Passport to the Pub:
A guide to British pub etiquette
Pub-talk, the most popular activity in all pubs, is a native dialect with its own distinctive grammar. There are two types of pub-talk. The first type, which we may call ‘choreographed pub-talk’, may initially sound remarkably like ordinary conversation, but the patient eavesdropper will soon detect recurring patterns and rhythms. The second type, ‘coded pub-talk’, will be utterly incomprehensible to anyone who is not a regular in that particular pub.
These classifications do not refer to the subject of the conversation, but to the way people talk - the structure of their conversations, the unspoken rules they obey, the special terminology they use. There are very few restrictions on what you can talk about in British pubs: pub etiquette is concerned mainly with the form of your conversation, not the content.
We tend to think of rules and laws as unpleasant things, imposing limits and restrictions on our behaviour, inhibiting our natural spontaneity and creativity. The very word ‘etiquette’ may evoke an image of stuffy propriety. Yet the unwritten rules governing pub-talk are not restrictive or inhibiting - quite the opposite. Like all other aspects of pub etiquette, they are designed to promote sociability. If anything, they encourage more verbal exchanges, more communication, than would otherwise occur among the naturally reserved natives.
The greeting ritual
The greeting procedure mentioned in the last chapter is a good example. When a regular enters the pub, you will often hear a chorus of friendly greetings from other regulars, the publican and bar staff ("Evening, Joe", "Alright, Joe?", "Wotcha, Joe", "Usual is it, Joe?", etc.). The regular responds to each greeting, usually addressing the greeter by name or nickname ("Evening, Doc", "Alright, there, Lofty?", "Wotcha, Bill" "Usual, thanks, Pauline", etc.). No-one is conscious of obeying a rule or following a formula, yet you will hear the same greeting ritual in every pub in the country.
Pub etiquette does not dictate the actual words to be used in this exchange - and you may hear some inventive and idiosyncratic variations. The words may not even be particularly polite: a regular may be greeted with "Back again, Joe? - haven’t you got a home to go to?" or "Ah, just in time to buy your round, Joe!".
How to join in
When you first enter a pub, don’t just order a drink – start by saying "Good evening" or "Good morning" (both are often shortened to " ’ning"), with a friendly nod and a smile, to the bar staff and the regulars at the bar counter. For most natives, this will trigger an automatic, reflex greeting-response, even if it is only a nod. Don’t worry if the initial response is somewhat reserved. By greeting before ordering, you have communicated friendly intentions. Although this does not make you an ‘instant regular’, it will be noticed, and your subsequent attempts to initiate contact will be received more favourably.
A more complex example of choreographed pub-talk is the pub-argument. You may well hear a lot of arguments in pubs - arguing is the most popular pastime of regular pubgoers - and some may seem to be quite heated. But pub-arguments are not like arguments in the real world. They are conducted in accordance with a strict code of etiquette. This code is based on the First Commandment of pub law: "Thou shalt not take things too seriously".
The etiquette of pub-arguments reflects the principles enshrined in the unwritten ‘constitution’ governing all social interaction in the pub: the constitution prescribes equality, reciprocity, the pursuit of intimacy and a tacit non-aggression pact. Any student of human relations will recognise these principles as the essential foundation of all social bonding, and social bonding is what pub-arguments are all about.
Rule number one: The pub-argument is an enjoyable game - no strong views or deeply held convictions are necessary to engage in a lively dispute. Pub regulars will often start an argument about anything, just for the fun of it.
A bored regular will often deliberately spark off an argument by making an outrageous or extreme statement, and then sit back and wait for the inevitable cries of "Rubbish!" - or something less polite. The initiator will then hotly defend his assertion (which he secretly knows to be indefensible), and counter-attack by accusing his opponents of stupidity, ignorance or worse. The exchange may continue in this fashion for some time, although the attacks and counter-attacks will often drift away from the original issue, moving on to other contentious subjects and eventually focusing almost entirely on the personal qualities of the participants. You may notice, however, that opponents continue to buy each other drinks throughout the slanging match.
By the end, everyone may have forgotten what the argument was supposed to be about. No-one ever wins, no-one ever surrenders. When participants become bored or tired, the accepted formula for terminating the argument is to finish a sentence with " - and anyway, it’s your round". Opponents remain the best of mates, and a good time has been had by all.
How to join in
Do not try to join in arguments taking place at tables: only those which occur at the bar counter are ‘public’ arguments. Even at the bar counter, watch for the ‘open’ body-language which signals that others are welcome to participate. Involvement of the bar staff or publican is another sign that the argument is public rather than personal. Body-language and facial expressions are also your best guide to the level of ‘seriousness’ of the dispute. Heated and even insulting words may be used, but in most pub-arguments the relaxed posture and expressions of the participants reveal the lack of any real hostility. Once you have established that the argument is both public and non-hostile, feel free to add your comments and opinions - but remember that this is a game, and do not expect to be taken seriously. Also remember that round-buying is the most effective non-aggression signal. If you inadvertently cause offence, or find yourself in any trouble, buy a round of drinks for your companions. The phrase "I think it must be my round" should get you out of almost any difficulty. (See Chapter 5, It’s Your Round, for an explanation of the magical power of the round-buying ritual)
Warning: If you are the sort of person who likes conversations to proceed in an orderly manner, you will find the rambling, haphazard, free-association type of pub-talk very frustrating. But when pubgoers are in free-association mode, attempts to get them to focus on a particular subject for more than a few minutes will probably be fruitless and will certainly make you unpopular.
Psychoanalysts often use a technique called free-association, which involves asking patients to say whatever comes into their mind in association with a particular word or phrase.
Listen carefully, and you will realise that most pub-talk is also a form of free-association - which may help to explain its socially therapeutic effects. In the pub, the naturally reserved and cautious natives shed their inhibitions, and give voice to whatever passing thought happens to occur to them. You will notice that pub-conversations rarely progress in any kind of logical manner; they do not stick to the point, nor do they reach a conclusion.
Pub-talk moves in a mysterious way - mostly in apparently random sideways leaps. A remark about the weather triggers a prediction as to which horse will win the big race at Cheltenham, which triggers an argument about the merits of the National Lottery, which leads to a discussion of the latest political scandal, which provokes some banter about the sexual prowess of one of the regulars involved in the discussion, which is interrupted by another regular demanding assistance with a crossword clue, one element of which leads to a comment about a recent fatal traffic accident in the neighbourhood, which somehow turns into a discussion about the barman’s new haircut and so on. There is a vague logic in some of the connections, but most changes of subject are triggered by participants ‘free-associating’ with a random word or phrase.
How to join in
Free-association is the easiest form of choreographed pub-talk to join in. Having established that the conversation is ‘public’ (taking place at the bar counter, open body-language, etc.), you just say whatever happens to come into your head in connection with the current topic of conversation.
Jokes, puns, teasing, wit, banter and backchat are all essential ingredients of pub-talk. In fact, you will notice that most pub-talk has an undercurrent of humour, never far below the surface.
Pub humour can sometimes be bold and bawdy, but the stereotype of loud, beer-bellied males exchanging dirty jokes is inaccurate and unfair. Most pub humour is quite subtle - occasionally to the point of obscurity - and some participants have a command of irony that would impress Jane Austen.
Rule number two: Be prepared to laugh at yourself, as you will almost certainly be teased.
Like Austen’s Mr Bennet, pub regulars are disposed to find the faults and follies of others amusing, rather than distressing. A pompous or boastful person will often be encouraged to expound on his favourite topic ("Oh, did you really?" "Do tell us about it!") purely so that the audience may laugh at his self-importance. If you are inclined to take yourself a bit too seriously, to mention your high-powered job more often than is strictly necessary, or to derive too much enjoyment from the sound of your own voice - beware! Any over-obvious attempts to impress the highly egalitarian natives will have the opposite effect.
But if you are teased about your failings, do not be upset or offended. Teasing is a sign that you are liked, in spite of your faults. Among regulars, everyone is subjected to at least some teasing - even the most amiable and popular person will be found to have some quirk or mannerism worth laughing at. If the natives did not like you, they would not tease you, but would simply ignore and avoid you.
How to join in
As a newcomer, it is best to show that you can laugh at yourself before poking fun at your new acquaintances. You may not be able to match the dry wit and quick repartee of native pubgoers, but as a foreigner, you do have two advantages. First, British pubgoers tend to regard all foreigners as intrinsically funny. If you are prepared to laugh at yourself, all of your apparent disadvantages such as language difficulties, unfamiliarity with native customs, ignorance about British beer etc. are potential sources of amusement. Second, regulars may well be bored with each other’s familiar repertoire of jokes, and will welcome any fresh material you can offer.
Advice: Remember that native pubgoers are masters of irony, and particularly adept at maintaining a straight face while joking and teasing. Do not assume that they mean what they say, or take their words too literally. An apparently serious criticism or compliment about, say, your appearance, personal habits or national character, may well be intended as a joke. Never forget the First Commandment of Pub Law "Thou shalt not take things too seriously".
Now that you know the basic rules of etiquette, you will find it easy to participate in the various forms of choreographed pub-talk. Coded pub-talk is a different matter. Even if English is your first language, and you have read this book diligently from cover to cover, you will find some pub conversations utterly incomprehensible.
A busy Sunday lunchtime in a local pub. A few regulars are standing at the bar, where the publican is serving. Publican places a pint of bitter in front of Regular 1, who hands over money.
Regular 1 (to Publican): "Where’s meat and two veg, then?"
Publican: "Dunno, mate – should be here by now."
Regular 2: "Must be doing a Harry"
- All laugh -
Regular 1: (to Publican) "Put one in the wood for him, then - and yourself?"
Publican: "I’ll have one for Ron, thanks."
To de-code this conversation, you would need to know that the question about "meat and two veg" was not a request for a meal, but an enquiry as to the whereabouts of another regular, nicknamed ‘Meat-and-two-veg’ because of his rather conservative, unadventurous nature (meat and two vegetables being the most boring, standard British meal). You would also need to know that "doing a Harry", in this pub, means ‘getting lost’, Harry being another regular, known for his absent-mindedness. "Put one in the wood for him" is a version of a more common pub-phrase, meaning ‘reserve a pint of beer to give him when he arrives’. You may hear "Put one in for." or "Leave one in for." in many pubs, but "Put one in the wood for." is a regional variation, found mainly in parts of Kent.
The phrase "and yourself" is a contraction of ‘and one for yourself’, the standard formula for offering a drink. The "Ron" referred to by the Publican, however, is not a person. ‘Ron’ is short for ‘later on’. So, Regular 1 is buying a drink now, to be served to Meat-and-two-veg when he arrives (assuming that Meat-and-two-veg has not, in fact, become as absent-minded as Harry and got lost), and offering the publican a drink, which the publican accepts, but will not consume until later on, when he is less busy. Simple, really.
Silent coded pub-talk
To confuse you further, some coded pub-talk is conducted almost entirely in sign-language, like the following brief ‘conversation’ between regulars in a local pub.
Two regulars, male and female, are sitting at a table near the bar, exchanging good-humoured backchat with other regulars standing at the bar counter. Regular 1, standing at the bar, catches the eye of the seated male regular, and nods towards the seated regular’s drink and that of his female companion, raising his eyebrows. The seated regular pretends to have a heart-attack. Regular 1 says "Oh, shut up". The other regulars fall about laughing.
To decipher this exchange, you would need to know that the regular at the bar is not noted for his generosity, that his sign-language was an offer to buy the seated regulars a round of drinks, and that the pantomime heart-attack was an exaggerated expression of shock at this unprecedented offer. A fairly typical ‘conversation’, but difficult to de-code unless you are familiar with the characters and reputations involved.
There is no short-cut to deciphering coded pub-talk. Every pub has its own private language of in-jokes, nicknames, phrases and gestures. Like the private languages of other social units such as families, couples, school friends etc., coded pub-talk emphasises the social bonds between pub regulars, reinforcing their sense of ‘belonging’.
Private languages are, by definition, exclusive - but don’t take it personally. The natives are not speaking gobbledegook just to confuse innocent tourists and anthropologists: coded pub-talk is designed to be incomprehensible to all outsiders, anyone who is not a loyal member of that particular pub-tribe. The more time you spend in the pub, the easier it will be to crack the code.