Drinking Customs of the English

Extract from Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, by Kate Fox, p. 256ff.

Choos­ing a Drink

… your choice of drink (in public at least) is de­ter­mined mainly by your sex and social class, with some age-related variations. The rules are as follows:

  • Working-class and lower-middle-class females have the widest choice of drinks. Almost any­thing is so­cially acceptable—cocktails, sweet or creamy liquery, all soft-drinks, beers and so-called “designer” drinks (pre-mixed drinks in bottles). There is really only one restriction: the size of glass from which lower-class women may drink beer. Drink­ing “pints”, in many working-class and lower-middle circles, is re­garded as un­fem­i­nine and unlady-like, so most women in this social group drink “halves” (half-pints) of beer. Drink­ing pint glasses of beer would clas­sify you as a “ladette”—a female “lad”, a woman who im­i­tates the loutish, raucous be­hav­iour of hard-drinking males. Some women are happy with this image, but they are a minority.
  • Next on the freedom-of-choice scale are middle-middle to upper-class females. Their choice is more restricted: the more sickly-sweet drinks, and cream-based liquers and cocktails, are re­garded as a bit vulgar—ordering a Bailey’s or a Baby­cham would cer­tainly cause a few raised eye­brows and side­ways looks—but they can drink more or less any wines, spirits, sherries, soft-drinks, ciders or beers. Female pint-drinking is also more ac­cept­able in this social category, at least among the younger women, par­tic­u­larly students. Among upper-middle-class female students, I found that many felt that they had to give an ex­pla­na­tion if they ordered a “girly” half rather than a pint.
  • The choices of middle- and upper-class males are far more re­stricted than those of their female counterparts. They may drink only beer, spirits (mixers are acceptable), wine (must be dry, not sweet) and soft-drinks. Any­thing sweet or creamy is re­garded as sus­pi­ciously “feminine”, and cock­tails are only ac­cept­able at cock­tail parties or in a cock­tail bar—you would never order them in a pub or or­di­nary bar.
  • Working-class males have vir­tu­ally no choice at all. They can drink only beer and spirits—everything else is effeminate. Among older working-class males, even some mixers may be forbidden: gin-and-tonic may be just about ac­cept­able in some circles, but more obscure com­bi­na­tions are frowned upon. Younger working-class males have a bit more freedom: vodka-and-coke is acceptable, for example, as are the latest nov­el­ties and “designer” bottled drinks, pro­vid­ing they have a high enough alcohol content.

Round Buying Eti­quette

  • In any group of two or more people, one person must buy a “round” of drinks for the whole group. This is not an al­tru­is­tic gesture: the ex­pec­ta­tion is that the other member or members of the group will each, in turn, buy a round of drinks. When each person has bought a round, the process begins again with the first person.
  • Unless the group is drink­ing at the bar counter, the person who buys the round must also act as waiter. “Buying your round” means not only paying for the drinks, but going to the bar, or­der­ing the drinks and car­ry­ing them all back to the table. If there are a lot of drinks, another member of the group will usually offer to help, but this is not compulsory, and the round-buyer may have to make two or three trips. The effort in­volved is as im­por­tant as the expenditure: it is part of the “gift”.
  • “Fairness” is round-buying is not a matter of strict justice. One person may well end up buying two rounds during a “session”, while other members of the group have only bought one round each. Over several “sessions”, rough equal­ity is usually achieved, but it is ex­tremely bad manners to appear overly con­cerned about this.
  • In fact, any sign of miserliness, cal­cu­la­tion or re­luc­tance to par­tic­i­pate whole­heart­edly in the ritual is severly frowned upon. For an English male, saying that someone “doesn’t buy his round” is a dire insult. It is thus im­por­tant to try always to be among the ear­li­est to say “It’s my round,” rather than waiting until the other members of the group have bought “their” rounds and it is quite ob­vi­ously your turn.
  • Perhaps surprisingly, I found that on average “initiating” round-buyers (those who reg­u­larly buy the first round) ac­tu­ally spend no more money in the long term than “waiting” round-buyers (those who do not offer a round until later in the session). In fact, far from being out-of-pocket, “initiators” often end up rather better off than those who wait, because their pop­u­lar­ity and rep­u­ta­tion for gen­eros­ity means that others are in­clined to be gen­er­ous towards them.
  • One should never wait until all one’s companions’ glasses are empty before of­fer­ing to buy the next round. The correct time to say “It’s my round” is when the ma­jor­ity of the glasses are about three-quarters empty. This rule is not so much about proving one’s generosity, more a matter of en­sur­ing that the flow of alcohol is continuous—that no-one is ever left without a drink even for a few minutes.
  • It is ac­cept­able oc­ca­sion­ally to refuse a drink during the round-buying process, as long as you do not attempt to make an issue or moral virtue out of your mod­er­ate intake, but this does not exempt you from the round-buying obligation. Even if you are drink­ing less than the others, you should still “buy your round”. It would be very rude, however, to refuse a drink that is offered as a “peace-making” gesture, or that is clearly a significant, per­sonal friendship-signal.

There is usually no excuses for failing to perform the sacred round-buying ritual, but there are a few ex­cep­tions to the round-buying rules, re­lat­ing to the size of the drink­ing group and the de­mo­graph­ics of its members.

THE NUMBERS EXCEPTION In a very large group, tra­di­tional round-buying can some­times be pro­hib­i­tively expensive. This is not, however, usually seen as a valid reason to abandon the ritual altogether. Instead, the large group divides into smaller sub-groups (nobody sug­gests or or­ga­nizes this, it just happens), each of which follows the normal round-buying procedure. …

THE COUPLE EXCEPTION In some social groups, couples are treated as one person for the pur­poses of round-buying, in that only the male half of the couple is ex­pected to “buy his round”. … In normal circumstances, you will only see this prac­tice when the males in the group are over forty. …

THE FEMALE EXCEPTION Women gen­er­ally have con­sid­er­ably less rev­er­ence fo the round-buying rules than men. In mixed-sex groups, they play along, hu­mour­ing their male com­pan­ions by fol­low­ing the pre­scribed etiquette, but in all-female gath­er­ings you see all sorts of odd vari­a­tions and even out­right flout­ing of the rules.