I’ve been working in the service industry since I was sixteen, and in bars since I was twenty-one. Ten years of customer service have seeped into my pores — quite literally, as I’m pretty sure I catch the occasional whiff of stale jager in the shower. Luckily, the people skills and survival tactics learned through serving food and drinks have also stuck with me and I regularly apply those abilities to travel scenarios. Here’s how I believe service industry experience (specifically bartending) makes you a better world traveler…
You learn how to talk to anyone.
I can’t say I’ve enjoyed every conversation I’ve had with every customer from behind the bar — but I got damn good at pretending to. That ability often led to regulars and even friendships that I may have over-looked had I not been forced to engage with the many talkative drinkers that have crossed my path. You learn to appreciate and even enjoy people that may have failed your “bestie” test in the real world, but who become genuinely interesting once given a chance.
When you’re traveling, especially solo, your company is often not your choice. Ten bed dorm-rooms, tour groups, and long bus rides are chock full of strangers and its often tempting to pop in your headphones rather than take those first awkward steps toward conversation. But one can only travel “alone” for so long. Even if you’re traveling with friends, there’s a good chance you’ll get sick of them at some point and want to mix things up with outsiders.
The service industry teaches you to approach strangers with conversation and not worry about awkwardness or rejection.
“Sooo, you come here often?” … I think I’ve actually said that to a few people — how embarrassing! But hey, it got them talking at least.
You meet and chat with such a wide variety of people when you’re working at a bar and although it might just be part of the job description, its a skill that can be used with genuine effort while traveling and meeting strangers.
You understand the importance of manners.
I don’t care how little of the local language you know — manners are universal and a language and/or cultural barrier is no excuse to be impolite.
Working in a bar can reveal to you the best and the worst side of humanity. Rather than let that make you bitter towards the many nasty people in this world, you can use that perspective to make a conscious effort to exude the former. I must say “Lo siento” (I’m sorry) and “Gracias” (thank you) every 2 minutes when I’m trying to communicate in Spanish. Having served many people who struggled with the English language, I understand how a lack of vocab can come across as abrasive and possibly even rude. So, just to be sure, I litter my stumbling dialogue with apologies and thank you’s to make sure people understand that I’m really trying — even if I’m failing miserably.
An emphasis on manners — with everyone from the cab driver that picks you up at the airport and can’t for the life of him understand where it is you need to go, to the waitress who is waiting for you to Google Translate the entire menu before ordering — will make your life a whole lot easier on the road, and make those around you a lot less likely to rip you off or mess with your food.
You learn the power of smiles and perspective.
You’re sitting at a bar by yourself, hoping that someone will interrupt the Lonely Planet you’ve already read cover to cover and engage you in conversation.
You’re trying to convince the hostel manager that it was so NOT you who didn’t realize you can’t flush toilet paper in Colombia.
You’re playing pictionary on a napkin, trying to explain to the coffee shop girl that you want ICED coffee but don’t know the Spanish word for “iced.”
All of these situations would more likely lean in your favor when incorporating a big, genuine smile. (At the right moment of course. Don’t sit at a bar with a giant grin on your face, ya big weirdo.)
The almighty power of the smile can make people like you, smooth over sticky situations, and make strained conversations much more comfortable.
Then, hand in hand with the power of a smile, comes the importance of perspective. Missed the bus that connects you to a flight that you’ll now watch take flight from the airport parking lot? Try to see the humor in it. Like that time I shot myself in the eye with a champagne cork and for five minutes legitimately thought I had gone blind — it was really funny after I flushed the burning alcohol out of my eye socket.
Bartenders know that some of the most unpleasant, frustrating, even infuriating situations are likely to become the best stories after the storm has passed (and/or after their boss has forgiven them). The ability to apply this outlook to the many ups and downs of travel is key to maintaining your sanity with the stressful situations that are guaranteed on the road — just keep smiling!
People like alcohol, all over the world.
I’ve found alcohol to be a universal past time in cultures around the world. If you know how to mix a drink, or can share your favorite cocktail recipe with new friends — you’re sure to up your cool factor by at least 5%.
Let’s be honest here — people who work in bars know how to party. Our job is to show people a good time. That’s a skill that’s appreciated by most people in most countries.
Alcohol is also an important component to many cultures. An appreciation for craft beers allows you to experience the intricacies of local favorites. A curiosity for new cocktails will broaden your appreciation for local ingredients and the ability to enhance a new meal with a new beverage. Knowing your liquor is a lot like knowing your food — its a big part of understanding a new place and the ability to show a genuine interest in the topic, other than I wonder how fast this can get me drunk, is definitely useful.
You make fast money — which you can save for TRAVEL!
You can’t be good at world travel until you’re actually traveling the world and you can’t travel the world without money. Working in a bar is really good money. Case closed.
And lastly, on the flip side, here’s one reason that travel makes you better at working in the service industry…
You learn to be sensitive to foreigners and understand cultural differences.
I have a confession to make. I’ve developed an obsession for mojitos.
Another confession — when people used to order mojitos from me, or anything that involved muddling fruit, I’d secretly want to bash their skull in with my muddler. Drinks that involve muddling are a bit more time consuming than throwing rum and coke into a rocks glass and I quite often just couldn’t be bothered.
Now, if you live in a place like New York City, you probably know not to order something complicated when fifteen people are shoving each other for bar space and waving bills for the bartender’s attention. But that seems to be an unspoken rule that is lost on tourists who are accustomed to ordering these drinks, no matter the crowd.
I totally get it now. Mojitos are delicious. I feel a tiny bit of bartender guilt every time I order one, but I just keep doing it because THEY’RE SO GOOD and also because a lot of people in Colombia drink them regularly so its totally acceptable to do so, even in a busy bar.
Cultural practices and faux-pas can feel incredibly overwhelming and tedious to those who are new to a location. From a bartender’s perspective, this can be downright irritating. Like, “Oh you want ‘a beer’ do ya? How about you tell me which of our twenty-five beers you’d like instead of making me pick??” Some cultures are used to having one beer to choose from, or they have no idea what to order because not a single bottle looks familiar, or they’ve just gotten off a bus and they’re nervous and alone and they just want a drink without someone scrutinizing how they order it!
I’m absolutely guilty of being a judgemental bartender and wincing at the sound of a foreign language. Now that I’m on the other side of the situation, I’m learning how insensitive I may have been in the past.
If I ever go back to bartending, I’ll remember that once upon a time, I ordered mojitos in Colombia and bartenders never gave me the stink eye. Then I’ll muddle that mint with all my heart and soul and hopefully in the process, make a lonely tourist feel a little bit more at home — because that’s what the service industry is all about. Then I’ll ask them if I can please sleep on their couch if I ever visit their country — with a big smile, of course.
Have you worked in the service industry? What lessons did it teach you that can be applied to travel?
Let’s hear it!