Illustration by Dave van Patten

Your Bartender Prefers You Talk About Anything — They Mean Anything — Other Than Politics

On the frontlines of the 2016 election from behind the bar, the barber’s chair and the sales desk

“When Hillary Clinton’s name becomes synonymous with ‘that bitch,’ things can become really uncomfortable,” says Ali, a 29-year-old bartender at The Six in Calabasas, a suburb about 30 miles north of Los Angeles and epicenter of the Kardashians. The issue tends to arise at happy hour, when The Six’s clientele turns pro-Trump and happily shares their unsolicited opinions on the upcoming election and its two main candidates with Ali and anyone else in shouting distance.

Her solution “depends on the customer: If they’re a regular, I’ll remind them of who’s filling their drinks. If they’re strangers, I’ll just hover in a different section of the bar until I notice they’re ready for another round.”

Such is life for people working in the service industry during an election year. The small talk that’s typically the norm — romantic struggles, the weather, money issues — is sidelined in favor of political soundbites and barstool attack ads.

But how do women and men whose paycheck is directly tied to keeping their customers happy handle the conversations around the most polarizing election in recent memory? We spoke to a barber, a salesman and a few bartenders from all over the country — people whose livelihoods depend on charming their clientele — to find out how they navigate election-related conversations without having to tip their hand.

“I’ll always find a way to affirm their beliefs if they’re not congruent with mine.”

“If the person is a regular and they’ve already revealed their politics, I’m not afraid to tell them who I actually support,” says Chris, a bartender at Auntie Mae’s Parlor in Manhattan, Kansas, home of Kansas State University. “That said, I’ll always find a way to affirm their beliefs if they’re not congruent with mine. I’ll say things like, ‘I think this, but I see why you believe that or why you would like that.’”

Not that he isn’t affected by hearing the same Hillary-bashing over and over again. “A lot of people in Kansas don’t like Hillary, and though I plan on voting for her, I’ll catch myself saying things like, ‘It is terrible that she lost all those emails,’ even though I don’t buy into the enormity of the situation. Generally, I put myself second. I’m not trying to affirm my own beliefs; I’m just trying to appease the customer.”

His chill, however, doesn’t extend to everyone else at the bar. “One of our most outspoken customers is a bleeding-heart liberal, and he’ll start conversations about Hillary all the time. If he realizes you don’t want to vote for her, he’ll explode. He’s probably our biggest problem. But as long as his drink is full, I’ll go and cut some fruit or wash down a surface and let him and the other customers solve their own problems.”

“We’ve got a TV in our shop and as soon as things begin to get out of hand, we switch the channel to football.”

“Our clientele is pretty diverse,” says Sean, a barber at Gornick & Drucker, a barbershop in Beverly Hills. “Half are Trump supporters, and half are Clinton supporters. We had this older gentleman come in, and he overheard another client speaking loudly about Hillary being reckless. He immediately got upset and began raising his voice saying things like, ‘She’s the most qualified candidate in the history of presidential candidates.’ He then went on to say that if Trump was elected he was moving out of the country and had already begun looking at properties elsewhere. The argument escalated quickly; luckily we’ve got a TV in our shop and as soon as things began to get out of hand, we switched the channel and started talking about football and making money. Everyone can agree on wanting to make more money and loving football.”

“Often we have guests who talk about Trump’s wall and the importance of physical borders between countries.”

“When government is in session, we get half of our business from lobbyists and politicians,” says Derek, a bartender at the Vintage Year, a restaurant and bar in Montgomery, Alabama, the state’s capital. “I’m a staunch Democrat, but Alabama is a deeply Republican state, which means I’ve had to tread lightly and bite my tongue on a number of occasions.”

“Often we have guests who talk about Trump’s wall and the importance of physical borders between countries,” he continues. “Though I may have different views, it’s in my best interest to keep my guests happy and let them have their conversation. I will say, however, having worked as a bartender for 10 years, the dividing lines that have been drawn in this election are thicker than they’ve ever been. You’re either staunchly pro-Trump, staunchly pro-Hillary or you hate them both. The Obama-Romney election was more about policy whereas this election is more like a reality TV show. Each candidate’s policies and what they stand for have become secondary to the person and the character they’re playing.”

“If people are assholes, I tell them to keep their tip and get the fuck out.”

“In previous elections there were more spirited debates about policies and issues, but in this election, everyone who comes in can admit that Trump is an idiot, including wealthy Republicans,” says Travis, a bartender at The Brig in Venice. “Still, even when people mention Clinton’s name — which is rare — there’s no discussion of anything specific. No one brings up Benghazi or the emails. If anything, people just say she can’t be trusted or that she’s the lesser of two evils.”

“Since our policy is to play sports and only sports — apart from the State of the Union — I usually don’t get involved in conversations about religion or politics. That’s an unspoken rule. But if people are assholes, I tell them to keep their tip and get the fuck out. I don’t want their bad karma money.”

“If they’re pressing me for my opinion, it’s because they want someone to justify their own beliefs.”

“There are three things you don’t talk about as a salesman: God, religion and sports,” says Chauncey Graham, who sells heavy equipment in Kansas. “You want to avoid hot-button issues. But if a customer is pressing me for my opinion, it’s because they want someone to justify their own beliefs. That’s when I put a damper on the whole thing by verifying that there’s something true at the heart of their opinion. If I’m not going to be their yes-man, I’ll find the validity [in their opinion] and tell them about another point of view to consider. It’s better than saying, ‘You’re fucking stupid,’ because they’ll just walk away angry. After all, at the end of the day in sales, most people will say whatever it takes to get a customer’s name on a piece of paper.”