Simple tips that’ll get you quicker service at a crowded bar

As you are reading this, in bars all over the world customers are ordering drinks and bartenders are serving them. Some are getting their drinks without too much fuss, while others are getting disgruntled at being made to wait – and it is even worse when the bartender serves someone who has not been waiting as long as you have. But this common interaction has seldom been explored in any depth.

We used the technique of conversation analysis, developed by Harvey Sacks and inspired by Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology, which enabled us to look in detail at what seem to be fairly mundane everyday interactions. 

Our research, which also included analysis of videos showing customers placing requests for drink and food items with bartenders, reveals “best practice” for getting served at the bar. It also shows just how ordered we are in our everyday behaviour.


As customers, we demonstrate our availability to enter into a spoken, face-to-face service encounter (or not) with our bodies. For example, we might avoid eye contact with or hurry past a street vendor selling something if we don’t have change, or make a show of fumbling, when in a shop, with an item that we’d like to speak to a sales assistant about.

And when we’re at the bar we “hover” – a term used elsewhere to describe customers looking for a free table in a cafe. We hover – and we recognise hovering in others. But how? Analysis of 200 customers showed that hovering means standing within two metres of the bar, with your torso aimed in the direction of the bartender, gaze focused on them, taking steps to “move into” an interaction.

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