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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