Passport to the Pub:
A guide to British pub etiquette
7 The Opposite Sex
Some natives will tell you that the British pub is the last bastion of male dominance. They will claim that women can’t (or don’t, or shouldn’t) go into pubs on their own; that the pub is where men go to escape from their wives and children; that pubs are all about male bonding, pints with the lads and so on. You may get the impression that the pub is a macho environment, a male preserve where ‘boys will be boys’ and girls will be second-class citizens.
Until about 20 years ago, these were statements of fact. Now, they represent either wishful thinking or woeful ignorance. Over a third of the customers you see in the average pub are likely to be female - in circuit ‘youth’ pubs and student pubs, half the customers may be female - and every year, surveys show that more and more women are becoming regular pubgoers. Publicans are eager to please this growing market, and so pubs are becoming more and more female-friendly. You will still come across a few of the old-style, macho pubs but they are no longer the norm. The pub is no longer a man’s world, and would-be dominant males are either muttering gloomily into their beer or busy looking for another bastion.
Equal but different
So, what’s behind these nice egalitarian facts and figures? How do real men and women actually behave in pubs? And what are the rules of etiquette governing their behaviour?
The reality, perhaps surprisingly, is as egalitarian as the research statistics suggest. This does not mean that there are no sex-differences in pub behaviour. The fundamental laws of pub etiquette apply equally to everyone - but males and females often differ in their observance and interpretation of these laws.
Research findings: Despite some token protests, most native males realise that they have nothing to fear from the increase in female pubgoing. Our research showed that even in pubs with a 60% female clientele, women do not try to take advantage of their majority status. Men were observed to have equal access to the bar stools, darts board and pool table, and equal ‘air time’ in conversations. We also found that the male protests tend to come from the older generation: many younger males seem to show a positive preference for the more female-friendly pubs - perhaps for the obvious reason that these pubs attract more females.
The laws of pub etiquette are designed to promote friendly interaction and social bonding. Any form of behaviour which increases the amount of sociable communication between members of the pub-tribe, or strengthens the social bonds that link them together, is encouraged. All of the rules of pub etiquette are based on five basic principles: equality, reciprocity, the pursuit of intimacy, a tacit non-aggression pact and a prohibition on taking things too seriously.
To the casual observer, the male-bonding rituals and female-bonding rituals that take place in the pub may appear very different, but when you look a bit closer, you realise that both males and females are acting in accordance with the five basic principles of pub etiquette.
Male and female bonding rituals have a number of obvious elements in common. All group-bonding, in any environment, tends to involve a private language of in-jokes, nicknames, catch phrases and customary gestures. These are all in line with the ‘pursuit of intimacy’ principle of pub etiquette. In pubs, almost all group-bonding also involves drinking - which is conducted in accordance with the principle of reciprocity - although the ‘social lubricant’ of alcohol is perhaps more essential to the intimacy-avoiding, inhibited male.
The main social activity in almost all pubs is talking, and although music, games and other entertainments facilitate the social-bonding process, it is not surprising that most bonding-rituals, whether male or female, are conversational rituals.
The most important male-bonding ritual, the argument, has already been mentioned in the chapter on pub-talk. Women participate in pub-arguments, of course, but with considerably less fervour and enthusiasm than their male companions.
Even when they are not actually arguing, men’s pub talk tends to be competitive - their joke-telling and word-play often involves a degree of one-upmanship, with participants striving to out-perform each other, or denigrating each other’s performance. Among male pubgoers, the need to argue is such that almost any subject, however innocuous, can become a controversial issue. Many male natives seem able to generate a dispute out of thin air. Like desperate auctioneers taking bids from imaginary buyers, they will vehemently object to a statement that nobody has made, or tell a silent companion to shut up. They get away with this because other males are also looking for an excuse to argue. Here is a typical example:
Male 1: (accusingly): "What?"
Male 2: (puzzled): "I didn’t say anything."
Male 1: "Yes you did!"
Male 2: (still bemused): "No I didn’t!"
Male 1: (belligerent): "You did, you said it was my round - and it’s not my effing round!"
Male 2: (entering into the spirit of things): "I didn’t bloody say anything, but it is your round!"
Male 1: "Bollocks - it’s Porky’s round!"
Male 2: "Then why are you hassling me about it, eh?"
Male 1: (now thoroughly enjoying himself): "I’m not - you started it."
Male 2: (ditto): "Didn’t!"
Male 1: "Did!"
. and so on
This gratuitous fight-picking might appear to be in contravention of the pub-etiquette prescription of intimacy and non-aggression - indeed, you may wonder what all these pointless arguments can possibly have to do with social bonding. The answer is that arguing, for the British male, is a critical element of the ‘pursuit of intimacy’. Arguing allows males to show interest in one another; to express emotion; to be demonstrative; to reveal their personal beliefs, attitudes and aspirations, and to discover those of their companions - in other words, to become more intimate, without acknowledging that this is their objective.
Native males have no less need for intimacy than their female counterparts, but they are also frightened of it. The etiquette of pub-arguments conveniently allows them to achieve intimacy under the macho camouflage of competition. The native male also has a tendency to aggression, which pub etiquette channels into harmless ‘verbal fisticuffs’, using the symbolic handshake of the round-buying ritual to prevent any escalation into more serious, physical aggression.
Other forms of male bonding include ‘girlwatching’ (the exchange of proof-of-masculinity comments on the physical attributes of passing females) and pub games (see Chapter 8).
Male bonding is a traditional feature of pub life. Pubgoers don’t usually call it ‘male bonding’, of course, they tend to use less scientific expressions such as ‘pints with the lads’. They are even less likely to speak of ‘female bonding’, which has only recently become an integral part of pub culture. The female equivalent of ‘pints with the lads’ is known as ‘girls’ night out’ or ‘girl’s night’ for short.
Although women have only recently discovered the pub as an ideal environment for social bonding, while men have a long history of ‘pints with the lads’, female pubgoers have made no attempt to imitate the established rites and rituals of male pubgoers. What women have done is to adapt traditional female-bonding practices to the pub environment.
There is one female-bonding practice that bears some surface resemblance to the male argument-rituals. Participants in the ‘complimenting’ ritual do challenge and contradict each other’s statements, but that’s where the similarity ends. There is no competitiveness, and no one-upmanship - in fact, the exchange could be described as an exercise in one-downmanship.
The subject of this ritual conversation, as with most pub-talk, is immaterial. You will recognise the complimenting ritual by its structure, which is always the same. It starts with one participant paying another participant a compliment. Etiquette requires the recipient of the compliment to respond with a self-deprecating denial, and another compliment in return. This must immediately be countered with a self-critical denial, and a further compliment, which is then denied by the recipient, who pays another compliment in return . and so on.
How to join in
If you are female, it’s very easy. Just pay a compliment, ideally followed by a self-critical comparison. Your self-criticism will be challenged, and all you have to do is follow the formula outlined above. If you are male, remember that native males find the complimenting ritual tedious, sickly and utterly incomprehensible, and rarely participate. In older mixed-sex groups, you may compliment females on their appearance, but this is usually done in a humorous, mock-chivalrous tone. As a male, you may never witness the full complimenting ritual: females tend to conduct a more subdued and truncated version of this practice when in the presence of males - or will retreat to the Ladies toilets to indulge in a quick ‘round’ of compliments.
Eavesdrop on almost any girl’s-night group, and you will probably overhear
at least one of the traditional phrases used in the ‘matching’ ritual.
To determine whether a girl’s group is engaged in this ritual, listen for
any of the key phrases listed below.
Me too .
Oh yes, I know how you feel .
Mine’s just the same .
Oh God, do you get that as well .
Really? I do that too .
My Mum (sister, friend, boyfriend, aunt, husband, boss, cat etc.) is just like that .
That reminds me of .
Oh, that’s just like .
The same thing happened to me (my Mum, friend, sister, neighbour, hamster etc.) .
I tried that once, and .
I can’t do that either .
Oh, I know what you mean, I’m just the same .
So do I .
Oh God, yes, I hate those as well .
The permutations are endless, but you get the gist. The formula is simple: it is almost exactly the opposite of the male argument / competition rituals. The etiquette of male pub-talk requires participants to contradict each other’s statements, challenge each other’s views, constantly asserting their individuality and emphasising the differences between them. They achieve intimacy and bonding, and avoid coming to blows, by buying each other drinks - proving that they remain mates despite their differences. In complete contrast, the etiquette of female pub-talk requires participants to avoid opposition and dissent, constantly emphasising the similarities between them by ‘matching’ or ‘reinforcing’ statements and anecdotes. Female bonding is based on shared experiences and views, and in the matching ritual, participants will go to great lengths to show each other how much they have in common.
How to join in
When another female tells a story or expresses an opinion, try to convey - using phrases such as those listed above - that you share and empathise with some aspect of her experience, feelings or views. (If you violently disagree, or find you have nothing in common, do not make this obvious.) If you are male, you can join in with the female natives’ matching ritual, although you will be considered unusual. Make sure you do not monopolise the conversation - you will notice that females are quite scrupulous about allowing each other equal ‘air-time’.
Obeying the law
Female-bonding rituals thus look and sound very different from the male versions, but both are entirely in accordance with the traditional laws of pub etiquette. In both cases, equality, intimacy, non-aggression and reciprocity are achieved: they are simply achieved by different means. Male-bonding rituals are competitive and apparently aggressive, but balanced by equal, reciprocal round-buying - and the arguments are a covert means of expressing intimacy. In female-bonding rituals, the pursuit of intimacy is overt, competitive aggression is outlawed, and equality and reciprocity are expressed through allowing each other equal ‘air-time’ and the reciprocal exchange of compliments.
Both male and female bonding rituals are clearly governed by the First Commandment of pub etiquette: "Thou shalt not take things too seriously". Males manage to argue constantly without actually coming to blows - in fact foreigners are often amazed at the cheerful, good-natured fashion in which native males exchange dire insults. Females manage to discuss each other’s problems and traumas without ending up in tears - conversations about divorces and hysterectomies are punctuated with shrieks of laughter, as the girl’s-night participants see the funny side of life’s disasters.
Q. Is it all single-sex bonding then? You make the native males and females sound like two different species! Are they capable of communicating with each other at all?
A. Yes. We forgot to mention the survey showing that 27% of British couples first met their current partner in a pub! Clearly, the differences in bonding-etiquette are not a serious barrier to interaction between the sexes.
The pub is, in fact, probably the best venue for single people wishing to meet others and make friends. Unlike cinemas, restaurants and other leisure venues, pubs are not couple-oriented. The rules of etiquette, such as no table service and the prescription of sociable interaction at the bar counter, are designed to bring unaccompanied people into friendly conversation with each other.
At the same time, there are none of the sexual pressures and expectations that characterise night-clubs and discotheques. In many pubs, there is a good deal of banter and backchat between males and females. Some of this may be suggestive or even bawdy, but none of it is taken too seriously. By going to a pub on your own, you are not signalling sexual availability, and if you want to sit quietly with your beer, contemplating the universe (or observing the intricacies of pub etiquette) you are perfectly at liberty to do so.
Tips for solo females
- If you are meeting someone at a pub, don’t be afraid to go in on your own. You are much safer in the pub, under the protection of the publican or bar staff, than you are hanging around on street corners.
- If the pub is full of males who all look up when you come in, don’t take it personally. It usually just means that this is a ‘local’ pub, where people know each other and automatically look up to see who is coming in. An unfamiliar face will, naturally, attract some attention, and perhaps some curiosity, but they will eventually lose interest.
- Some pubs are more female-friendly than others. If you are travelling alone, and looking for a particularly safe, welcoming environment, look out for the following female-friendly indicators: signs or notices advertising the fact that food is available; any evidence that children are welcome (from explicit signs and notices to swings, slides etc. in the garden); a friendly smile from the publican/bar staff as you enter the pub; a rack or table of newspapers/magazines.
- If you want to be left alone, it is generally best to sit at a table, rather than at the bar counter, as this will signal a desire for privacy. Your privacy is not likely to be invaded, particularly if you make your wishes clear through your body-language (adopting a ‘closed’ posture, writing postcards, reading a newspaper, etc.). But if you are worried, choose a table reasonably near to the bar, so that you are constantly under the protective eye of the bar staff.
- If the bar is not busy, you may choose to stay at the bar counter, talking to the publican or bar staff. If you are engaging the publican or a member of bar staff in lengthy chat, it would be friendly and appropriate to offer him / her a drink.
- If you feel a bit ‘exposed’ when the pub gets more crowded and the bar staff are busy serving other customers, you can always move to a table.
- If you are feeling sociable, stay at the bar counter (unless the bar is very busy and you are blocking the path of customers trying to get served), as this is the best place to fall into casual conversation with the natives.
- If you accept the offer of a drink from a native (male or female), etiquette requires you to chat with them for at least as long as it takes to consume the drink. So, if you feel at all uncomfortable with someone, do not accept the offer. Do remember, however, that the offer is not, in itself, a sexual invitation (as it is in some ‘singles’ bars’ in other parts of the world) and may be a perfectly innocent, friendly gesture. Your refusal should be firm, but polite.
Sex differences in round-buying
Among young people, it is generally expected that women will ‘buy their round’, although males tend to like to buy the first round. If you are female, and you accept the offer of a drink from a male native, it is polite for you to buy the next round. Some older male natives do not expect women to buy rounds, but will not object if you do so.
Others of the older generation simply cannot cope with the idea of women
buying them drinks. As a rule-of-thumb, you should always offer to buy
your round, but do not persist or make a big issue of it if female drinking-buying
is clearly distressing to your companion(s).
Q. All these exceptions and complexities are very interesting, but it’s too bloody complicated. I don’t want to write a PhD thesis on sex-differences in round-buying, I just want to fit in with the native customs. Isn’t there a simple rule I can follow?
A. Yes there is. Whether you are male or female, and whatever the sex or social background of your native companions, the words "It’s my round - what are you having?" will always be appreciated as a friendly gesture. This line may not be in your phrase book, but it is one of the most useful sentences in the English language.