The unwritten rules of round-buying

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.