We’ve all seen them. Most of us at one stage or another have been presented our change on a small silver plate.
Such plates seem to emerge only at high-end bars. They never make an appearance at the more suburban working-class pubs.
Perhaps then, since they are only used in places that need to establish themselves as elegant and upmarket, change plates are used because they somehow epitomise the height of civility and sophistication. Maybe this is the case because the use of change plates removes the need for the fleeting moment of contact with the bartender, whose hands are covered in all forms of alcoholic drinks, when they return your change.
I’m not convinced, however, this is the reason for change plates. I argue that the change plate is designed to influence the behaviour of customers.
In the absence of change plates, transactions in bars more or less operate in the following way: A customer approaches the bar and orders a drink. The drink is made and given to the customer. The customer then gives money to the bartender. Unless the exact amount is given, the bartender then gives back the change. This whole ritual is all very orderly and boring.
Introduce the change plate and the game varies at the point where the bartender would otherwise give the change back. Instead, the change is no longer given back. It is placed on the bar in-between the customer and the bartender. The change is no longer the right of the customer as it sits in limbo. The customer’s entitlement has been reduced to the first right of refusal.
The customer instead is able to take the change. The customer is required to take the change from what on one level is a neutral place between herself and the bartender. But on another level the bar itself is not so neutral – it is a place very much controlled by the bartender. So when taking the change from the plate, the customer is literally taking change from the bartender.
A customer may be less inclined to take the change under such circumstances, where they are placed in the position of having to take from the very person who just made them a drink. This may be particularly the case when the decision is made under the watchful eye of the very bartender they would be taking from.
A change plate seems innocuous enough, particularly if its ostensive purpose is to highlight the ‘class’ of the bar. But it transforms change from something that is given to customers into something that customers can take from bartenders.
This transformation of change, I suggest, transforms relationships between customers and bartenders and transforms the way we behave.