Friday, August 18, 2006

My shout

From the BBC:

Buying drinks in rounds can damage your health, says the Scottish Executive. But the round is about much more than drinking, it's a complex social activity that keeps the peace.

Getting a round in is a social minefield, with elaborate unwritten rules and punishments for anyone who gets it wrong.

The custom of buying drinks in rounds has been criticised by the Scottish Executive, with a health minister warning that it can pressurise people into drinking too much.

But Dr Peter Marsh, the co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre, says that below the surface the pub round is a complicated, highly-regulated social ritual.

Being in a round means being accepted as a member of a group. And once inside this group, there are rules to be carefully observed about when and how often drinkers should be heading to the bar.

"Buying a round in a pub marks you out as a member of a very specific group - and by watching who buys drinks for whom, and in turn who receives drinks from whom, you get an immediate idea of the social dynamic there," says Dr Marsh.

There is nothing random about how drinks are bought in a round.

“There's a lot of monitoring - because you don't want to buy the drinks too early, you don't want to buy them too late. There are unwritten rules, such as if half the round are towards the bottom of the glass, that's the time to buy," he says.

The greatest social danger is to be labelled as a round dodger who never finds their pocket - on the surface everyone might be smiling, but they're keeping a careful note on the progress of the round. People who don't buy their rounds become ostracised or pushed to the fringes of the group, it makes them extremely unpopular. It's seen as a deviant behaviour not to reciprocate.

"It goes the other way too, as people who buy too many are equally unpopular, as it's seen as showing off," says Dr Marsh.

If it was just about buying drinks, we would be more like the tourists arriving at a pub who all buy themselves an individual drink, says Dr Marsh. The round-buying is a more subtle piece of psychology….

I don’t know if the round-buying culture is entirely unique to Britain, but, like the business of drinking whilst standing up, I’ve not seen it replicated elsewhere as most places favour the tab and final bill method.

For the outsider, being taken out for a drink in Britain must be a social minefield. It’s hard enough for insiders.

For example, when the group is large enough to cross the critical threshold – ie. so large that it is obvious that even at British rates of drinking you’ll never get all the way round so that the first person to buy for everyone will in turn have one drink bought for him by everyone – then there results an delicate shifting and sifting into sub-groups, decided by such factors as closeness of blood relation and length of friendship, approximate rate of consumption, unfinished conversations, balance of designated drivers and intended flirtations.

The matter becomes yet more difficult where one ‘owes’ somebody in the group a drink. It is customary in Britain to dismiss all offers of recompense for any smallish favour with the phrase ‘just buy me a pint sometime’. And then there are those occasions where a friend might have bought you a solitary lunchtime drink and you are now obliged to buy him one back. British men can’t remember birthdays, but they have photographic memories about the people to whom they owe pints, and it is quite common for someone to reciprocate on a pint several years after the initial favour.

Add to this mix the complexities of financial factors: it is understood that poor students, OAPs, or younger siblings should not usually have to stump up for gigantic rounds, while the pressure is on alpha males to buy the early rounds, since they are generally more expensive, as people drop off through the evening, or switch to halves or orange juices (although since designer soft drinks have become as expensive as booze, the teetotaler card doesn’t carry the weight it once did.)

All of these subtle calculations are unspoken but, strangely, are universally understood.


Duck said...

I would imagine that what you order when the other bloke is picking up the round is equally important. If you buy a double Chivas on the rocks when others are paying, but rum & coke when it's your turn, I think you'd be unpopular.

Now you've frightened me from ever visiting you in Blighty and going out to a pub! I didn't realize socializing could be such a computationally intensive exercise But being American, I'm sure that I'll have a built in excuse for oafish behavior.

Brit said...

That is another factor, but only since we got into all these fancy expensive beers like Hoegaarden, which comes in a sort of bucket and costs about £6.

Otherwise, the price range of drinks available in pubs is really very limited: a pint of beer, a double spirit or a glass of wine (for ladies only - for God's sake don't order wine unless its with a meal if you're male - but male/female drinks is a whole other can of worms) all cost about the same.

Americans are given a bye for oafishness, but it will be assumed that you will have limitless cash resources at your disposal.

Oroborous said...

"OAP" - Our Aged Parents ?

Brit said...

Old Age Pensioners.

martpol said...

In a standard sized group of around 6 or 7 people, the best round to buy is number 4. Jumping in early might had the effect of making you appear too keen, making it look as if you think people think you're tight-fisted, and you're trying to hard to address this preconception.

Too late and you might forget that you haven't bought a round, and might actually end up with people thinking you're tight-fisted, even if you're not.

Round number 4 is perfect because it fits in between these moments of exacting social interaction, and is sufficiently far into the evning for people not to care if you completely forget what you're supposed to be ordering.

(If you do forget, buying an equal number of pints of Stella Artois and Worthington is about right for an all-male crowd. Both are perfectably acceptable to most people, but not insultingly cheap. For a male-female mix, buy a couple each of those, plus something like gin and tonic, i.e. a "girl's drink" which men don't mind drinking, rather than some god-awful bottled concoction of vodka with watermelon and raspberries.)

Brit said...


Very good tips. Vodka and coke is also a good standby drink for when you've completely forgotten who you're buying for.

Peter Burnet said...

I've tried to understand it all, but it's much too complex for my rude colonial mind and I've decided to master the rules of Japanese court etiquette instead.

We had a Scottish bloke at college who was always going on about this, and also about how cigarettes were community property. He obviously saw it all as the highwater mark of civilization. He was a good guy, but he wouldn't shut up about it, so we all just bought him drinks until he passed out.

Brit said...

Just to prove the point, last night a chap bought a pint for me, which he 'owed' me from back in April.

So now we're quits.

Hey Skipper said...

This isn't very much different from a bunch of fighter pilots in a bar -- we all kept track of who bought how much when.

Our rituals included drinking games, though. The comm-out, combat rules, dollar-bill game was almost always guaranteed to buy seven rounds in as many minutes.

Followed by ribald singing, carrier landings, and much broken glassware.

Or so I have, ummm, heard.

There really is a parallel here: community. Most pubs (well, the ones I have been to) are community affairs, as are O'Club bars. All communities have rules, despite, in these cases, the absence of divine command morality.