Passport to the Pub

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Passport to the Pub:
A guide to British pub etiquette

6 What’s Yours?

Rule number one: Drinking is never an entirely random activity. Whatever part of the world you come from, you will know that it is not socially acceptable to drink ‘just anything’, indiscriminately, at any time and in any place.

In all cultures where alcohol is consumed, drinking is hedged about with unwritten rules and social norms regarding who may drink how much of what, when, where, with whom and in what manner. The rules are different in different countries and different social circles, but there are always rules.

In some countries, such as Britain and North America, going to a bar before work in the morning to drink a glass of wine or strong spirits would be unthinkable: in others, such as France and Spain, this is a traditional practice among working people. In many countries, the rules governing the consumption of different types of drink involve complex and subtle distinctions. In France, for example, the aperitif must be drunk before the meal, different types of wine are served with different foods, and the digestif can only be served after the meal. Among the Vlach Gypsies of Hungary, equally strict rules apply to the drinking of brandy. Brandy may only be consumed in three specific situations: first thing in the morning, in the middle of the night at a funeral and by women prior to a rubbish-scavenging trip.

Naturally, we all regard each other’s drinking customs as highly eccentric and peculiar, but we generally obey the unspoken rules of our own drinking etiquette without question. In fact, we are often not even aware that we are obeying a rule: it simply never occurs to a Frenchman to serve a drink classified as a digestif before sitting down to eat, and a Vlach Gypsy-woman wouldn’t dream of drinking brandy unless rubbish-scavenging were on the day’s agenda. Even in societies with less rigid drinking etiquettes, we do not drink beer with our cornflakes at breakfast-time, or serve pina colada cocktails with the meat course at a formal dinner-party.

Of course, you are officially free to drink whatever you like in British pubs, and when a native asks "What’s yours?" (or "What can I get you?", "What are you drinking?", etc.), you can simply name your favourite beverage. But if you are keen to understand and participate in native customs, you should remember that "What’s yours?" is a socially loaded question.

Rule number two: You are what you drink - and when, where and how you drink it.

From your choice of beverage, the natives will make all sorts of assumptions about your social background, your age, your class, your personality and even your sexual orientation. Although some allowances may be made for foreign ignorance or eccentricity, they will judge you according to the rules of British drinking etiquette, not those of your own culture.

Most natives will not able to explain the British rules with any degree of clarity. Indeed, many a native will deny that there are any rules, insisting that everyone drinks what they like in Britain and that he drinks pints of lager only because it is thirst-quenching and he happens to like the taste (just as teenagers claim that they wear the latest street-fashion item because it is comfortable). You don’t have to believe him. The fact is that choice of beverage is rarely a simple matter of personal taste. The unspoken etiquette of beverage choice in British pubs, obeyed, consciously or otherwise, by the majority of pubgoers, includes the following rules:

When, where, what and how much

The British are essentially a beer- and spirits-drinking culture. The popularity of wine is increasing rapidly, but this trend is not yet evident in the majority of ordinary pubs, which still tend to serve only a limited range of wines.

Drinking alcohol before 11am is generally frowned upon. In some middle-class circles, the morning taboo period ends slightly later - nearer to midday - but for most regular pubgoers the taboo is lifted at 11am, which just happens to be the time at which the pubs open.

Some British industries and companies have recently been infected with the ‘new puritanism’ imported from America, and their executives make a virtuous point of not drinking alcohol at lunchtime. If you are visiting on business, you may need to watch out for signs of this fad.

Although the pubs open at 11am (noon on Sundays), you will not see many people drinking spirits at this time in the morning. Even in Scotland, only ‘serious drinkers’ will start on the whisky the minute the pub doors open. Ordinary folk are more likely to drop in for a leisurely pint or a half with their morning newspaper.

‘Last orders’ and ‘time’

The etiquette on when and how much to drink is complicated by the ritual practices associated with ‘last orders’ and closing time. At around 10.50 in the evening (10.20 on Sundays), in all British pubs, you will see or hear one or more of the following:

A loud bell will ring

The lights will flash on and off

The publican or a member of bar staff will shout "Last orders, please!" (or "Last orders, ladies and gentlemen!" or "Last orders at the bar now, please!" or some other variation)

Then you will witness a strange phenomenon. The sound of the bell, the flashing lights or the cry "last orders" has an extraordinary effect on the native pubgoers. You remember the scientist Pavlov’s dogs, who became accustomed to hearing a bell ring before being fed, and ended up salivating in anticipation of dinner every time they heard a bell? Well, the natives don’t exactly start drooling and frothing at the mouth when they hear the ‘last orders’ bell, but it does seem to trigger a similar involuntary reflex: the overwhelming urge to buy another drink. Apparently sane people, who have behaving quite normally all evening and have full glasses in front of them, will suddenly rush up to the bar, pushing and shoving in their haste to obtain that final pint. We do this automatically, even when we don’t really want another drink.

At 11 o’clock (10.30 on Sundays), the bell rings again (or the lights flash), and the publican may call out "Time, ladies and gentlemen". At this signal, you will notice that the natives immediately slow down their drinking-rate. After the mad rush, they now seem in no hurry at all to consume the drink they were so desperate to procure. Having gulped the previous two pints as quickly as possible, they now sip, slowly and deliberately. This phase of the ritual is called ‘drinking-up time’. Legally, it takes 20 minutes to finish the last drink. The natives’ instinctive, Pavlovian reaction to the second bell is to try to make it last much longer.

Pavlov, in this case, is the nanny-state. In other countries, adults decide for themselves when it is time to drink up and go home to bed. In Britain, we are deemed incapable of making this sort of difficult grown-up decision, so we have licensing laws to tell us when it is bedtime. The publican, in loco parentis, has to enforce these laws, ensuring that we all finish our drinks and leave the pub by twenty-past eleven. The result, not surprisingly, is that we behave like rebellious children - whining, dawdling, complaining, taking forever to finish our last drink, hiding in corners in the hope that we won’t be noticed and trying to wheedle the poor publican into letting us stay up late, just this once. The ritual ends with the publican and bar staff moving wearily around the pub, chanting "Come on now, let’s have your glasses, please", "Drink up now - haven’t you got homes to go to?", until the last recalcitrant stragglers eventually obey.

Who drinks what

Working-class females have the widest choice of beverages, in terms of social acceptability. Pub etiquette allows them to drink almost anything that takes their fancy - from creamy or sweet liqueurs and cocktails, to the full range of soft-drinks, ‘designer-drinks’ and beers. The only minor restriction is on the size of glass from which they may drink their chosen beer. In many working-class circles, drinking ‘pints’ is considered unfeminine and unladylike, so the majority of women in this social category drink ‘halves’.

Next in order of freedom of choice are middle/upper-class females. They are somewhat more constrained, in that the more sickly-sweet liqueurs and cocktails are regarded as rather vulgar by this social group, and to order a Babycham or a creamy chocolate liqueur would raise a few eyebrows. Female pint-drinking, however, is now acceptable, particularly among students, the under-25s and the aristocracy. Among students, our researchers found that females often felt they had to provide an explanation if they ordered a half rather than a pint. Middle/upper-class females can also partake freely of all wines, spirits, ciders, sherries and soft-drinks.

Lower on the freedom-scale are middle/upper-class males, whose choice is far more restricted than that of their female peers. In the pub, they may drink only beer, spirits (with or without mixers), wine (dry, not sweet) and soft-drinks. Sweet or creamy beverages and fanciful cocktails are regarded as suspiciously ‘feminine’, and ordering them will cast doubt on your masculinity.

Finally, the working class males, who have very little choice at all. They can drink only beer or spirits - everything else being effeminate. Among older working-class males, even mixers may be frowned upon, gin-and-tonic being a possible exception. Younger males in this socio-economic group have slightly more freedom: among the under-25s, vodka-and-Coke is acceptable, for example, and etiquette allows young males to consume the latest novelties and ‘designer’ bottled drinks, providing they have a reasonably high alcohol content. But as a rule-of-thumb, you would be wise to assume that anything other than beer or straight spirits is likely to be seen as a ‘girly’ choice. If you want to drink soft-drinks, say that you are driving or invent some rare tropical disease.

In general, males of the older generations tend to drink bitter, while younger males prefer lager. This is a hangover from the old days when lager was considered a ‘ladies’ drink’ - days which the younger generation do not remember. There are, however, many exceptions to this rule. The Campaign for Real Ale has a youthful membership, and many younger middle-class males drink bitter, which is enjoying a revival in popularity. Among working-class males under 25, however, lager still seems to be the favoured beverage. Although lager has long been accepted as unquestionably ‘macho’, females still tend to drink more lager than bitter.

Regional variation: Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, the preferred beer is stout (the black stuff with the white top), always ordered by brand-name, usually Guinness. Second to Guinness is lager, with bitter coming a very poor third. The traditional ‘Real Ales’ are not popular here. The organisers of a three-day Real Ale festival in Belfast claimed that the event was "a great success", boasting that they had run out of beer during the final day. But local drinkers, when we asked for their comments, pointed out that the beer was free. "People here will drink anything if it’s given to them for nothing" said one cynical pubgoer.

Guinness is also the favoured drink among female pubgoers in Northern Ireland. Of the native female drinkers observed during our research in Belfast, at least 30% were drinking Guinness, compared to about 2% in England. The female pint-drinking trend, however, does not appear to have gained much ground in Northern Ireland, and the majority of females still drink halves - which you will remember are often called ‘glasses’ in Ireland. One hearty female drinker claimed that her usual order was for two ‘glasses’ of Guinness - she liked her beer, but could not afford to be seen drinking pints.

Regional variation: Scotland

In Scotland, a ‘wee dram’ or a ‘nip’ - i.e. a shot of whisky - is often drunk alongside a half-pint of beer (a practice which is also common in Ireland). This is a male custom, and you will rarely see a woman indulging in such ‘chasers’. If it is so macho, you may ask, why a half-pint rather than a pint? The answer is that ‘chasing’ each whisky with a half-pint means that you drink more whisky than beer, and as whisky is more alcoholic, this makes you a ‘better drinker’. (After several whiskies and half-pints, this explanation will no doubt sound very logical.)

An anthropologist working in the Scottish Highlands provided an amusing example of the male Scots’ attitude to what are known in this area as ‘ladies’ drinks’ - i.e. anything other than beer and whisky. In cultures where female drinking is subject to some degree of social disapproval, alcoholic beverages consumed by women are often conveniently granted a sort of honorary ‘non-alcoholic’ status, such that their consumption does not count as ‘drinking’. Among the Scottish Highlanders, this classification of ladies’ drinks as ‘not really alcohol’ is sometimes taken too literally: the researcher recounts an incident in which a drunken man who drove his car off the road one night, miraculously escaping serious injury, insisted that he had not been drinking - he had only had Bacardi-and-Coke!

Q. All this inside information on native drinking etiquette is fascinating, but what are the practical implications for the average tourist? What drink should I order?

A. As a tourist, you have two options:

Option 1

You can take advantage of your ‘ignorant foreigner’ status and order whatever you like, regardless of the etiquette governing your native companions’ choices. This may cause a few raised eyebrows, and among more outspoken natives you may be teased, but you will come to no harm. Your strange drinking habits could even serve as a useful conversation-piece.  Don’t ask for an expensive drink if the person asking "What’s yours?" is drinking cost-conscious halves of beer, avoid making derogatory comments about native beverages or drinking habits, be prepared to laugh at your own habits, and you will be fine.

Option 2

If you want to fit in, simply observe the behaviour of whatever group you are with, and copy them. When in doubt, copy the drinking-style of the most popular person in your group. If you find, as many foreigners do, that some male natives drink too much and too fast for your comfort, say so. Express admiration for their ability to ‘hold their liquor’ and admit that you cannot keep up.

You won’t gain much macho status, but your compliment will boost your companions’ egos, and, more important, you will be able to remember the name and address of your hotel at the end of the evening.

Research findings: Bar staff in tourist areas told us that Americans tend to be more adventurous than other nationalities in their choice of beverage. They are usually keen to try "real English Ale". A common question from American visitors is "What do the locals drink around here?". One barman said that he usually explained to them that most of the locals drink lager, but that the "historical" English drink is bitter. Another commented that American tourists’ insatiable curiosity about British ales can sometimes cause difficulties: "In an hour, they’ll drink a half of every bitter we’ve got. They don’t seem to realise the strength of it. Or they ask for the typical British beer, you give them bitter and then they complain it’s too warm - one lady asked for ice in her beer!"

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