Recently, Sam Malone himself confessed to being disappointed in the reality of playing a bartender. Why? In preparation for the role, he learned tons of mixology and bottle tricks, and none of it mattered. Instead, he spent most of his screen-time standing around with a towel over his shoulder talking to Cliff, Norm, and the gang.
How’s that for art imitating life?
Many new bartenders struggle with the glad-handing part of the job. Whether you’re naturally introverted or just find yourself struggling to locate common ground with all your guests, it can be a steep learning curve.
And as Ted Danson learned, socializing with guests is a crucial part of being a bartender.
Below, you’ll find some tips on how to improve your conversational game.
Tip #1: Know when NOT to engage.
The fact is, not everyone wants to bare their soul to their friendly neighborhood bartender. Sometimes they just want to watch the game, wind down in relative silence, or catch up with a friend uninterrupted.
Knowing when not to engage is just as important as engaging other customers well.
They key is assessing their body language, as well as their responses to your initial attempts at chatter. Signs that they might not be that into you(r company) include:
- Lack of eye contact. If they’re staring at their phone, the tv, or their friend, even when you try to engage, that’s a pretty good indicator they’re not interested in being chatted up.
- Lackluster responses. If everything you say is met with a single-word response, a bored tone, or (most telling of all) absolute silence, you should probably leave them be.
- Emotional cues. It should go without saying, but if the person seems irritated or annoyed when you try to start conversation, back off.
You can always circle back and try one more time – maybe they were trying to figure out what to order, texting meetup plans with a friend, or just not interested in your opening gambit. Try one more time with a different approach after they’ve been served; there’s a natural opportunity when you stop by to check that they’re good with their order.
If they’re still not interested, just focus on giving them attentive service.
Tip #2: Keep it light
Though some regulars may become exceptions, for the most part you want to keep subject matter light and superficial. You can’t know someone’s stand on politics, religion, or controversial current events just by looking at them, and you definitely won’t get tipped if you offend a deeply-held belief. Just skip those topics.
Generally, you’ll find something for everyone with:
- Most people will have an opinion to share on sports, movies, or TV.
- As long as you don’t touch on anything too controversial, current events can also be a common thread. Keep an eye out for “weird news” that your customers might not have seen. Florida Man is always up to something!
- In the U.S., it’s practically a required getting-to-know-you question: so, what do you do? It’s also a good way to get people talking about themselves without tripping over personal landmines.
- Location, location, location. Is anything interesting or noteworthy going on in your city? Are you new to the area? Are they? Whether you’re commiserating over roadblocks or swapping recommendations for great places to eat, local events can be a great way to find common ground.
Tip #3: Ask the right questions in the right way
The cliché of the Listening Bartender exists for a reason: it’s a lot easier to passively steer conversation with guests than to actively drive it. The right questions can do the heavy lifting for you.
There are a few main strategies to employ here:
- Start general, then get specific. The more specific you are on your first approach, the more likely you are to introduce a topic that person isn’t interested in. Start with questions that let them choose the conversational direction. There’s a reason “How are you doing today?” and “What are your plans for later?” are old stand-bys.
- Keep your questions open-ended. Get in the habit of phrasing questions so that they require a longer answer. If you ask yes/no questions, you’ll get yes/no answers, and you won’t have much to work with. Questions about opinions, thoughts, and preferences encourage longer answers.
- Use reflective listening. If the conversation stumbles in a direction that you can’t follow, reflective listening is an excellent fallback. By repeating part of what they said as a question (“car broke down, huh?”), you’ll cover your confusion, remain friendly, and encourage them to say more.
Tip #4: Be curious
Being curious about the world around you can provide a lot of conversational fodder at work, and the more widely you’re willing to read, study, or seize opportunities to learn new things, the broader the range of people you can connect with.
But if that sounds suspiciously like homework to you, then just leverage your curiosity during work hours. Most people want to talk about themselves and the things that they feel passionate about. You don’t have to have prior knowledge if you’re willing to ask a lot of questions. They’ll enjoy educating you, and you might learn something interesting (and if you don’t, you can fake it).
Tip #5: Don’t forget the service
Most importantly, don’t get so caught up in conversation that you fail to provide excellent service to all of your guests. Regularly look around for anyone trying to get your attention and excuse yourself politely when you need to.