I take some pride in my ability to kick drunk people out of the bar without incident.
I’m a bit of a drunk whisperer. My parents were heavy social drinkers, and they were never shy about bringing my sister and me with them to bars, parties, or anywhere else, really. I’m basically a native speaker of drunk. I can understand heavily slurred, disjointed speech, and I know how to communicate with intoxicated people in a way that conveys patience, respect, and compassion. All of these are key to removing a disruptive guest from the bar without a physical altercation.
I do have some physical attributes that make this easier. While I’ve never been in a real fight, I’m six feet tall, able bodied, and have visible tattoos - not exactly intimidating, but no pushover. At the same time I’m not that big, and I have glasses, so an attacker might lose some cred if they hit me with no warning. I also have a naturally deep voice, which lends me an air of authority and, perhaps more importantly, allows me to be heard even when I speak softly in a loud environment.
I don’t raise my voice, which would escalate an already delicate situation, but I still need people to hear exactly what I’m saying. Usually, what I say is, “I’m sorry, but it’s time.” That line, on its own, has a success rate of about 60%. The response is usually, “Wha … okay.” And then they leave.
It takes a lot for me to kick someone out. The line is usually drawn when one guest’s behavior makes the bar inhospitable to other guests. Aggressively hitting on women will get you there pretty quickly. One warning, maybe. Fall asleep at the bar? Yeah, it’s probably time to go, but fall asleep on the couch? No harm there. Maybe even for the best. I don’t automatically kick out everyone who I have to cut off, either. If they’re not bothering anyone, I’d prefer a drunk guest stay, have some water, and figure out a plan to get home, rather than just sending them out into the night and hoping everything works out.
With drunks, patience can be painfully difficult but is absolutely necessary. I often have to repeat myself several times to convey very basic information. In the cases where guests refuse to leave of their own accord it can take a while before they come around to my way of thinking, and this can be immensely frustrating. In the meantime, though, I try not to escalate tensions by raising my voice, adopting a frustrated or condescending tone, or initiating physical contact. I stay firm, repeat myself as needed, and voice specific concerns. (“Other guests have complained that you’re making them uncomfortable,” or, “You fell asleep.”) One of us has to be the adult in the room, and if everyone else is drunk that leaves me.
Respect, in this case, means treating drunk people like people. Don’t insult them to the other guests and assume they’re too far gone to understand. They may be, but it’s a bad look, and the other guests will wonder if you do the same thing to them when they’re on one.
Don’t mistake the need to remove a guest from the bar for an opportunity to push someone around. One of the most effective ways to avoid initiating physical contact is to position yourself so that the person you’re telling to leave is between you and the exit. Given the chance, most people will take the path of least resistance. Make sure that path leads to the door. Never grab, push, or even touch them unless they grab or touch you or another guest first. Even a hand on the shoulder, meant to convey friendly concern, can be easily interpreted by an intoxicated, defensive person as an act of aggression.
If they push, I don’t back down, but I don’t push back. It can be hard to resist the urge to escalate. I take a second to regain my composure, maintain a firm posture, and patiently remind them that it’s time.
(Recently, I actually violated this “no touching!” rule for the first time in a while. I was working the door during a party and a gentleman tried to come in. He seemed out of sorts but not dangerous, but as I was about to let him pass I noticed that the back of his shirt was covered in dirt and grass. It looked like he had just woken up in a vacant lot. Before he could disappear into the crowd, I grabbed his hood and yanked him back out through the door. I was very apologetic about having laid hands on him but firm about not letting him back into the bar. Anyhow, an exception to every rule and all that.)
Bear in mind that most of us have been there at some point in our lives. I don’t drink much anymore, but, at the risk of stating the obvious, that isn’t because I never did anything stupid. Even if you’ve never touched a drop in your life, we’ve all made mistakes. I try to think about it this way: maybe the night just got away from them, but if someone gets so drunk they need to be escorted off the premises, it’s usually not because their life is going great otherwise.
I usually apologize (“I’m sorry, but … “), but stay firm (“ … it’s time.”) Being cut off and kicked out of a bar will usually make someone feel shame, which hurts, and it’s good to apologize when you do something hurtful, even when it’s the right thing to do. Don’t be so apologetic you come across as plaintive, though. You may feel for them, but you’re not asking them to leave. You’re explaining why they have to leave.
It’s rare that I’m actually mad at an unruly guest for doing whatever it is they did that made me show them the door, and it’s immensely rare that someone commits an offense so heinous that they are banned for life. Once everyone is on the same page and we’re on the way to the door, I like to tell them, “It’s okay. You can come back tomorrow.”
More often than not, their reply is, “Thank you.” That’s become my personal measure of a successful bum’s rush: if you can kick someone out of your bar and they thank you for it, you know you’ve done it right.
Cole Newton is the owner, general manager, head bartender, and, as necessary, handyman, bouncer, and janitor at Twelve Mile Limit in New Orleans. This column was adapted from his advice blog Big Fat Cocktails, which you can follow at bigfatcocktails.tumblr.com.