Passport to the Pub:
A guide to British pub etiquette
9 Going Native
You now know about as much about pub etiquette as any native regular. The difference is that native regulars have had years of practice, and obey the laws instinctively. It’s a bit like the difference between learning a foreign language at school and growing up speaking it as your native tongue. Now that you have read this guide, you may actually have a better grasp of the ‘grammar’ of pub etiquette than the natives, but they still ‘speak the language’ better than you.
Don’t be disheartened. All you need is practice. Everyone knows that the best way to become fluent in a foreign language is through ‘total immersion’, and, as any of our researchers will tell you, total immersion in the life and culture of the British pub is no great hardship. There is also a long tradition of tourists (and anthropologists) becoming so enchanted by an alien culture that they eventually abandon all attempts at detached observation and ‘go native’.
In the context of pubs, you can enjoy most of the experience of being a native without going to the extremes of resigning from your job, deserting your family and taking up permanent residence over here. All you have to do is to become a regular, which is surprisingly easy, and does not require a lengthy stay. Follow the instructions below, and you can soon achieve some of the basics, even if you are only here for a week!
How to become a regular
First, choose your pub carefully. If you are here in the tourist season, avoid the obviously tourist-oriented pubs and the larger, more impersonal big-chain pub-restaurants. Instead, search out a smallish, friendly local in a back-street, suburb or village. Make sure that it is a pub full of regulars (see Chapter 3 for tips on identifying regulars). Try a few pubs until you find the one with the warmest welcome and the atmosphere that suits you.
Once you have found the right friendly local, demonstrate loyalty by visiting this pub as often as possible - at least 3 times in a week, preferably including at least one weekday evening and one Sunday lunchtime. Going on weekday evenings will show that you are a serious regular pubgoer, not just a casual Saturday-night-out visitor. The pub is also likely to be less busy on weekday evenings, giving you more opportunities to get to know the publican and bar staff. In many locals, Sunday lunchtime is one of the most popular ‘sessions’ with regulars, when they are at their most genial and relaxed.
At the first opportunity, buy a drink for the publican (or the member of bar staff who serves you), using the "and one for yourself?" formula. Also try to find an early opportunity to make friendly contact with the other regulars. Get involved in the chat at the bar counter, and play your full part in the round-buying ritual. If you must order inappropriate drinks, be prepared to be teased about it, and always observe the customary rules of introduction if you wish to participate in pub-games.
The precise number of visits required to demonstrate your loyalty will vary from pub to pub. In some very friendly pubs, you may hear the charming old saying "You come here twice, you’re a regular". This is not to be taken literally - no-one expects to enjoy all the privileges of a long-standing, established regular after only two visits, but the sentiment is genuine, and admirable. The publicans who use this phrase tend to be those who pride themselves on learning each new customer’s name and preferred drink in less than two ‘sessions’. Some local pubs may be more insular and wary of strangers, and it may take you a bit longer to gain the confidence of the natives - but achieving this can be an even more rewarding experience.
The benefits of being a regular
The term ‘regular’ covers a number of different ranks and positions within the pub-tribe, from the ordinary member to the tribal elder or warrior. But even the most ordinary rank-and-file member of the tribe is a privileged being, and enjoys a sense of importance and belonging that can never be experienced by outsiders. Once you have established yourself as a friendly, loyal, regular customer, you should start to experience at least some of the joys and privileges of this status. These include:
- Being greeted by name as you enter the pub or approach the bar. Imagine, after a long day trailing around museums and ‘sights’ as an anonymous tourist, the sheer warmth and pleasure of that initial chorus of "Hello, John!", "Evening, John", "Oh, there you are, John – thought you’d fallen in the lake" - or even "Ah, just in time to buy your round, John!"
- The publican and bar staff knowing what you drink - saying "Usual is it, John?", or perhaps starting to pour your drink before you even reach the bar counter.
- Your very own nickname. If you stay long enough to establish some distinguishing characteristic, or happen to choose a pub where the regulars are particularly addicted to nicknames, you may be given one of your own. The nickname may not be flattering, but when this happens, you know that you belong.
- Friends. You may never see your fellow regulars outside the pub - most of them have never been to each other’s homes, and would never expect to be invited. But these are friends. The publican, bar staff and regulars in your local are people who take a genuine interest in you, your activities and your concerns.
- Information, advice and help. The publican, staff and your fellow regulars are the best source of information and advice on local matters - from where to catch a bus to how to find a better hotel.
- The chance to become a warrior. If you succeed in becoming a regular, and show any aptitude for any of the pub-games played in your local, you may be invited to become a member of the pub team. This is a great honour. As a team member, you are more than just an ordinary citizen of the pub-tribe: you are a warrior, going out to do battle for your pub against other tribes. After the battle (known as an away-match) you will return to a hero’s welcome, with back-slapping and pints all round. Even in defeat, you will be offered sympathy and sandwiches, and the solidarity of grumbling, excuse-making post-mortems with your fellow warriors.
These are just a few of the many pleasures of being a regular - those which seem to be common to all pubs. In your chosen local, regulars may enjoy all sorts of special rights and privileges that are not mentioned here.
The responsibilities of being a regular
Along with the many benefits, there are some duties and responsibilities attached to your new position as a full member of the pub-tribe - but don’t worry, there are no particularly onerous tasks involved.
- You must always greet the publican, bar staff and fellow regulars when you enter the pub - even when you are feeling tired and unsociable. If you have had a very hard day, you may perform a truncated version of the greeting ritual - a few nods and "’nings", rather than everybody’s name plus enquiries about their health etc. - but you cannot avoid the process entirely, however weary or grumpy you may feel.
- You must always play your full part in the round-buying ritual. This means always remembering who has bought you a drink, and making sure that you reciprocate as soon as possible; never having to be reminded that it is your round; always being aware of your companions’ drinking-pace, so that you can say "It’s my round" at the correct moment - without, of course, ever giving the impression of being too concerned or calculating about these matters.
- You must display a loyal, protective attitude towards your pub and everything and everyone in it. If you become a warrior, you have special responsibility for protecting the pool table, dart board or other games equipment from any potential harm or damage. You may adopt a somewhat proprietorial manner in this context, preventing ‘outsiders’ from spilling their drinks on the pool table, for example.
- Finally, you must never take advantage of your privileged status. You must not expect to be served ‘out-of-turn’ at the bar - although this may sometimes happen, simply because a familiar face is more noticeable in a crowd (or because some ignorant tourist ahead of you has offended the bar staff by failing to observe the correct etiquette). You must not monopolise the attention of the publican or bar staff when other customers are waiting to be served - in fact, it is your duty to call out "Hey, you got customers here, mate!", should the publican or staff be engaged in chat and inadvertently neglecting their duties.
In short, being a regular is a bit like being a member of a close-knit extended family, with all the advantages and disadvantages that this entails. The pub, to many natives, is a second home - and some probably spend more time in the pub than they do in their own homes. Most foreigners find it hard to understand the British love-affair with the pub. We hope that this book has explained some of the irresistible attractions of the pub, and, more important, made you want to discover them for yourself.
Final Warning: If you go around showing this book to native pubgoers and reading out the rules to them, be prepared for one of the three following reactions:
- Some native pubgoers will probably scoff and huff and puff and insist that it’s all a load of twaddle (or worse, depending on their vocabulary). They may claim that there are no rules of etiquette, and that their behaviour is totally natural and spontaneous. They are right, in the sense that they obey the laws of pub etiquette without being conscious of doing so - just as we all automatically get dressed in the morning, without reminding ourselves that there is an unspoken rule of etiquette which prohibits going to work in our pyjamas.
- Others will not deny the existence of pub-etiquette rules, but will insist that we have got them wrong. They may also be right, in that there are undoubtedly many local variations and exceptions which are not covered in this guide. Alternatively, those who react in this way may simply be trying to start an argument with you, or teasing you, or hoping to convince you that, according to an ancient custom not mentioned in this guide, it is your turn to buy a round.
- Finally, you may find a few enlightened individuals who nod and laugh as they flip through the guide, perhaps adding their own insights and examples. These ideal critics might query a few points here and there, but, in accordance with the First Commandment of Pub Etiquette, they will not take anything, including pub etiquette, too seriously!