The unwritten rules of round-buying

Illustration: a round of drinks.

There are few things as odd as reading an observed description of your own culture’s unconscious habits, such as the buying of rounds of drinks.

When we arrived in Glasgow last weekend we browsed the guidebooks supplied in our flat and stopped short when we found a note, aimed at visitors to Scotland, on how to buy rounds:

Like the English, Welsh and Irish, Scots generally take it in turns to buy a round of drinks for the whole group, and everyone is expected to take part. The next round should always be bought before the first round is finished.

It was that last line that gave us pause.

We’ve never really thought about how rounds are paced, even though we’ve sometimes been aware of struggling to keep up with fast-drinking friends and family members, and  on other occasions of sitting with empty glasses waiting for the round-buyer designate to make a move.

Our Twitter followers offered varying points of view:

  • The fastest drinker sets the pace.
  • The slowest drinker sets the pace.
  • If you drink especially quickly, you should buy the odd pint on your own to fill the gaps.
  • The round-buyer should go when there’s a window of opportunity at a busy bar.

Which suggests that if there are rules, they’re flexible, and vary from place to place, and group to group.

We also looked at Passport to the Pub, a brilliant piece of work by sociologist Kate Fox from 1996 which attempts to break down in exquisite detail every aspect of pub culture for the benefit of non-Brits. She writes:

Don’t wait until all your companions’ glasses are empty before offering to buy the next round. The correct time to say “It’s my round” is when your companions have consumed about three-quarters of their drinks. (Beware: the natives tend to drink quite fast, and may have finished their drinks when you have barely started.)

She also adds, however:

Don’t be afraid to refuse a drink. If you cannot keep up with the drinking-pace of your native companions, it is perfectly acceptable to say, “Nothing for me, thanks”. If you alternate accepting and declining during the round-buying process, you will consume half the number of drinks, without drawing too much attention to yourself. Avoid making an issue or a moral virtue of your moderate drinking, and never refuse a drink that is clearly offered as a significant ‘peace-making’ or ‘friendship’ gesture – you can always ask for a soft-drink, and you don’t have to drink all of it.

There’s also a lot of good stuff on round-buying in the 1943 Mass Observation book The Pub and the People, including a note on how drinkers in Bolton in the late 1930s kept pace with each other to avoid awkwardness:

[All] our observations show that the majority of pub-goers tend, when drinking in a group, to drink level; and very often there is not a quarter inch difference between the depth of beer in the glasses of a group of drinkers… The simultaneous emptying of glasses is the most frequent form of level drinking. And it is (for reasons connected with the ritual of standing rounds) the most likely form of level drinking that is due to ‘anticipation’.

We suspect a fair bit of this still goes on today even if, again, those doing it don’t know it’s happening. Or maybe this is a bit of a lost art?

In practice, of course, all of these rules or customs are understood without being spoken, and possibly completely unconsciously. We moderate our behaviour based on the group we’re with, our knowledge of people’s financial situations, or their capacity for alcohol.

The only time strict rules are likely to be enforced is when we’re drinking with complete strangers.

Another thought: in a good pub, there are plenty of options for keeping pace without getting excessively drunk. For example, Pally makes the pace with pints of strong ale; Matey, drinking a bit quicker than they’d like, is on best; and Wossname, who keeps having to chug the last third of every pint, takes ordinary bitter at 3.7%. They all end up about as pissed as each other.

At our local, the Drapers, a further refinement can be found in the four-pint jug. First, choosing the beer is a real team exercise, leaving no room for fussiness. Secondly, sharing, while not strictly equitable, does solve the pacing problem: if your glass is empty, have a slug more; if the jug is empty, someone needs to get a round in.

Finally, Kate Fox also makes the point that it’s as bad to make too much fuss about equality in round-buying as it is to be seen as stingy. After all, it generally evens itself out across multiple sessions, or over the course of a lifetime of friendship – a boozy take on the concept of karma.

Only once that either of us can remember have we encountered someone who really broke the unspoken rules of round-buying, almost seeming to make a game out of avoiding paying their way over the course of months. Eventually, after about a year of mounting irritation, there was an intervention and they were forced to buy a reasonably-priced round in a Sam Smith’s pub in central London. This was, as you might imagine, an awful thing to witness.

10 thoughts on “The unwritten rules of round-buying”

  1. I agree that if you are long standing friends any inequality in the number of rounds bought – i.e. 4 drinkers and 5 rounds purchased – evens itself over time. We have more arguments with 2 people both insisting that it is their round than someone not paying their way.

    1. Yup – this is right. Particularly if you’re not after a heavy session (say a quick pint with work pals once the whistle’s blown).

      My mates always say “it’ll come out in the wash” or “I’ll get one next time”. Which you’d never have doubted, but shows commitment to the notion of fairness without anyone keeping a ledger.

  2. I have definitely observed a great deal of hovering over the last few mouthfuls to wait for the right person to say “right what’s next?” And also a good deal of swift swallowing so that a fair amount of empties go back to the bar.
    It is noticeably both variable and unspoken even as it changes as you gauge the group at that point

    I would add that covering the round of the broke friend (but not the cobwebs in the wallet one) by just skipping them with no comments is a particular part of friendship.

  3. With ’round dodgers’ I find that if you include a glass of tap water for the dodger they get the message.

  4. Curious, with so much craft beer in the UK these days, it it becoming acceptable for each member of the party to request a different beer for each round? How does cost come into play?

    Buying rounds at my local craft bar is not worth it, even though I drink with the same group of friends most of the time. With 20+ taps, everyone wants something different and the price per round varies greatly, with all the $8 imperial IPA’s, stouts, and sours available.

    1. In the more craft leaning pub I tend to only order the higher price beers on my round. Let others have taste and they can order on theirs unless small group and it evens out quickly. What’s a few quid between mates

      1. How does that actually work though? Surely you just spend the entire evening queuing and never actually sit and chat with your mates?

  5. Until recently I would have said that the pattern of round drinking was more or less the same as it had always been. However, one recent change has been brought about with the wider availability of stronger drinks. So whilst the majority will stick to session strength beers, the heaviest drinker will be bought a couple of, let’s say Jaipur, to slow them down.

  6. Another factor is that people don’t necessarily all ‘go out for a drink’ together. Or, at least not at exactly the same time. Where people drop in and out of events (birthday drinks being an example) on their way to and from separate events they may either buy a round upon arrival or just stay on their own. Both approaches are equally acceptable to me. When people aren’t out for the same amount of time ‘together’ there may be less desire to drink in rounds – as things are more fluid.

    My basic rule is that I don’t give to receive – and that goes for buying drinks or rounds too. Over time you get to know who returns the favour and who doesn’t. If you go through life expecting and waiting to be given something you are owed then you’re going to feel pretty aggrieved.

  7. Yes, people who round dodge too often eventually become people who you end up drinking with less and less. It may not be intentional, but it happens.

    I liked the point about keeping pace in Bolton in the 1940s, I do find myself doing this at times, slowing down or speeding up based on what the situation is with others. I’ve often found myself lifting my glass, realising I’m a good quarter of a pint ahead of everyone, and putting it back down, or taking the tiniest of sips.

    And a nice strategy I’ve used sometimes is if I’m in 3-5 person rounds, and I want to slow down a bit, if it falls at the right time, is on my round to get a glass of water for myself. Other times, you just need to know when to refuse a drink.

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