Buying a round in a pub comes so naturally to most Britons that they do not even stop to think about what they are doing. But for outsiders it can be a mine of difficulties and offer endless opportunities to give offence.
In pubs the customers go to the bar, order drinks from the staff and pay for them then and there - the continental custom of running up a bill is copied only in a few wine bars. The pub system is simple and straightforward. It has the advantage from the publican’s point of view that he gets his money when he serves the drinks and there is no possibility of dishonest customers ‘doing a runner’. From the point of view of the customer, the system means it is impossible to run up a bill larger than can be afforded, no matter how drunk
When several people meet in a pub, it is the custom that one person goes to the bar and buys one drink for each person - a ‘round of drinks’. The difficulties can begin, of course, when the subject arises of who goes to buy the first round. In general good common sense will show who should buy the round of drinks. Usually the person who arrives first buys a drink for the next person to arrive. When a third or subsequent person arrives it is usual for him to offer to buy a round as he is going to the bar anyway to buy his own. Whether the offer is accepted depends on how empty are the glasses of those already drinking. It is, of course, bad manners to accept the offer if you have taken only a sip or two from your first drink.
Once everyone is settled and their glasses grow empty it is time for somebody to buy the next round of drinks. Who this should be is open to debate. Typically a person who cannot recall buying a round of drinks for those present in recent weeks should be the first to put their hand in his pocket and head for the bar. It is certainly the height of bad pub manners to accept drinks from other people buying rounds, and then never to offer to buy a round in return. There can be no quicker way to find yourself excluded from invitations to meet down the pub than to ‘cleverly’ avoid buying rounds while supping drinks bought by others.
Of course, the changes in society affect pub culture as much as they do any other part of life. Time was when women would not enter a pub on their own for fear of giving out the wrong signals of the type of woman they were. Also in years gone by, pubs were not the clean, well upholstered places with good toilet facilities that they are now. Most country pubs had only a little hut at the bottom of the garden with a container lined with dead leaves as a ‘convenience’. No woman would want to go into a pub under those conditions. And in the days before cars were universially owned not many men would venture into pubs out of their own district. Pubs were for local people who lived within walking distance. Only an outsider who has walked into a pub like that can know the chill of the concentrated suspicious, hostile stare of suddenly silent local yokels.
However once pubs were modernised, the sawdust on the floor replaced by carpet and the ghastly smell banished from the “little room”, women started venturing in. Nevertheless the inhibition on women going to the bar remained. In any case, when most married women did not go out to work, it was the men who had the money in their pockets and went to the bar to buy a round. But circumstances change. Most women are in gainful employment and are these days expected to pay for a round on equal terms with their male companions - though some still prefer to give the money to a man for him to elbow his way to the bar.
One unfortunate hang over from earlier times is that some couples seem to think that are one person for the purposes of buying rounds of drinks when out with single friends. They take two drinks when somebody else is paying, but only offer to buy one round in return. The excuse is often given that only one of them is drinking alcohol as the other drives, but soft drinks can be surprisingly expensive and, in any case, manners dictate that each person should buy a round.
The old days when everyone in a group was expected to buy a round before the evening ended are now long gone. The prevalence of cars and the strict drink driving laws put an end to such customs. After all, it only takes two pints of beer to put a man in danger of going ‘over the limit’ so the days of five men meeting down the boozer to get away from their respective wives for a few hours, and drinking five pints, have gone for good.
It still pays, however, to remember who last bought a round so that, if it was not you, you can be the first to the bar and so prove that you are generous and fully acquainted with the etiquette of rounds.