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Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

When I was a rookie bartender working my way through college, I found a grizzled veteran who agreed to teach me how a master craftsman does it. One day I asked him the name of the guy seated down at the end of the bar. “Amigo,” he said. “No, no, what’s his name?” I insisted. “Buddy, Pal, Podna,” he said, adding that “Knowing customers’ names is not important, regardless of what someone may have told you. What is far more meaningful is making eye contact, greeting them with a smile, acknowledging them, asking how they’re doing.” 

He went on to say “The bigger lesson is to stop thinking of yourself as a bartender and start thinking of yourself as a salesman. You sell the world’s mostly widely used addictive drug and people come to you to buy it over the counter legally. How easy is that? And just like any sales job, sincerity is the most important thing. The sooner you learn to fake that, the more money you will make,” he added with a twirl of his handlebar mustache.

Workers in customer service roles are expected to provide service with a smile 

A study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found workers who force smiles and act happy in front of customers have a higher risk of engaging in heavy drinking after work. Alicia Grandey, a Penn State professor of Psychology and author of the study, explained the issue was one of control – the more we need to control our negative emotions at work, the less likely we are to control our alcohol intake after work.

We perform three kinds of labor in our jobs: intellectual, physical, and emotional

Except for pathological liars and a few others, it takes a sustained effort to control our impulses and fake our emotions. Psychologists call this effort emotional labor. When we are confronted by rude and upset customers we are expected to suppress our frustrations and remain calm and composed. At the same time we are tamping down our negative emotions, we need to pretend to be happy when we are not. These things take energy and effort. I sure wouldn’t want to be a call center rep dealing with complainers all day long, would you?


Phone reps have a mute button and can release their frustrations and negative emotions unseen and unheard by customers. Front desk clerks at hotels get to leave the counter and go in the back. When they’re in the kitchen, waiters are well-known for loudly complaining about customers, then pasting on insincere smiles before heading back into the dining room. People in most customer service roles are able to step away, draw the curtain, reveal their real emotions, and let off steam before going back to facing customers.

Bartenders, on the other hand, have nowhere to go

They’re behind a bar with an audience watching them. As is the case with actors, they are always on stage, always performing, always laboring emotionally. Bartenders’ performances are deliberately designed to influence, manipulate, and control others’ perceptions. Bartenders may present themselves as friendly sorts, hipsters, jokesters, or father confessors (Why are bartenders such good listeners? It’s easier than trying to reason with a drunk).

Erving Goffman, in his landmark book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, calls this impression management. Face-to-face interaction is a far more socially intricate operation than most people know. It includes unacknowledged rituals, tacit understandings, covert symbolic exchanges, impression management techniques, and calculated strategic maneuverings. Instead of being our natural selves, we present carefully controlled and manipulated selves – we wear masks.

The more emotional labor we do, the more exhausted we get

Acting concerned and interested when we are not and suppressing the irritation triggered by annoying and rude customers is how we exert self-control over our natural feelings. “Smiling as part of your job sounds like a really positive thing, but doing it all day can be draining,” says Grandey. This is especially true for people who depend on tips. To earn bigger tips and repeat business, bartenders need to override their natural reactions. An important part of bartender work (sorry, sales) is convincing customers how very fascinating, intelligent, and attractive they are.

There are two types of acting involved

Deep acting is reshaping one’s inner feelings so as to bring them in line with the emotions deemed appropriate by the boss. Businesses encourage this as if it was the easiest and most natural thing for us to do when we are confronted by unhappy and unpleasant customers.

Surface acting is modifying our outward displays of emotion without changing our inner feelings. “Surface acting is faking what you’re displaying to other people. Inside, you may be upset or frustrated, but on the outside, you’re trying your best to be pleasant and positive,” says University of Arizona professor Allison Gabriel.

So what is one outcome of the need to perform emotional labor?

Nearly a third of the U.S. workforce admits to binge drinking. Alcohol.org says drinking problems are much greater among bartenders and waiters. The journal Addiction notes that people who work in restaurants and hotels have notably high rates of alcohol consumption. The George Washington University Medical Center found that employees in the hospitality industry suffer from serious alcohol-related problems at a rate nearly double the average.

  • The more our jobs require surface acting, the greater our emotional labor.
  • Emotional labor causes stress.
  • One maladaptive response to stress is drinking.

The master bartender in my true story has for many years been an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting speaker and counselor.

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