The trick to making a Springbok is a patient finesse. One part St. Paddy’s lime green crème de menthe, one part Amarula (painstakingly poured so as to balance on top), and voilà! You have a true South African cocktail shooter.

During a semi-impulsive post-graduation backpacking trip through Africa, I landed in the thoroughly unexpected position of bartending at a hostel in Cape Town, South Africa. With no bartending skills to speak of and a lack of knowledge of South African alcohol, I plunged forward into what I would later realize was a grand crash course in interpersonal communication. Classroom learning has its place, but as I quickly learned, there’s nothing like being a bartender to show just how complicated IP can be. And what I learned proved invaluable in approaching a career in PR.

Understanding How to Communicate

As obvious as it sounds, understanding other people is critical to communicating effectively. Working in Cape Town came with its own set of challenges in this area – most notably with accents. With Australians, Germans, Dutch, Israelis, Canadians (there are some surprising linguistic quirks), South Africans and other nationalities regularly migrating through the hostel and the bar, all communication became slightly (or sometimes dramatically) more complicated. You can only say, “excuse me?” “huh?” and “what was that?” so many times before it gets awkward.

So what is the solution? Do you make the drink that you think you heard them say and risk being wrong? I will admit to having done this more than once, and while it sometimes worked out in my favor, there are other, far more effective methods. Such as:

  • Repeating back to the individual what you heard: “You asked for a Red Bull and vodka, right?”
  • The point and shoot: “Is this what you would like?” (point to the appropriate can or bottle).
  • And if all else fails, grab a piece of paper and pen and have them write it down.


When one way of communicating fails, try another. Not getting frustrated with yourself or the other person is key. People can be surprisingly understanding of miscommunication when you take the responsibility. A simple “my bad” goes a long way. And it’s that way in PR, as well. Own up to any miscommunication issues or mistakes and work to resolve the situation to the client’s satisfaction quickly – it’s the best way to move forward from any difficult situation.

Assessing the Environment

Sometimes people are just plain rude. They want their drink, they want it now and they want it on the rocks with no ice (something I learned was not possible). On good days, friendliness, a smile and a single shot that looks more like a double go a long way towards brightening someone’s day and changing their attitude. Other days, there is no winning and a grumpy individual is determined to stay that way. How do you react?


  • Mirror a customer’s bad attitude
  • Get argumentative
  • Ignore the person because they’re killing the bar’s vibe
  • Try to change them


  • Keep up your positivity
  • Ask if there is anything else you can get for them
  • Take the relationship as it is – maybe tomorrow will be better

Smooth Sailing, Er…Serving

And then there are co-workers and bosses. The bar was no grand ballroom, so the space behind the bar was cozy for two bartenders. A mix of South Africans and Americans, the group got along well, patiently waiting for bottles to be passed, making sure everything was stocked and splitting tips evenly. In this regard, I have no horror stories. An occasional bump or spilled drink, a packed bar and not enough hands or discounts given too liberally all occurred, but in general, we were smooth operators.

So what made this team run so well? You guessed it, good communication. It never hurt to be overly gracious or to grab an extra beer if you were already in the fridge. Finished a bottle of Jack Daniel’s? Immediately replace it with a full one. Glasses piled up in the back? Take five minutes to wash them. I learned that it is often the seemingly insignificant actions that make everyone’s life easier and reduce conflict. Going the extra mile to pick up the slack can take a team from good to great, and it’s a lesson I aim to bring to my clients here at Weber Shandwick.

Finding the Perfect Balance

Now let’s get back to that Springbok. The first few times I tried to make one, I ended up with a muddy green syrup. I would get overexcited and pour the Amarula too quickly, so it would sink into the crème de menthe like a stone. After an embarrassing number of attempts, I learned to pour with only the slightest hand movement; waiting for the Amarula to ease its own way out of the bottle. It took some time, but I eventually got it.

If interpersonal communication was a drink, it would be a Springbok. Two parts (people) with two unique flavors (personalities) come together into one glass (relationship) with just the right balance. Finding that balance takes practice and patience, but it is the goal of every relationship – whether pouring a drink in a bar or sitting down with a client to craft a plan of action around a product launch or campaign.

At the end of the day, nothing can replace the experience of bartending in South Africa. I would highly recommend going out, traveling the world and finding your own interpersonal drink of choice. It may just help you in unexpected ways down the road.

Image courtesy of Tee La Rosa.

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