Why Working as a Bartender Is Good Training for Journalism

Maggie Haberman: Bartending taught me how to approach people.

Maggie Haberman, a star reporter at the New York Times, was interviewed by New York magazine about “how she gets it done” and this quote got some attention:

I was a bartender for four years, and that was the best training that I had for learning how to approach people.

My guess, as someone who also worked as a bartender before going into journalism, is that if asked she could have said a lot more about what you can learn behind the bar.

You do learn how to approach people—and you learn that each customer is different and you adjust accordingly. I was a young male bartender. I dealt with male customers in a neutral way—friendly but not too friendly. With young women, you could amp it up a little. Many of the women at the bar were single and I always thought the older they were the friendlier they liked you to be. It depended, of course, on whether they were alone, with other women, or with a man.

With men drinkers, some wanted to be left alone, others liked some conversation, with sports the easiest topic to talk about. Sometimes you got to know their name but usually that took a few visits.

In my 20s I had a good memory and I liked to greet repeat customers with, “A scotch on the rocks?” or whatever they had the last time they were in. Some of the bars I worked at drew a lot of traveling businessmen and they often liked being remembered.

The most important thing that you develop behind the bar is a good bullshit detector—nowhere is more of it thrown around than among a bunch of guys sitting at a bar.

Other wisdom you might pick up:

Really good-looking men and women often aren’t very interesting—they think their looks are all they need.

You feel sorry for women—and men—who don’t act their age, who overdo trying to look 25 when they’re 50. I did sometimes ask thirtyish women for a driver’s license to prove they were 21.

Nice people, jerks, and drunks come in all genders, ages, and origins.

Based on working at two country clubs, there are a lot of rich people who either inherited their money or lucked into it and aren’t as smart or admirable as they think they are.

The dumber—and drunker—the customer the more he talks and the more certain he is that he’s right about everything. Probably true of women, but I served drinks to a lot more men.

You’re there to listen more than talk.

As for tending bar being good training for journalism, Haberman is right. I’d tell aspiring journalists to work as a bartender for four months at a country club, four months at a decent restaurant, and four months at a non-upscale bar. The education you’ll get will be worth a lot more than anything you might learn in college. And if you’re good, the tips can be pretty nice.


  1. Great piece, Jack. Excellent advice.

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