The Imbiber: 5 Ways to Master Bar Conversations

By Dan Dunn

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Master any bar conversation with these 5 tips.


It’s been observed that there are only seven unique plot lines in the world, and all books, movies and plays are just variations on those themes. The same is true for barroom conversations, except there are only five. (There used to be six, but when Bukowski died he took one to the grave with him.) As someone who gets paid to go out to bars, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to observe these types in action. And since I’m on the road a lot of the time, I’m going to most of these places for the first time, often by myself. This has only fueled my rabid curiosity for talking to strangers. I’m not looking to become best friends with these people, I just want to hear what comes out of their mouths after I get them going. Boozy repartee is the lifeblood of any spirits scribe worth his margarita salt, and I am, if nothing else, a professional. (It says so on my organ donor card. Well, what it actually says is “anything but the liver.” Same thing, really.)

Here, then, are the five unique types of barroom conversations, and my hard-won advice on navigating them successfully:

1. Boy Meets Girl

There is a big difference between picking up a woman in a bar and meeting a woman in bar. To achieve the latter—almost always a more rewarding experience—you need to stay off the rehearsed lines and get into some genuine, off-the-cuff banter. The most important part of making that happen, however, is the groundwork you lay in the bar before the conversation starts. The main thing you need to do is build a Coalition Of The Thrilling, which is to say, a third-party group that can validate how awesome you are to the object of your ardor. This means becoming what I call “Liquor Fabulous.” It all starts with the bartender. Get his or her name when you walk in, write it on your hand and tip well (this does wonders for helping a barkeep remember your name). Now you just need to strike up a conversation with the other well-lubricated patrons around you (see conversations two through five below). Once you have a decent Coalition built, when you do get a chance to chat up the hottie who just walked in, everyone will know your name and think you’re the funniest bastard that ever lived. She’ll never know what hit her.

2. Be Somebody!

Somebody else, that is. Somebody a lot cooler than you. For instance, a few months back I had a grand old time in the lobby bar at the The Morrison Hotel in Dublin, regaling the locals with the story of the time I was forced to turn back just 500 feet from the summit of K2. I grew somber as I recounted how rapidly and unexpectedly the weather conditions had deteriorated. And then when my Sherpa lost his footing and broke his ankle, well, I had no choice but to strap him to my back and turn around. Fortunately, I’d brought along a pair of Telemark skis.

“Now keep in mind it was no easy task securing Tenzing to my back, given that I was already carrying little Timmy,” I said, tossing back the remainder of a tall glass of Redbreast whiskey.

“Little Timmy?” someone asked. I think her name was Siobhan.

“Yes,” I whispered, my voice cracking ever so slightly. “From the Make-a-Wish Foundation.”

And then the tears came. Oh, how those tears came. I’m pretty sure I got laid that night.

3. Say What?

Between the noise in the joint and the spirits in its patrons, conversations tend to drift miles from their intended destinations. Let them. Life is too short to not find out what’s out there in left field. Last weekend, hunkered down at The King’s Head, my favorite local pub, I got into a debate over who would win an imaginary fight between a drunk and a stoner. Not the most interesting topic, I’ll admit, which is why I was happy when it went off the rails and into a ditch. My dance partner in this mess was a spiky-haired, 20-something Club Dude who had apparently downed a bunch of E earlier in the evening. No doubt this helped the conceptual slipperiness of what followed.

“Before considering this question we must first establish the identities of the parties under the influence,” I said, in as professorial a manner as I could manage in a semi-inebriated state.

Club Dude nodded in agreement. “For instance, take noted puffer Chris Robinson, frontman for the Black Crowes. Dude weighs about a buck-05, if he's soaked with bong water. Let's put him up against another Crowe, say Russell. Chris would wind up on his back faster than a one-legged hooker."

Club Dude concurred. “Russell Crowe is one nasty drunk. I partied with that guy once at my buddy Todd’s place in Malibu. Kept rambling on about what a bad-ass he was cuz he wrote Fast Times at Ridgemont High and shit.”

"Sounds like a nasty scene, but I will say one thing for Cameron Crowe, he knows how to write a tune," I added, picking up this rapidly mutating football and running with it.

"Yeah, what's that song, 'Mister Jones?' I love that shit." he replied, revealing a taste in music as appalling as his taste in hair product.

"Yeah, I'd do Sheryl Crow in a hot minute," I fired back.

“Me, too, bro,” he laughed, tossing an arm around me. “Me, too.”

4. The Parasite

This maneuver has the highest degree of difficulty of the bunch. Even seasoned tavern talkers have a hard time pulling it off consistently. I’m talking about the black art of injecting yourself into someone else’s conversation. If you’re game to give it a go, note that your success relies almost entirely on brevity and timing. When you butt in uninvited, you’ve got five, maybe ten words with which to make an impression and be invited in. If they’re not delivered at precisely the right moment, you’re toast. It’s just “Hey, David Bowie wore tights,” and out. Lean back, say no more. Worked like a charm for me once with a couple of British magazine editors in Budapest. Tried something similar in Miami, though, and fucked it all up trying to quote the chorus to “Velvet Goldmine.” Again, brevity and timing, my friends. Just don’t forget what a raging bitch karma can be. Do this enough and you’re bound to find this technique coming back at you from the other direction. When your conversation is the one being butted in upon, it can either be the beginning of a beautiful friendship or a the end of a potentially magical night. If you sense you’re about to end up on the wrong end of a rag session about some lush’s hag of an ex-wife, just remember these magic words: “Before we get into that, can I tell you about my personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” Works every time.

5. The Diplomat

Engage in enough conversations with drunken strangers, and trouble is bound to rear its ugly head. Maybe you made an impolitic remark about the Mets' chances in this year’s world series and the biggest Mets fan in the world now has strong opinions about the manliness of your shirt. In fact he’d like to butch it up a bit by decorating it with, say, your blood. It may seem as though the conversation has moved past the verbal rebuttal phase and into “let me make that point another way” territory, but there are still a number of ways to achieve a non-violent resolution:

a) Apologize and offer to buy the next round. This should settle things down, at least momentarily. Hell, one of his friends may even concede that you have a point, and claim this is the year the Royals finally turn things around. Don’t let the fleeting feeling of brotherhood lull you into a false sense of security. You need to get out of Dodge at your earliest opportunity, because eventually shirt guy will forget all about that conciliatory whiskey sour you bought him (ironically, he’ll forget because of that whiskey sour you bought him) and remember that you referred to his hero David Wright as a “poor man’s A-Rod.”

b) Apologize, offer to buy the next round, and excuse yourself to take a leak. Then sneak out and stick them with the tab. A strategy for the thrill seeker.

c) If all else fails and you’re in clear and present danger with no line of escape, try throwing up on yourself. It’ll be messy and embarrassing, sure, but think about it—not even Mike Tyson would hit a man who just puked himself. And take it from someone who knows: your lunch washes out a lot easier than blood.

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