fish, people. With French Fries. It can’t really be bad. But seriously, we have kimchi- and pecan-encrusted barbeque spare ribs on our menu, and you want pollock?

6. We’re all looking for an escape.

This won’t be as evident in what people tell you as it will be in how much they will drink in front of you. “I’m just gonna have one,” says the roofer just getting off work. “I’ve got shit to do tomorrow.”

Seven beers later he’s stayed an hour past closing and I now know the name and body type of every prom date he had in high school.

7. We want to be served.

It’s in the flick of the wrist, the tap of the glass, the stunned look when you tell them we don’t have White Zinfandel. We go to restaurants to be served. Where everything is taken care of.

On Saturday night, we visit a little personal paradise, where a fairy provides us with new silverware after every bite, everyone laughs at our jokes, and the obscure bourbon that we read about on the internet flows freely and everyone is impressed when we order it.

8. We just want to check out.

We don’t always want to be social. Sometimes we want to sit at the end of a bar, play Words with Friends against our mother, and drink a glass of Pinot Grigio alone. That’s not too much to ask.

In fact, as a bartender you’ll welcome these characters. The ones where it pains them to even tell you what they’re drinking. Because at many times, it pains you to even ask. You’re job is hyper-social, and any moment when you don’t have to entertain someone’s story gives you a breath all to yourself.

9. Math is hard for us.

“You poor girl! You’re busting your ass for these people,” a woman might say to you, looking up from her Coors Light. You might think, Sweet! Someone acknowledges how hard I’m working. What you don’t know is that that little comment right there, that was your tip. It was verbal. It felt good, right? That’s all you need.

While you’re mixing four drinks at once, inches away from where they’re sitting, in complete earshot, that same woman might show her 70-dollar check to her husband and ask him for some quick math advice. And he might answer her “Eight fifty.” It might take all the willpower you’ve harnessed to not put down the two shakers in each of your hands and ask, “Show me your work. How did you come up with that calculation?”

You’ll have to get used to this, it will happen often. Those people might even become regulars.

10. We’re all friendly people.

We go sit at a bar because we want to relax, be around familiar faces, and escape from the routine. It feels good to have someone pour you the usual and it feels good to be greeted by name. As a bartender, you learn the importance of these little comforts and it makes you happy to provide them to your customers.

There will be times when you might want to break a bottle over the counter and threaten someone with it, but for the most part your job is breezy. People keep coming back to see you because you’re fun, you make them laugh, and they genuinely enjoy your company. People are good, and for the most part they’ll treat you right.

And when you get a chance to sit on the opposite side, you’ll treat your bartender right too.

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