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Why People Overshare with Bartenders

How cocktail servers become confidants and counselors.

Key points

  • It's not a myth that people reveal their personal problems to bartenders. In one study, bartenders said 16 percent of customers routinely did so.
  • Bartenders are unlikely to be responsive to patrons during busy evenings; research suggests much of patrons' confiding occurs in the afternoon.
  • The presence of alcohol may not the most important factor in determining whether people confide in bartenders.
G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock
Source: G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock

Have you ever revealed something personal to a bartender? Maybe something you have not even shared with your family or significant other? If so, you are not alone. Bars are places where cocktails are paired with confidential information and confessions. Especially during time blocks where the servers are not as busy, and have more time to listen. But the question remains, if the information you are disclosing is private, why are you sharing with a stranger?

Bartender Psychology

First of all, if your cocktail-serving confidant works somewhere you visit frequently, you probably don’t view them as a stranger. After all, bartenders are trained (and paid) to engage patrons. If you saddle up to their bar often, they remember what you order, and trust me, they also remember how you tip.

But let us not forget one of a bartender’s most alluring traits: they listen. That is also their job But the question remains, why do we overshare? The answer probably includes the reality that alcohol is both physically and emotionally intoxicating, loosening people up in more ways than one.

But is alcohol a required ingredient for oversharing? What about Norm from the television show Cheers, who sat on a barstool talking with his friends in a place “where everyone knows your name,” while nursing his mugs of beer? Better yet, why do people who don’t drink alcohol still visit bars and chat up bartenders? According to research, at least for some people, the answer might have more to do with company than cocktails.

Cocktails and Counseling

Emory L. Cowen et al. investigated bartenders as “informal, interpersonal, help-agents.”[i] They recognize as part of their analysis, the cultural significance of bars, including their reputation as being somewhere that people go to "spill their guts."

Studying 76 bartenders (average age of 34), Cowen et al. found that of the over 100 customers they served per day, approximately 16% brought up personal problems, ranging from moderate to serious. This did not surprise the researchers, given that many people head to a bar because they are upset, and once “fueled to disinhibition,” begin to discuss personal problems.

Due to the hectic bar atmosphere, however, Cowen et al. found bartenders less capable of addressing patron’s personal problems as compared with other informal help-agents, such as beauticians and lawyers, who traditionally engage clients one-to-one. Bartenders, in contrast, are required to engage multiple customers simultaneously, at least if they want to make good tips.

What time of day is a bartender most likely to be tapped for armchair psychology? During the day. Cowen et al. found that bartenders working afternoon, as opposed to evening shifts, serve an average of 40 fewer customers, were presented with twice as many personal problems, and were able to engage patrons more directly, and with greater patience. The servers also reported feeling better about the process, especially female bartenders, who valued the role of interpersonal help-giving more than their male counterparts, which was consistent with sex differences in hairdressers and other professionals. Cowen et al. note that women are more socialized to and accepting of assisting people with personal problems.

Socializing Sober

It is never a bad idea to temper conversation with wisdom and restraint If we wouldn’t share it with friends or loved ones, maybe we shouldn’t share it at the bar. Also remember that all bars serve non-alcoholic drinks, and socially, for a busy bartender, sober, stimulating conversation can be a breath of fresh air within a smothering crowd of slurring revelers.

Facebook image: G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock

References

[i] Cowen, Emory L., Barbara J. McKim, and Roger P. Weissberg. 1981. “Bartenders as Informal, Interpersonal Help-Agents.” American Journal of Community Psychology 9 (6): 715–29. doi:10.1007/BF00896251.

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