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.