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.