Select Page

Throughout most of my adult life, I have frequented neighborhood bars of all sorts. There are the dives, the fancy cocktail lounges, the gay bars, the sports bars, and so on. I have found them to be essential respites from the stresses and tumult of daily life and often a place of community in a world where we can sometimes feel lonely even in the midst of a crowd. (This is especially the case these days, when so many of us are working from home.) I have had many a meaningful conversation in the neighborhood joints I have frequented, made a fair number of friends in them, and even began a long-term relationship in one of them.

Yet, as the years roll along, I have noted a troubling shift in how people conduct themselves at these bars. It seems that there is an epidemic of bad manners in these places, with patrons showing an increasingly low level of courtesy towards their fellow imbibers and barroom staff. Accordingly, I am taking on here the task of defining some rules of barroom etiquette that I hope will awaken readers to the importance of polite and considerate behavior in these establishments. Please note that what I am setting forth here are not silly little rules of etiquette adhered to mainly to demonstrate one’s breeding. Rather, the rules set forth below are about nothing other than showing respect for your fellow patrons, as well as for the barroom staff. (By the way, these rules apply, to a large extent, to cocktail parties as well.)

Let’s start with a matter that begins before you even enter the bar – attire and grooming. Both should be neat and appropriate, as this is a mark of respect for the other customers and to the establishment. Many barroom owners and managers invest a great deal of effort and money into creating a certain atmosphere in their establishment, and you should show respect for that. What qualifies as appropriate attire depends, of course, on the type of establishment you are patronizing. Sloppy attire, such as tank tops, ratty t-shirts, and sandals, may be perfectly fine for dive bars, beach bars, and sports bars, but are out of place in fancier venues. People patronizing the more formal cocktail lounges are there to enjoy the fancier environment and will dress accordingly; they rightfully do not wish for the environment to be sullied by attire that is sloppy or unduly informal.

After entering the bar, the next step will usually be to approach the bar and order a drink. (If you are meeting up with someone at the bar and you arrive first, it is polite to wait until your drinking companion arrives to order your drink, unless your companion is quite late in arriving.) Unless the bartender is very busy, I usually make a point of briefly chatting with them before or after ordering my drink for a number of reasons. First, bartenders are usually nice, friendly people who like most of their customers. They are often very interesting and intelligent and they deserve to be treated thoughtfully and as more than just someone who is mixing your drink. The most insightful among them make for very good confidants or amateur therapists (and you can’t beat their rates for these services). Second, you can often pick up valuable information about everything from goings-on at the bar to streaming recommendations and celebrity gossip. Third, striking up a good rapport with bartenders can land you free drinks every now and then.

Upon entering the bar, you should survey the clientele to see if anyone you know is there. If there is, it is polite to approach them and engage in a brief conversation or, at the very least, acknowledge them with an appropriate greeting gesture. If they are by themselves, you may continue chatting with them until any person for whom they are waiting arrives or it otherwise appears that the person does not wish to continue conversing with you. If they are with another person, it is polite for them to introduce you, and unless invited to join them, you should not linger for more than a brief period of time with them, especially if it seems that they are having a conversation of a personal nature. If they are very close friend(s), you may converse with them longer, as they probably welcome your participation.

As for what drink to order, that really is up to your personal taste, except when you are engaged in mirroring with your drinking companion or someone else in the bar. (In this regard, see my blog post titled “Mirroring in a Dating Context.”) Basically, mirroring involves copying another’s behavior or appearance in order to establish a connection with that person and it can be a very powerful way to build a relationship of some sort with another person. Where that is your goal, you may wish to order the same drink as the person you are trying to mirror. Of course, there are some people who may view this as manipulative, in which case you can dispense with it. If you are fairly confident that someone you fancy is mirroring you, by all means give them a glance or approach them and test the waters. When reaching for your drink, be careful about reaching past or otherwise crowding another patron. Where that is unavoidable, a simple “excuse me” or apology is in order. While toasting, it is always good form to look the other person in the eyes. While it is said that toasting with water is bad luck, that “rule” does not make much sense to me, especially given the number of people who prefer to drink water instead of alcohol or who go for artisanal water.

As far as tipping, the standard tip for a very long time has been one dollar per drink. In my view, that rule is anachronistic and you should now tip two dollars per drink, especially in the case of martinis and other labor-intensive cocktails. An even higher tip may be appropriate if you’re feeling particularly generous, you’ve been hanging out in the bar for an extended period of time, and/or the bartender has given especially good service. If the bartender gives you a free drink, you should tip on it even though you are not paying for the drink itself.

It is always a nice gesture to buy a drink for your companion or anyone else you know in the bar. In addition, sending a drink over to people to whom you are attracted or otherwise wish to get to know better can be an effective way of breaking the ice with them. If someone sends a drink your way, the polite response is to go over to the person, thank them, and engage in at least a brief conversation with them (longer if you fancy them).

When engaged in barroom conversation with another person, if you spot someone whom you know and who is by themselves, it is kind to invite them to join your conversation, unless your conversation is of a very personal nature or if they appear to prefer being alone. If while engaged in a conversation with another patron you see someone with whom you wish to speak, excuse yourself to your original conversational partner and briefly mention why you need to speak with that other person, rather than just abruptly turning your back on your original conversational partner. If you are the one turning to engage in the new conversation, it is always polite to invite your original partner into the new conversation, provided the conversation is not too personal. The key notion here is to avoid making your conversational partner feel suddenly abandoned.

When it comes time to depart the bar, you should, of course, always say farewell to anyone with whom you have been conversing. While not absolutely necessary, you should at least gesture goodbye to any other people whom you know at the bar, including any bar staff with whom you are friendly.

The rules set forth above are actually less complicated than they might appear. Moreover, those highly attuned to respecting others will follow the rules automatically, without any need for conscious attention to their application. While some people I know consider my views on this subject to be a bit fussy, as noted above, it is all about showing respect for others. Whether being followed intentionally or innately, these rules will make for a better drinking experience for everyone. So, here’s to respect – bottoms up!