Many new bartenders struggle with the social aspects of the job. Initiating and maintaining conversation with a wide range of guests can be difficult, whether you’re naturally introverted or just struggling to locate common ground.
It may be daunting, but it’s also the key to success in a bartending career.
Below, you’ll find tips on how to improve your conversational skills and engage any customer that bellies up to your bar.
1. Keep conversation lighthearted
Maybe you like a good debate, but as a bartender, your role is to give guests a stress-free social outlet – that means staying away from controversial stuff. Avoid religion, politics, or any current events that are a little too polarizing.
Stick to topics that are fairly universal, like:
- Sports, movies, or tv: Most people have opinions on at least one of the three.
- Current Events: As long as you avoid controversial, the news of the day can be a great subject of conversation. Keep an eye out for weird or quirky news that your customers may not have seen.
- Their Occupation: It’s a pretty common opening gambit in conversation, and it will give you a little insight into who they are without getting too personal.
- Local events: Traffic, weather, concerts, new restaurant openings – connect with guests over what’s going on in your city. You can pick up some useful recommendations in addition to making small talk.
2. Ask questions
People adore talking about themselves and the things that they love. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys reading a lot outside of work, you can grease the wheels a little by giving yourself a primer on a broad range of topics.
It’s not really necessary to study up, though – people love teaching someone about their passions even more. As long as you’re willing to ask a lot of questions, you can learn a lot and put people at ease by engaging them on their hobbies, interests, and areas of expertise.
3. Let them steer the conversation
You don’t have to have an encyclopedic number of conversational topics if you let the customer pick what to talk about. The right questions can do the bulk of the work in getting the ball rolling.
A few things to keep in mind:
- Start with broad questions that they give them leeway to pick a topic, like “What’s keeping you busy these days?” or “Any fun plans later?”
- Don’t ask yes or no questions. If you want them to direct the conversation, you’ll have to phrase things in a way that encourages a slightly longer answer. Asking for an opinion usually incites conversation.
- Use reflective listening techniques. If you’re unclear how to keep a person talking, you can rephrase part of what they said as a question. When done right, it shows you’re listening and prompts them to continue.
4. Know when to leave a guest alone
Some customers won’t want conversation. They could just there to watch a game that they can’t get at home, or they could want privacy to talk to a friend.
Identifying people who don’t want to chat is almost as important a skill as chatting up the ones who do.
Since they’re probably not going to tell you to go away, you’ll need to pick up and heed non-verbal cues:
- No eye contact: If the guest keeps their eyes glued to their phone, their beer, the tv…if they look anywhere but at you, it’s a good sign they don’t want to engage.
- Unresponsiveness: If you’re getting minimal engagement in response to your questions (one word answers, a flat tone, or no response at all), they’re probably not be up for conversation.
- Irritation: This one should be obvious – if they act annoyed at your attempts at conversation, they want to be alone.
Instead of offering conversation, simply ensure these customers receive attentive service on their terms. Check in periodically with a few words (ie, “anything else?” or “you good?”) and keep an eye out for signals they want a refill or the check.
5. Above all, give excellent service
While entertaining guests is important, your primary job is that of a server. Don’t get so wrapped up in a conversation that you forget to keep an eye on the bar. Check frequently for new guests, empty drinks, and signals that someone wants your attention. By balancing service demands with conversation, you’ll be well on your way to demonstrating you’re a pro.