Bryan Caplan  

Why Are Bartenders So Rude?

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This past year I've often found myself in the company of avid barhoppers.  Since I don't drink, it's no surprise that I don't appreciate the experience.  But I'm surprised by how truly awful the experience is - why pay good money to hang out somewhere dark, dirty, loud, and smelly?  The greatest puzzle, though, is bartenders' lack of manners.  In my admittedly limited experience, the whole philosophy of "service with a smile" seems alien to bar employees - they're more about service with a scowl.

You could say, of course, that they don't like me because I'm not ordering drinks.  I wouldn't blame them if they did!  But paying customers get the same brusque treatment.  And it's not just during peak times, or closing time.  So here's my question for all you hard-drinking econo-nerds: What gives?  Why don't bars at least strive for the same level of courtesy as your local Applebee's?

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COMMENTS (39 to date)
Jonathan Thomas writes:

You know, that is exactly why I never go to bars, even though I do drink, as the bartenders I've encountered tend not to be very pleasant people.

MattYoung writes:

Drunks are assholes, few people can tolerate them and they are likely treated the same way when they go to Wall Mart.

Jeremy H. writes:

My experience is that a separating equilibrium exists. Bartenders are indeed quite surly until you order an unspecified number of drinks. Then they are very friendly and even give you free drinks (I have experienced this enough times to believe it is not random).

Matt writes:

I think there's a social proof thing going on. Hang around the same bar for a while, buy the barstaff a few drinks, at some point you get recognition and you are in the 'circle'. It's possible that your friends are losing points by bringing you along - nobody likes a cheapskate, even if they're feigning a moral justification.

Sohaib writes:

Matt is correct but there are a few other factors contributing as well. One is that bartenders during peak times are deluged with requests and must be efficient. But I have found they are easy to get along with when bars are relatively empty. So in your case it may be something else. Some bars have ruder bartenders than others. A big one is tips. Tipping the bartender well and doing it several times will make them your best friend no matter what time of day.

David writes:

Maybe it's you...

Alex writes:

Bartenders are busy and usually scarce relative to the amount of people clamoring for drinks. They don't have to be nice to get business. The only time when bartenders are nice, that I've noticed, is when the bar is practically empty.

Also, tips. If it's one on one in a bar, they have to work for their tips in every way. Not so when the bar is jammed. Everyone leaving a little tip in a crowded bar nets more money than a handful of people leaving good tips.

Also, drinkers always come back for more so if they walk into the bar, the bartender knows that he's got at least a pretty good chunk of their night's business. I suspect that if most people could be jerks and get away with it, they would.

I don't know anybody who expects politeness from a bartender. I go because that's where people are and people like to drink and so do I, occasionally. The polite bartender would not attract me while the rude one would not repel me.

Les writes:

The question is not why bartenders are rude. The question is why you go to bars if:

a) You do not drink, and

b) The bartenders are rude.

Steve writes:

As a hard-drinking eco-nerd I have to (sort of) disagree with the premise. I seek out bars that are close to empty, and find the bartenders are as friendly a group of people as I could ask for. Admittedly I might be biased, since I avoid the places where the bartenders are unfriendly and return a bit too frequently to the friendlier places.

Alex J. writes:

It's possible bar patrons don't want service like one would get at Applebee's or from the Wal-Mart greeter. I certainly don't. Consider that many people in a bar actually want to be left alone, or left alone with their friends.

Lauren writes:

Bryan, you need to vote with your feet.

I have not had anything like the experience you are describing. I almost never order anything at a bar, but I have been treated with the utmost respect by bartenders everywhere. I have lived all over the United States, from Connecticut, to Illinois, to Colorado, to New York to Washington, DC; and I've been graciously entertained at bars and bar-and-grills with friends and after professional appearances in dozens of additional cities, from Fort Lauderdale and Miami, FL, to San Francisco and Los Angeles, CA, to Portland, OR, to Seattle, WA; to Iowa City, to New Orleans, to Texas, to Oklahoma, to Massachussets, and more.

If your personal friends are taking you to places where the bartenders are rude, or the conditions are loud, smelly, or dark, just vote with your feet. Ask your pals to suggest someplace else, or get a backbone and suggest someplace else yourself for the group soujourn. Don't go around pronouncing that all bartenders are rude because of your personal experience till you've at least asked your friends if there are other options or till you've got some evidence to present that this is a pervasive problem that you've investigated. I do not think it's a pervasive or universal problem. Everyone votes with their feet and doesn't return to a place where the bartenders are rude or the conditions poor. Join the crowd. You don't even have to register to vote.

Bastiat writes:

It's Fannie Mae's fault.

Michael writes:

I can't say that I relate. I don't think bartenders are any more difficult to get along with than checkout personnel at the grocery store. I have noticed that service in general is worse in the DC area than any other place I have lived (west, midwest, south). In that way, I would understand your scenario.

It could just be me, but I find bartenders very pleasant, and choose to go places where a good bartender expects my generous tip.

I don't really go to packed places, and I generally leave either my credit card or cash sitting in front of me when I drink. I order simple drinks (Guinness at the Auld Shebeen, Budweiser most other places - occasionally a neat whisky). I usually wait for the bartender to approach me before yelling them down or trying to get their attention.

Ethnic Austrian writes:

I take an honest scowl over a phony smile any time. I don't want anybody to suppress their feelings beyond not punching me in the face. Nobody should be expected to do that.
And if a bartender is nice to you, it comes from his heart.

You could generalize this observation to big cities vs. small town living. I prefer the former.

Peter St. Onge writes:

I used to run a nightclub. My impression is that a mediocre bartender will act like a service employee, while a good bartender is an entirely different beast. They are rude, they almost universally steal money, and they are a bit primadonnish. In sum, they behave like entertainment professionals. This problem got worse when traffic to the club (thus bartender wages) fell off.

My explanation is that bartenders tend to be paid a fixed amount (say, $1/drink and a token hourly wage), and so the good bartenders (defined by looks and style, above all) will tend to be underpaid. Thus, they take part of their wages in slacking, stealing, and lording it over customers. Lousy bartenders (again, by looks/style above all) will work hard, perhaps understanding they are 'overcompensated'.

D writes:

Your comment assumes that all bars are very similar. Just because they all serve overpriced drinks doesn't mean that customers are after the same thing. It would be like your being taken to Taco Bell by your friends and saying that you just didn't understand why the service was so rushed and it wasn't as tasty as Brasa Roja. Similarly, there are "Cheers" style bars and "party" bars.

I suspect, but cannot prove that on top of barkeeps in smoky, creepy bars being overwhelmed by volume that to be too friendly might interfere with interpersonal markets. If you were a very different kind of person and relied on bars for mating opportunities, would you want a friendly bartender to repeatedly initiate light conversation?

CanadianBeer writes:

You are premising that all bars are the same with the expected service level. Bars/Pubs/Clubs have different markets that they cater to and hire accordingly. This is the structure to bars in urban centers.

The big club bar: Know that they have peak hours and create an artificial shortage to the market by reducing entry into the club. Bar Tenders (not the wait staff) are to serve drinks quickly with no fuss. As such they hire individuals who mix drinks and do math fast...service with a smile is secondary. These bartenders also know that their status as the gatekeeper of drinks, and act accordingly.

The dive bar: minimum wage staff with low tippers. On top of that, new customers make the regulars nervous (who wants their high alcohol/dive drinking social status observed). The bar tenders know this and does not wish to lose their cornerstone of the business. Once established as a regular, quality service improves.

Franchise bars: wait staff are generally new and would prefer to earn more in the big club. This is the equivalent to working at mcdonalds. Staff are sure to walk through the motions, but this is a temporary role that has no interest to them. And yes, they will be gone soon.

A Fellow Bartender writes:

From personal experience in Bartending, there are many different factors that affect attitudes:

1) You, as the bartender, are assumed to owe almost everyone in the restaurant something.
The servers want their drinks for the tables, people waiting for tables want their bottle of wine, the people lounging in the bar want their beer and sometimes people sitting at tables will often come and demand drinks instead of waiting for the servers. This creates an unbelievable amount of stress for the bartender, and causes every additional request to be met with apprehension, and skepticism.

2) This follows from the first statement: There is almost no barrier to entry in a bar, people can walk in off the street and demand a drink right then and there.
In comparison with a server, there is usually a hostess who holds an intermediate step in the customer service chain. A person must wait for the waitress to be ready, before being sat, and if a server is too busy, he or she can often request less customers. The bartender holds none of this power. Bartenders are subject to the demands and requests of everyone who enters the restaurant as they hold no customer veto power if they are overwhelmed.

3) If a person is sitting at the bar, and only drinking water or soda there are two problems.
First the bartender is required to give this customer what he or she desires without getting anything in return. There opportunity cost of serving water is extremely high, as the bartender is working for tips, and people drinking water almost never tip. If the bar is busy and serving a water produces no return the bartender losses valuable moments by doing so. Water service uses non of the skills that bartenders are paid and valued for.
Second, water is incredibly inconvenient as it comes with unlimited refills which monopolize even more of the bartenders valuable time.

I am very sorry about your unpleasant experience, but try to place yourself in the Bartenders shoes. If there is a full bar, the way the Bartender uses his or her time is very important. Serving 5 glasses of water will yield a much smaller return than 5 glasses of wine.

I am not offering an excuse for your unfriendly bartender, only a insight into the demands of the job.

Isak writes:

This is the page Bryan was trying to link to, I think:

Dave writes:


These comments are great. Economists viewpoints on how and why bartenders provide great service.

Having been in the industry for years, run operations, owned bars and bartending schools, taught customer service, these are insightful comments. I'm grabbed by the comments from people in the industry. Very astute observations.

A few exceptional bartenders that absolutely place customer service at the top of the list every night will do a good job of serving you. Most get very tired of the work very quickly and will only treat you well once you become a regular of some sort. Go bar hopping all the time to different places and you will rarely get great service.

These economic twists on how and why bartenders provide good customer service are fascinating.

dearieme writes:

A horse walks into a pub.The barman says "Why the long face?"

ck writes:

Bryan Caplan asks, "Why are bartenders so rude?"

It's simple. Bars are about being cool. Being cool means being bad. Niceness--the kind that you find at emphatically uncool places such as Disney World, the planetarium, or Indiana--is distinctly NOT cool. Coolness involves rebellion, being aloof, distinguishing between people who have higher and lower status, and talking honestly about things that suck. Think of the surly bartender as scenery: he's part of the genuine, raw life of human beings that is systematically suppressed by multiple layers of protocol (manners, carriage, etc.) which are MEANT to falsify our day-to-day interactions.

GU writes:

The demand for alcohol is inelastic, approaching zero, for bar-goers. It is as simple as that.

The bartender has a monopoly on deciding who gets to drink, and nearly everyone at the bar wants to drink. The bartender is incredibly powerful while tending bar.

However, most people do not respect bartenders outside of the bar, so while they are in it, bartenders often act like self-important assholes because they can.

El Presidente writes:

I don't know why they are surly. However, going to bars for the company of bartenders is probably not the best reason. If there isn't anything else there that interests you, you're not the target audience.

Possible good reasons to go to bars with surly bartenders:

1. Talent search - Sometimes it's nice to be in a noisy bar so you can be completely vane while still engaging in the socially required pretense of interest in the personality of a complete stranger who you think might be a good candidate for horizontal calisthenics.

2. Drink - While it's not the best behavior, much better to indulge rarely when it costs a lot and requires that you catch a cab home afterward than to stock up on booze and drink at home alone.

Will writes:

In undergrad I became a regular at this dodgy hole in the wall. The bartender was incredibly rude to everyone, especially during peak times. Rather than go when it was crowded, my friends and I started going there on a Tuesday when the place was empty. We tipped well. And after a few weeks she knew all our names, our drinks, and didn't hesitate to smile when we walked in. We were regulars.

After that I could show up on a Saturday night at 11 when the place was packed and--without saying a word--get a drink and a smile.

My conclusion: while tipping well is usually enough to get good service, the set-up at a bar makes tip-to-face recognition difficult. Bartenders serve so many people at a time that it might be difficult to remember whether I tipped with a ten or a one (of course if I were tipping w/ $100, that would be a different story. But not really worth it to most people...). So you just have to signal that you aren't a rude, reckless drunk who doesn't tip by showing up on off nights and tipping well.

AWHogan writes:

GU: The demand for alcohol by drunks may be inelastic, but the demand for a drink from bar X is going to be very elastic if there are a few other bars down the road. Are bartenders colluding to be rude?

I don't find bartenders to be rude. But then I'm a grad student in a small town and i drink a lot - so i'm usually recognized as a regular. So I agree with Will's conclusion.

Scott Wentland writes:

Tips are probably less correlated with performance.

Tips for bartenders may be a lot more correlated with how many drinks they have and how pretty/handsome the bartenders are. Speed and appearance are probably top priority.

george writes:

I am no longer a drinker but in previous times I can recall the habits of most bartenders ...arrogant to say the least!

Ryan F writes:

its cuz when youre drunk, you dont give a damn about the manners of the people who are giving you more alcohol.

i would know, im currently drunk. gimme credit for that...

Michael K.olczysnki writes:

There is a positive correlation between tips and bartender friendlyness. Give the bar-tender 100% tip on the first drink and they're very friendly. Especially if it's a neighborhood bar, where you can go once or twice a month and they recognize you.

However, there is such a think as over-tipping. When you tip well at first, they may give you a little extra booze in your mixed drinks. If you over tip, you might wind up with all booze...which is good, but in a bad way.

GU writes:


Good point. I suspect there are two reasons why you don't see more bar patrons "vote with their feet."

First, bartenders have some "slack"; they can give you fairly bad service and you'll just accept it if the bar otherwise suits your purposes. The bartender has to be a real jerk for you to leave in a fit of righteous indignation.

Second is a coordination problem. Many (probably most) people go to a bar with a group of people. It can be hard for a group of people to decide which bar to go to in the first place. Once there, if the service is so poor that you would consider leaving, you have to come to a decision that the whole group agrees with, which is very often a difficult task. The high costs of figuring out the next bar to go to means that service has to be truly awful for it to cause a group to leave.

Kevin Nowell writes:

I used to go to this bar that had the rudest woman bartender imaginable. But she was kind of hot looking so her bitchiness just made me want her more.

I've never had a rude bartender. I don't know where you're going - or what you're doing - that you get one.

It is my understanding that you should tip up-front if you're not drinking anything of note. A bartender doesn't make a great hourly wage, that wage is docked heavily because he gets tips, and an awful lot of people don't tip at all. My rule of thumb is to always tip 50% or more, and never tip less than $10 no matter what the tab. So if you're drinking soda, I'd lead off with $20 toward the tab (which will ultimately be $5 or so, and you can tell the bartender to drop $10 in the jar), and if you're drinking water I'd drop $10 in the jar as I made the initial order.

My first visit to a bar is usually unremarkable, but on the second and successive visits I tend to be remembered and receive excellent service.

michael e sullivan writes:

ck gets part of where I'm thinking, which is that the social expectations in a bar (especially a neighborhood or downtown happy hour bar with fairly regular clientele) are much different.

Bartenders need to be able to deal with drunk people. The best way to deal with drunk people is to be very commanding and no-nonsense. A bartender that does not command respect is going to get run over by asshole drunks who will turn it into a horrible experience for everybody else. So a lot of bartenders have a bit of drill sergeant in their demeanor.

This isn't actually rude, as it conforms to the social expectation in bars. But if you're expecting the bartender to act like a waiter at a 4-star restaurant, you might read that as rude.

On the flip side, it's possible, if you displayed your surprise openly, that *you* got interpreted as rude by regular patrons. You are the one out of your social element. Etiquette is a social construct. I'm not sure you're qualified to make judgements until you've soaked up and become somewhat comfortable in the milieu.

Rich writes:

If I accepted the premise, my explanation would be because it's nice not to have to be nice all the time. Bars are honest places: they're one of the few places that you don't have to pretend to like people that you don't like.

But I don't accept the premise. Where are all these rude bartenders? In general I am treated quite nicely by bartenders... which means I ask for a drink and I get it, and then they leave me alone.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Something I have not seen said here yet is that there is yet another category of bars and bartenders, upscale with high quality ability to make fancy drinks. These are not all that common, but I am aware of a few in the Washington area. In such places, the bartenders tend to be more polite. However, I think they are also probably better paid and respected by the owners, and the clientele tends to be much less rowdy, and also probably tipping a lot more because better off financially and aware that they are in an upscale joint, not a dive.

As for animal jokes about bars, a bear goes into a bar and orders a beer. The bartender says, "that will be ten dollars please." The bear pays and sits drinking his beer, looking rather surly. Finally the bartender asks the bear, "so, why is it that we see so few bears in here?" The bear replies, "at these prices, what do you expect?"

CB writes:

A person who doesn't drink may get brusque service at a bar unless they tip well based upon nominal (alcoholic) drink prices. Often bartenders are pleased to see a few good tipping tee-totalers since they are not likely to become drunken jerks as the night wears on. Be pleasant, tip well and have a good relaxed vibe. Bartenders often pick up on your attitude and return it in spades - good or bad.

Jeremiah Cox writes:

Hi My name is Jeremiah and I am a Bartender I have Bartended California Florida Texas and Kentucky and I understand there are some bartenders out there that are assholes and most of them are non professionals with not proper training of customer service and honestly don't know the rights and the wrongs. I am a Professional and I treat people as they treat me at the bar if a customer is an asshole to me I one up them. Why? Because honestly I don't have to serve them. I have done it many times but as long as people treat me with some respect because I am going as fast as I can to make sure they have a great time I treat them great. I just think there needs to be more professionals in the world!

Mattie Z (Tahoe) writes:

Here's some insight from a bartender....

I've been tending bar for about 10 years now, and in many different states. I have been called surly in the past, and I also have many great return customers.

A lot of the time, the establishment is to blame for the 'tude. Understaffed, poor management, etc... Sometimes the bartender just hates life and needs to get out of the business.


Here are some things to keep in mind...

1. No finger snapping, whistling, jiggling an empty glass in the air. We're not ignoring you, we're trying to do 10 things at once. We'll get over there asap.

2. Don't call me over, and then not know exactly what you want. And have your money out. Don't be so in a rush for your drink, and then stand there talking to your buddy while I wait for your money. I'm busy, and could be doing 5 other things right now.

3. Tipping... a buck a drink. Simple. If I buy you a drink or cut you a deal.... that goes into the tip. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. I go into bars around my town, and my tab is rarely more than $20. And when those bartenders come to my bar, the same goes for them...

4. There are such things as stupid questions at a bar. "Do you serve mixed drinks here??" ummm it's a bar...
14 tap handles right on the bar... "What do you have on tap??"!

I have come learned to laugh off most of the small stuff. Laugh all the way to the bank. I love this job and will never give it up. No matter how poor this country is... people will always drink....

Check out these funny videos...

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