Passport to the Pub:
A guide to British pub etiquette
3 Making Contact
When it comes to making contact with the natives, you will begin to see the advantages of the apparently irrational elements of pub etiquette. You will realise that all these complicated unspoken rules are designed to facilitate communication and sociability.
We have already mentioned the sociable consequences of the no-waiter-service rule and the friendly nature of other practices such as the "and one for yourself" ritual. But these are by no means the only opportunities for amicable contact: every rule of pub etiquette has a social benefit.
To make friends with the natives and enjoy pub life, you need a basic understanding of the social composition of the pub tribe. To the uninitiated tourist, the people in the pub are just a blur of faces - we need to adjust the focus so that you can distinguish between different groups and identify key members of the tribe.
The publican (who may also be referred to as the licensee, the landlord or landlady, the guv’nor or the host) is the head of the tribe, the high priest, the leader. The skills and personality of the publican influence every aspect of pub life. Even if you never meet the publican, the atmosphere of the pub will tell you a great deal about his or her personal style. The publican is not, however, a dictator. The respect and loyalty of the tribe do not come automatically with the licence to sell drinks, but must be earned. Good publicans are expert psychologists and diplomats, maintaining a delicate balance of friendly sociability and calm authority in all their relations with customers and staff.
How to spot the publican
Publicans do not come conveniently labelled. In many pubs, the publican will be dressed in much the same manner as the staff, and will be seen performing exactly the same tasks - serving behind the bar, collecting glasses, emptying ashtrays, etc. In pubs where the bar staff wear a uniform, the publican may be dressed differently, but in most pubs you will have to rely on more subtle clues.
First, watch the behaviour of other customers. Regulars will almost always greet the publican when they enter the pub. The publican is likely to be the person behind the bar whom everybody seems to know. These factors could apply equally, however, to a popular member of bar staff, so when you have identified a likely publican, you will need to observe his or her behaviour more closely.
Both the staff and the publican will be seen moving around the pub, exchanging a few friendly words with customers while collecting glasses and wiping tables. But the publican is likely to stop for longer conversations with customers during this process than the bar staff. This is not because publicans are lazy or easily distracted from their duties, but because this is an important part of their role. The publican is the ‘host’, and a good host must do more than keep his or her guests supplied with food and drink. You will notice that a good publican does not show favouritism by spending excessive time with one customer or group, but gives all the regulars more or less equal shares of his or her attention. Watch carefully, and you will see that while the publican chats amicably with the customers, he or she frequently glances around the pub, keeping an eye on who is coming in the door, noting what is happening at the bar or in a secluded corner.
Skilled and experienced bar staff may also exhibit some of these behaviours. In some pubs, you may even observe that the bar staff tend to adopt the mannerisms of the publican - unconsciously copying his or her characteristic posture, gestures and turn of phrase. This is often a sign of a very good publican, but can make the process of identification more difficult!
If you are in doubt, watch for the person who appears to have no difficulty in commanding the attention of staff and customers. The publican generally does not have to raise his or her voice to attract attention, and a quiet word, or even a look or gesture, will elicit a quick response from members of staff.
The tribal elders and warriors
So, the publican is the chief of the pub tribe, and the bar staff fulfil the role of official ministers or representatives. It is not difficult to become a member of the tribe, but the established regulars are more than ordinary tribesmen: they are the elders and warriors. They will therefore be among your most important and valuable native contacts, and you need to be able to identify them.
How to spot the regulars
In a local pub, established regulars will usually be sitting or standing at the bar counter, or seated at tables near to the bar. Unless they have a particularly private matter to discuss, regulars generally like to be at or near the main site of social interaction. They will chose positions close to the bar, from which they can communicate easily with other key members of the tribe. In some locals, certain regulars may sit at the same table or on the same bar-stool every night. If a person frowns at you for no apparent reason on entering the pub, you may be occupying ‘his’ seat.
The posture of regulars will be relaxed and comfortable, indicating that they feel thoroughly at home in the pub. Couples and groups of regulars will often sit or stand with at least part of their bodies facing outwards into the pub, rather than towards each other.
You may also observe a constant flow of non-verbal communications between regulars in different parts of the pub, often conducted at the same time as verbal conversations with immediate neighbours. Without interrupting the discussion, a regular will lift a glass or a chin in greeting as another regular enters the pub, and perhaps even enquire after the new arrival’s health with a thumbs-up sign, head-tilt and raised eyebrows. Offers of drinks are conveyed across the pub by the tipping of an imaginary glass towards the mouth, and everyone keeps in touch with a variety of nods, smiles, winks, waves - as well as a number of obscure signals understood only by the participants.
In a crowd waiting to be served at the bar, the regulars will be those adopting a more relaxed posture, not trying so hard to find the best position or catch the barman’s eye. Regulars know that they will be noticed by the publican or bar staff, and do not have to exert themselves to attract attention.
If you see the publican or bar staff pouring a drink for a person and handing it over without any order being given, you know that person is a regular. Bar staff will sometimes start pouring a regular’s drink as soon as he or she comes through the door.
The publican and bar staff all address the regulars by name; regulars address the bar staff, publican and each other by name. In fact, you may notice that names are used rather more often than is strictly necessary, emphasising the familiarity and personal connections between members of the pub tribe.
You will also hear a lot of nicknames – names which are not real names, such as ‘Shorty’ or ‘Doc’ or ‘Yorkshire’. (In these examples, the nicknames are clearly based on physical characteristics, profession and county of origin respectively, but be prepared for more obscure nicknames with no obvious source, and for contradictory nicknames, such as a very short person called ‘Lofty’.) Anyone addressed by a nickname is almost certainly a regular. Nicknames are another key element of the tribal-bonding process. To call someone by a nickname indicates a much higher degree of intimacy than using their real name. Normally, only family and close friends use nicknames. The frequent use of nicknames between regulars, bar staff and publican gives them a sense of belonging - and gives passing anthropologists a helpful insight into the nature of relationships between members of the pub tribe.
If a customer appears to be rude or sarcastic to the bar staff - making remarks such as "Anytime this year will do" while waiting to be served, or "Look at the state of these ashtrays, you slob!" - and receives similarly insulting comments in return, without any sign of real anger, you can safely conclude that he or she is a regular. This ritual exchange of mock-insults and backchat is common practice between bar staff, publicans and regulars in many pubs, and is again a means of expressing intimacy. (For more examples of verbal rituals, see Chapter 4, Pub Talk; Chapter 5, It’s Your Round and Chapter 7, The Opposite Sex.)
To initiate contact with these various members of the pub tribe, you need to know the correct etiquette of introduction - the best places and times to strike up a conversation with a regular or publican, and the appropriate forms of address.
Do stand or sit at or near the bar. The bar counter of a pub is possibly the only place in Britain where the natives feel comfortable about shedding their natural reserve and engaging in conversation with strangers. This is the most ‘public’ area of the pub, and people lingering at the bar after they have bought their drinks are likely to be the most approachable. People sitting at tables may find your approach intrusive.
Don’t try to engage the publican or bar staff in conversation when others are waiting to be served. Also remember that even when the bar is not busy, publicans and staff have other tasks to perform - such as collecting glasses, loading the dishwasher, re-stocking the shelves, etc. - and may not always be free to indulge in lengthy chats.
Do make use of traditional rituals. Offer a drink to the publican or member of staff who serves you - using the customary "and one for yourself" formula. You can, of course, strike up a conversation with bar staff without buying them a drink, but this friendly gesture will certainly be appreciated. If you have a foreign accent, your use of the correct form of words – indicating an unusual knowledge of pub etiquette – may be a pleasant surprise and instant talking-point.
Don’t be shy. In local pubs, foreign tourists are a novelty, and the natives are likely to be just as interested in you as you are in them. Regulars may well be bored with seeing the same old faces, and will often welcome a diversion, so do not be afraid to take the initiative in talking to them. (If any native does not want to chat, he or she will soon make this clear by answering in monosyllables or by non-verbal signals such as turning away, avoiding eye-contact etc.)
Do approach lone drinkers rather than couples or groups. But if you are male, avoid approaching lone females (and vice-versa), as this may be misinterpreted. Watch for ‘open’ body-language. Initiate conversation with regulars who are standing or sitting facing outwards into the room, perhaps leaning back slightly and looking around them.
How to introduce yourself
Don’t ever introduce yourself. The "Hi, I’m Chuck from Alabama" approach does not go down well in British pubs. Natives will cringe and squirm with embarrassment at such brashness. If your introduction is accompanied by a beaming smile and outstretched hand, they will probably find an excuse to get away from you as quickly as possible. Sorry, but that’s how it is. The British quite frankly do not want to know your name, or shake your hand - or at least not until a proper degree of mutual interest has been well established (like maybe when you marry their daughter). You will have to adopt a more subtle, less demonstrative approach.
Start with a comment about the weather, or a simple question about the beer, the pub, the town, other pubs in the area etc. Do not speak too loudly, and keep your tone and manner light and casual rather than serious or intense. The object is to ‘drift’ gradually into conversation, as though by accident. If the person seems happy to chat with you - giving longish answers, asking questions in return, maintaining eye-contact, etc. - you should still curb any urges to introduce yourself. Instead, offer a drink, but avoid using the word ‘buy’: say "Can I get you a drink?" or "Can I get you another?".
Eventually, there may be an opportunity to exchange names, providing this can be achieved in a casual, unforced manner, although it is best to wait for your new acquaintance to take the initiative. If you come to the end of a long friendly evening without having introduced yourselves, and this makes you very uncomfortable, you may say on parting: "Nice to meet you, er - oh, I didn’t catch your name?", as though you have only just noticed the omission. Your companion should then enlighten you, and you may now, at last, introduce yourself: "I’m Chuck, by the way". Yes, this may feel a bit like having the soup at the end of the meal. The subtleties of pub etiquette are an acquired taste.
You will generally find it easier to make contact with the natives in pubs outside the main tourist sites. In a busy tourist-oriented pub, you may enjoy impeccable service, and staff will be accustomed to explaining British beers and helping you to sort out your coins - but you will hardly be a novelty. In an obscure back-street or village local, however, a stray tourist will have considerable rarity-value. Your foreign accent may attract attention and interest, and you may well find that little effort on your part is required, as curious natives initiate contact themselves. In many pubs, asking a few innocent questions about the beer, the pub or the region - or even just asking for directions - will result in a flood of contradictory information and advice.
When you find a pub that you like, try to go back a few times. There is a saying in some very friendly pubs: "You come here twice, you’re a regular". Two visits will not, in fact, qualify you for the all social rights and privileges of a long-established regular, but it does indicate a warm and welcoming approach. After a few visits to a friendly local, you may well experience some of the joys of being a regular: you may be welcomed by name, offered your ‘usual’ drink and included in the general chat and banter. Much of this chat and banter will be conducted in accordance with ancient tribal rituals, which are explained in the next chapter.