A Twist of the Lips

Don’t be fooled by the smile of the publican. It can be one of several. Here’s but a few:

The most common is the ‘nice to see you smile’. This one is genuine and borne of good relations. It’s for friends, low-maintenance customers and the popular punters that add more than their share to the atmosphere of the pub. It’s for those whom we are pleased to see cross the threshold; for those who genuinely enjoy themselves in your establishment and believe that the pleasure they get is value enough without needing any special attention or special privilege.

These people get a smile not just from our lips, but from our eyes and hearts too.

The ‘that’s not very funny and I’ve heard it a thousand times’ smile is regularly beamed at those who deal in glib humour, amiable slights and repetitive catch phrases…

“Good evening, what can I get you?”

“Oh that’s very kind of you, I thought I was going to have to buy my own”

We landlords generally like this. No, it’s not funny and doesn’t deserve the fake chuckle that we proffer, but at least we know that this person is going to be good-natured, pleasant to serve and means well despite their comedic shortcomings and sigh-inducing predictability.

The more defensive ‘I’m still working you out’ smile is reserved for the over enthusiastic newcomer. The punter who walks in all whistles and bells, demanding attention from the second they’re through the door – a slap on the bar, a confident order and a quip designed to establish that this is not their first time in a pub, that they’re the boss and you’re there to serve them.

These can be tricky and there’s really only a couple of ways to play them: you either take them on by quipping back as best you can thus asserting your authority or you can demure, smile that smile and hope that they either calm down or fuck off.

The ‘fuck off’ smile is flashed intermittently at all of the above and others who deal in the odd dig. It’s a smile without humour; a toothy grin with a bite, a laugh with claws. We smile this smile because it’s all we can do. We can’t berate every customer that misses with a dig aimed at humour. We don’t call out those who will take offence at us being offended. We mustn’t engage in petty quibbles with every deadpan detractor who wishes to drag you down so they can look you in the eye.

So we carry on, with mirthless lips twisted just enough as to convey good humour whilst silently screaming. We serve and we grin, and we show no weakness. They can’t know that they’ve hurt us as that is their intention. Whether the motive is jealousy, revenge for a perceived besting of wits or simply that they just don’t like you whatever the reason, the publican cannot be seen to be injured. We are king of this castle and we cannot bleed.
But sometimes we do. On the face of it, the pub is a kind of commune; the masses rule and the only behavioural parameters are those set by general decency and social acceptability. These vary from pub to pub, but on the whole anything crossing the boundary into the anti-social or taboo is snuffed out by the many. Only occasionally does the gaffer have to pull rank and assert their authority, and rarely does the landlord do this because of a personal affront.

But sometimes there’s a spilling point. One cut too many, a comment too barbed. There is no smile for these rare occasions. No grin to cover our cracks. We are exposed as humans and react as such. We vent the pressure of a thousand jibes and just for a while we are equal. We say what’s been muted by the smiles and let out all that is normally buried.

It rarely ends well and there are usually casualties. Some customers become those of a rival pub and the parting shots are generally far more cutting than the thin veil of humour that disguises the abuse served up by those who wish to remain a regular.

And so the process begins anew. A fresh start; an empty vessel waiting to be filled again by that steady trickle of derision that must be endured in order to survive. The smiles return and the pirouetting dance between landlord and customer starts up to a familiar tune.

So when we serve you and smile, be wary of which smile we wear, and be warier still if we wear no smile at all.


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