It’s been almost ten years since I stepped behind a bar for the first time. A nervous youth, I was as likely to mess up a Gin and Tonic as make an elaborate cocktail. Practice makes perfect, and perfect is what I call the Old Fashioned I now make in my sleep. Still, it wasn’t long before two of the most polarizing, “No No’s,” of the bar world eternally etched their way into my booze-filled brainpan.
When it comes to Pub-based proclamations there shall be NO POLITICS and NO RELIGION. More often than not the latter is easy to avoid. Not many folks attempting to tie one on are as close to the Lord as they may like. Give any barfly three shots and he’ll swear that whatever comes next, the Devil made him do it. Politics, on the other hand, are a fickle bitch.
At it’s very core, political discourse splits people between rocks and hard places. Add a few hard drinks to the mix and the ruddy-faced guy in the corner is popping a vein in his neck while he tells you how the Rothschild’s are running the whole goddamn world. In these all-too-common scenarios, the most P.C. thing a bartender can do, is be apolitical.
In the exhaustive wheelhouse of skills required to get the everyman
drunk, political neutrality maybe the most beneficial. Nothing mixes better than bourbon and nothing; nothing mixes worse than bourbon and politics. A delicate beauty exists when dealing with a political clientele. You have to walk a balance beam. Entertaining a drunk’s conversation sees an increase in camaraderie. Camaraderie has a direct correlation to tips, and, baby- bartenders love tips.
If you are engaged in conversation and say too little, the customer assumes you agree. If you say too much, you remove all doubt. One minute you were daydreaming about paying your bills, the next the aforementioned ruddy-faced Jag is storming out on his tab and accusing you of being a Communist sympathizer. So- how do we do it, you ask? Well here are a few tricks to finding Zen in the Art of Apolitical Conversation.
For starters, always keep the customer guessing. From regulars to first-timers, never divulge too much of YOU. Being mysterious is half the bartending battle. How many of you guys and girls have sidled up to a well, looked the length of the bar, and instantly been smitten by the warrior slinging drinks three feet across from you? That piece of wood is No Man’s Land. That’s the freakin’ 38th parallel, the line of Demarcation. I have fallen in love with my fair share of mixologists, but the only reciprocal affection was the TLC I found in my drink. That’s because any Barkeep worth their salt, takes a healthy but distant approach to customer relations. The same approach should be taken during the political open season. Unfortunately some customers want to wheedle your opinions out all the same. This brings us to the next ace in the deck; small talk.
If you have ever been a bartender in a place that wasn’t quite your vibe you have learned to make mundane small talk, all for the sake of a few extra dollars. I grew up a nerd. I’m talking the “read tons of comics, loved quick recall, kicked ass at Trivial Pursuit” kind of nerd. It wasn’t until my years in New Orleans that the feverish world of “Super Fandom,” got its hooks in me. This meant that, for the first chunk of my bartending career, I had to bullshit any conversation about sports, and bullshit I did. The same practice applies to politics. When a journalist wants to pry the right words from an interviewee they ask leading questions. When a bartender wants to know what the customer wants to talk about, they do the same. Truly committed bartenders are so practiced at small talk that they can entertain even the most insufferable people for hours on end. Dodge. Juke. Form Up. Attack.
When small talk doesn’t cut it, there is another way; be more knowledgeable. Historically, a bar is a place where people go to have conversation. Each bartender is required to be equal parts philosopher, therapist, and friend. At any given moment, people from a variety of circumstances can walk into your bar, and they all have one thing in common; they want to get the goods, and they have come see you! This usually means they are going to talk to you and if you’re really lucky, they’ll want to talk to you all night.
If you want to go far in this world, it’s best to be a cornucopia of knowledge. Listen to NPR, follow the BBC World Service, read the autobiography of Julia Child, but whatever you do, know your topic inside and out. If the heated discussion reaches a point where passion outweighs prosperity then Shut. Them. Down. Give yourself the satisfaction that all those hours wading through Buzzfeed articles and TIME magazine was worth it, and make them rue the day they picked a fight with their barkeep.
Lastly, and most altruistically, try to find common ground. I know in this day and age that statement may garner a belly laugh from the masses. However, we’re in this business because we love it. Serving people a drink after a hard day is rewarding and even the meanest bastard is still a human just like you and me. I never claimed this last step was an easy one. Bartenders have a passion for their craft. Day in and day out they slog through mountains of glassware, orange rinds, and spilled beer to do what they love. Most people aren’t so lucky. The average Joe strolls into the bar after a long day at a job he hates, and all he wants is a drink in his hand and a kind word in his ear. We get to be the ones to say that word. That’s not such a bad thing.
In the coming days and months, when the words of a world leader filter through the TV, and the guy at the bar starts to shout in agreement or howl with resentment, just take a deep breath, raise a glass, and remember when it comes to the politics of a good drink…we all belong to the same party.
Chris Palmer is special to KitchenBanter.com. The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Logan or Griffin, not to mention our lack of advertisers.
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