Summer reissue: One of the many unspoken rules of British life is that when one is drinking at the pub with others, one buys rounds. For the naive New Zealander, it’s stressful AF, says Elle Hunt.
First published on 22 July, 2019.
At the pub one Friday night in London a few weeks ago, I was at the bar with a large group of people, waiting to be served. The crowd was taking longer than usual to thin, and I craned my neck to see what the hold-up was. Then I figured it out.
All these people were in fact part of the same group – they were just ordering and paying for their drinks separately, while everyone else at the bar ordered in rounds of two or three. That alone was almost enough to give them away, but overhearing them speak confirmed it: they were all New Zealanders.
I didn’t blame them. The culture of buying rounds is easily the most stressful part of living in the UK, or at least it was until it was odds-on for Boris Johnson as PM. The system works, in theory: in a group of three people, one person goes to the bar and buys drinks for all, repeat until everyone’s had three drinks, then they go their merry ways. But in the words of Homer Simpson, communism works, in theory.
In reality, Person C arrives late after Person A has already gone to the bar for themselves and Person B. C then joins the round when B returns the favour for A. The next one should be on C, but they’ve got Parkrun in the morning and were only intending on having one – and look! Isn’t that D, E, F and F’s partner we met one time walking in? Better ask them what they’re having…
After two years in London, I am no more confident in navigating this scenario, a variation on which is guaranteed, no matter how many friends you’re with or how much you intend to drink. It is like a maths problem, or a riddle: a man spends 60 quid down the pub, orders no food, yet emerges completely sober. How? He got the bum end of the round, that’s how.
Still, being 60 quid down (don’t convert to NZD. Never convert to NZD) is vastly preferable to the alternative: being branded a round-dodger. Nothing is more frowned upon in British culture, not even queue jumping or, lately, immigration. Make a habit of skipping rounds, and no one will ever bring it up with you – they’re too conflict avoidant for that. But it will be noticed, and counted against you in your absence.
My own fear of being charged with round-dodging is such that, when I’ve had a drink bought for me but was only planning on staying for one, I have forcefully insisted on returning the favour, then, on handover, immediately left the pub. And that, I’m told, “weirds everyone out”. You just can’t win.
The goal, as I understand it, is to achieve a state of free-flowing, easy reciprocity, whereby you are serenely oblivious as to whether you will end the night up or down. In fact just thinking about it in terms of “up” or “down” is in direct contravention of this: you must trust that the arc of the moral universe will bend towards justice. To quote my sage flatmate, who never fails to get his round in, having attained this particular nirvana: “These things tend to even themselves out over the course of the season.”
In fact, there is research to show that it is better to be assertive. Social anthropologist Kate Fox, the author of the indispensable (truly) Watching The English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, has found that people who regularly buy the first round spend no more money on average than those who do not offer until later in the session, yet “are perceived as friendly and generous, and enjoy great popularity”.
Those who wait are less well-liked and “often regarded as miserly”. “In fact,” Fox continued, “far from being out-of-pocket, ‘initiating’ round-buyers end up materially better off than ‘waiting’ round-buyers, because their reputation for generosity means that others are inclined to be generous towards them.”
These remarks were made in Passport to the Pub: A guide to British pub etiquette, a resource from the Social Issues Research Centre, to which I regularly refer. (If you are really struggling, the SIRC also publishes guides to flirting, football passions, “corporate bonding at the races”, and “two great British obsessions – tea and DIY”.) The fact that a handbook exists at all is a testament to the complexity and nuance of navigating this and other “sacred rituals” in British society, compounded by the fact that people would rather self-immolate than say what they really feel.
I thought of this fraught social ritual when I read a recent article by Dr Rebecca Kiddle, a senior lecturer in environmental studies at Victoria University of Wellington, on the need for New Zealanders to have their own sites of community, equivalent to pubs “like Coronation Street’s Rover Returns”. Kiddle’s point was that such “third places”, neither home nor work, were important to people’s sense of connection – but having read Fox’s guide, I wondered: had she considered the possibilities for division?
Personally, I am in favour of the system observed in New Zealand, where you tend to buy as many drinks as you yourself want to drink, then drink them. Shouting rounds is restricted to a verbal agreement between a manageable number of people – one or two good friends, abiding by the terms of “I’ll get the next one” – or the occasional grand display of largesse.
But it is true that the functioning of any system is dependent on its participants’ awareness of it – my awkwardness with ordering rounds reflects me going from one to another as I get to grips with the many unspoken rules of my new home. While reciprocal drink-giving itself is not specific to Britain, Fox wrote, “the immense, almost religious significance attached to the practice” might be uniquely British. “To the natives, round-buying is sacred. Not ‘buying your round’ is more than just a breach of pub etiquette: it is heresy.”
New Zealanders may be relieved to hear that foreigners are mostly exempt, even by Fox’s exacting standards, because they spend only a short time in British pubs and often with other visitors. But she does add a word of caution. “Their ignorance of the sacred ritual of round-buying is only a source of irritation to the natives when they cause congestion at the bar counter by paying individually for their drinks.”