Passport to the Pub:
A guide to British pub etiquette
5 It’s Your Round
You can study the ancient tribal ritual of round-buying in any British pub. Just listen for any of the phrases listed below, and observe the behaviour of the speakers and their companions, while enjoying your beer.
Phrases to listen for
It’s your round.
It’s my round, what’s yours?
Whose round is it?
It’s not my bloody round, I got the last one!
I suppose it must be my round again?
Ah, just in time to buy your round!
Where’s Steve (or Jim, Alan, Jack, etc.) - he’s never here when it’s his round!
Get the beers in, then!
Joe’s a good lad - always buys his round.
Don’t trust Steve - doesn’t buy his round.
If it’s your round, I’ll have a pint.
He only drinks halves when it’s his round.
When did you last buy a round?
I don’t believe it, Steve’s actually buying a round!
No, I’ll get these - it’s my round.
What is round-buying?
Round-buying is the reciprocal exchange of drinks. In Britain, as elsewhere, drinking is essentially a social activity. Wherever you come from, you will probably be familiar with a practice similar to round-buying, as drinking involves some form of sharing or reciprocal giving in most societies. This is because in all cultures around the world, the ritual practices and etiquettes associated with drinking are designed to promote friendly social interaction - although the naturally reserved British are perhaps more in need of help in this context than other nations.
Reciprocal drink-giving itself is by no means a uniquely British custom. What is perhaps uniquely British, and often baffling to foreigners, is the immense, almost religious significance attached to this practice in British pubs.
Rule number one: To the natives, round-buying is sacred. Not ‘buying your round’ is more than just a breach of pub etiquette: it is heresy.
Q. That sounds a bit extreme: why is round-buying so important to native pubgoers?
A. Because it prevents bloodshed. Reciprocal gift-giving is the most effective means of preventing aggression between nations, tribes or individuals. In the British pub, it is essential. This is because the inhibited British male is frightened of intimacy, finds it difficult to express friendly interest in other males, and can be somewhat aggressive in his manner. Male pub-talk is often argumentative - we saw in the last chapter that the argument is one of the standard forms of choreographed pub-talk - and round-buying is a highly effective antidote these verbal fisticuffs. Buying your opponent a drink is a sort of symbolic handshake, which proves that you are still mates. As one astute (female) publican observed "If the men didn’t buy each other rounds, they’d be at each others throats. They can be shouting and swearing, but as long as they are still buying each other drinks, I know I won’t have a fight on my hands". This is a useful tip for novice pubgoers: if the discussion gets a bit heated, and you need to remind the natives of your friendly, peaceful intentions, buy a round.
Despite its paramount importance to the natives, many tourists are never affected by this aspect of pub etiquette, as they only spend a short time in British pubs, often exclusively in the company of fellow-tourists. 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. If you want to participate at all in the life and culture of the pub, however, you cannot afford to ignore the rules of round-buying.
The rules of round-buying
- In any group of two or more people, one person buys a ‘round’ of drinks for the whole group.
- This is not an act of altruism. The expectation is that the other member or members of the group will each, in turn, buy a round of drinks.
- When each member of the group has bought a round, the whole process begins again with the first member.
- If the group is seated away from the bar, the person who buys the round acts as ‘waiter’. ‘Buying your round’ involves not only paying for the drinks, but going to the bar, ordering the drinks and carrying them back to the table.
- In very large groups, traditional round-buying would be prohibitively expensive. This is usually no excuse for abandoning the sacred ritual, however: what generally happens is that the large group divides into smaller sub-groups, each of which engages in the normal round-buying process. Alternatively, a large group may have a ‘whip round’, collecting a relatively small sum of money from each individual to put into a ‘kitty’, which is then used to buy rounds of drinks. In some cases, members of very large groups will agree to purchase drinks individually - you may see this occasionally among students and others on low incomes - but sub-groups and kitties are the more common solutions.
- In some social circles, couples are treated as one person in the round-buying ritual, in that only the male is expected to ‘buy his round’. This variation is extremely rare among younger pubgoers: if you witness it, you can be almost certain that at least the males involved are over 40.
- Women generally have less reverence for the round-buying ritual than men. In mixed-sex groups, they tend to humour their male companions by adhering to prescribed etiquette, but in all-female groups you may see all sorts of strange variations and exceptions to the usual practice. (Sex-differences in round-buying and other aspects of pub etiquette are explained in more detail in Chapter 7, The Opposite Sex)
Do’s and Don’ts:
Don’t expect strict justice in the round-buying ritual. One person may end up buying two rounds during a ‘session’, while the other members have only bought one round each. Over several sessions, rough equality is usually achieved, but it is bad manners to appear overly concerned about this.
Do take the initiative. If you are visiting British friends or business contacts, one of your hosts will probably buy the first round, but you should be quick to offer the next. When trying to make new friends among native pubgoers, be the first to offer a round.
Don’t wait until all your companions’ glasses are empty before offering to buy the next round. The correct time to say "It’s my round" is when your companions have consumed about three-quarters of their drinks. (Beware: the natives tend to drink quite fast, and may have finished their drinks when you have barely started.) The exception to this rule is at ‘last orders’, when another round of drinks must be purchased even if everyone’s glass is full (see the next chapter for an explanation of this strange custom).
Do participate whole-heartedly in the round-buying ritual. Any sign of miserly penny-pinching will be noticed and frowned upon. There is no need to be excessively bountiful - in fact, ostentatious displays of wealth will not impress the egalitarian natives - but you must be seen to play your full part in the ritual.
Don’t be afraid to refuse a drink. If you cannot keep up with the drinking-pace
of your native companions, it is perfectly acceptable to say, "Nothing
for me, thanks". If you alternate accepting and declining during the round-buying
process, you will consume half the number of drinks, without drawing too
much attention to yourself. Avoid making an issue or a moral virtue of
your moderate drinking, and never refuse a drink that is clearly offered
as a significant ‘peace-making’ or ‘friendship’ gesture - you can always
ask for a soft-drink, and you don’t have to drink all of it.
Insider tip: You can acquire a reputation for generosity and good-fellowship by always being among the earliest to say "It’s my round", rather than waiting until the other members of the group have all bought ‘their’ rounds and it is quite obviously your turn. You will have to buy ‘your’ round at some point, and delaying the inevitable will only make you appear reluctant and grudging.
Although round-buying is a powerful and important ritual, always remember that you cannot simply ‘buy’ the friendship of the natives. To be accepted, you must participate fully and fairly in the round-buying process, but your popularity will depend on many other factors. The natives will not judge you by the size of your wallet, but by more important personal qualities such as your sense of humour, your social skills, your style of conversation - and your drinking habits, which are the subject of the next chapter.
Research findings: We observed that, on average, ‘initiating’ round-buyers (those who regularly buy the first round) spend no more money than ‘waiting’ round-buyers (those who do not offer a round until later in the session). Yet ‘initiating’ round-buyers are perceived as friendly and generous, and enjoy great popularity among other regulars, whereas ‘waiting’ round-buyers are less well-liked, and often regarded as miserly. In fact, 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.