By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
Buying drinks in rounds can damage your health, says the Scottish Executive. But the round is about much more than drinking, it's a complex social activity that keeps the peace.
The round helps keep the peace
Getting a round in is a social minefield, with elaborate unwritten rules and punishments for anyone who gets it wrong.
The custom of buying drinks in rounds has been criticised by the Scottish Executive, with a health minister warning that it can pressurise people into drinking too much.
But Dr Peter Marsh, the co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre, says that below the surface the pub round is a complicated, highly regulated social ritual.
Being in a round means being accepted as a member of a group. And once inside this group, there are rules to be carefully observed about when and how often drinkers should be heading to the bar.
"Buying a round in a pub marks you out as a member of a very specific group - and by watching who buys drinks for whom, and in turn who receives drinks from whom, you get an immediate idea of the social dynamic there," says Dr Marsh.
There is nothing random about how drinks are bought in a round.
"There's a lot of monitoring - because you don't want to buy the drinks too early, you don't want to buy them too late. There are unwritten rules, such as if half the round are towards the bottom of the glass, that's the time to buy," he says.
South London, 1949: Getting in a round is a longstanding tradition
The greatest social danger is to be labelled as a round dodger who never finds their pocket - on the surface everyone might be smiling, but they're keeping a careful note on the progress of the round.
"People who don't buy their rounds become ostracised or pushed to the fringes of the group, it makes them extremely unpopular. It's seen as a deviant behaviour not to reciprocate.
"It goes the other way too, as people who buy too many are equally unpopular, as it's seen as showing off," says Dr Marsh.
If it was just about buying drinks, we would be more like the tourists arriving at a pub who all buy themselves an individual drink, says Dr Marsh. The round-buying is a more subtle piece of psychology.
In particular it's important to the emotionally inhibited British male, says a Guide to British Pub Etiquette, produced from research on pub life carried out by the SIRC.
"Reciprocal gift-giving is the most effective means of preventing aggression between nations, tribes and individuals. In the British pub, it is essential. This is because the British male is frightened of intimacy, finds it difficult to express friendly interest in other males and can be somewhat aggressive," says the guide.
In short, if we weren't buying drinks for each other, we'd be fighting.
Whose round is it anyway?
And the research also showed that while those who pro-actively initiate rounds are more popular, on average they don't spend any more money than those who wait.
The real ale organisation, Camra, also defends the tradition of the round, saying it's a practical and companionable way for friends to drink together.
"It's sociable to drink in rounds, particularly in small rounds with regular friends," says spokesperson Iain Loe, adding that a round of three or four people is the optimum number.
"If you have large rounds, everyone seems to feel obliged to stand their round and then they feel they should drink it as well - which is where it can get out of hand," he says.
And the layout of a traditional pub would struggle if every customer bought an individual drink. "It would clog up the pub, with people going backwards and forwards."
Nonetheless it's not the first time the round has come under attack from politicians. During World War I there were legal restrictions in some pubs on buying rounds, says Mr Loe, to stop excessive drinking hampering the war effort.
But Dr Marsh says that we shouldn't miss the significance of the giving and receiving within a group: "It's civilisation in action in a pub."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I work the bar in a very old style local pub. All the locals buy in rounds. Except one. A cantankerous old git who no-one actually likes who sits at the end of the bar every minute we're open. The locals resentfully buy him a pint with every round as they feel sorry for him (but equally dislike him and don't include him in conversations). However a few years ago I once brought a bloke I was seeing into the pub, who took four pints and didn't stand his round - his name's still mud!
Added difficulties are if you only know a couple of people in the group, or, even worse you arrive part way through a "session". If you're late it is customary to offer a round immediately, but then where do you fit in, chronologically?
The Rules: A Des [designated driver] should NEVER have to buy a round. When out with work collegues, senior staff always get the rounds in first. Couples should dib twice, but only after all singles, and each set of couples have bought at least one round. You should not accept an offer of a drink if your glass is more that half full. If it is your round next you should not take a rest break until the round is bought/offered. If you are not a Des, drinking soft drinks is no reason not to buy a round, however you do get relegated to be the last buyer, unless you are a Senior staff member, even if you are a Des, when you use the seniority ruling, and modify the couples rule so that two rounds are bought in succession because the partner is either equal standing, doesn't work for the office (Hence should not be there) or is getting it easy at work. If the Senior staff is an MD, they buy all rounds. It's simple ettiqute really. (A lowly office worker trying to avoid spending money!)
Alex Moon, Reading
I generally meet up with friends in a pub 20 minutes drive from my house. What is the recommended frequency for me to be buying the round as my non-alcoholic drinks tend to be two-thirds of the price? I normally buy the same number of rounds as others but this has caused me great insecurity as I'm not sure whether me insisting on buying drinks when people keep offer me drinks in somehow socially unaccpetable. I would appreciate any feedback.
I'm also in Jay's situation where I drink non-alcoholic drinks while everyone else has a pint. I just offer to buy slightly fewer rounds, that way other people don't feel uncomfortable about me paying for their Grolsch while I drink lime and soda.
Jay, here's what to do.... If you are picking your mates up, that's effectively your round- you are doing something good for the drinking cause by relieving others from driving duty! As a result, you're morally absolved of your round-buying duties. No-one should expect you to drive AND pay a tenner or so for a round, when you are getting a coke and an empty petrol tank out of the bargain! If you still feel guilty, get a round of bar snacks in after a couple of pints have been sunk- they'll go down a treat and you can expect the same when it's not your turn to drive.
Joel G, Leeds
Jay, you can always do what my friends who either don't drink or don't like beer & drink more expensive items ... just skip a (couple) of round before agreeing to be bought a drink ... people will appreciate it!
I think the Beach Boys had it about right: "Round, round, get a round, I get a round...".
As a non-alcohol drinker, I still do my social duty by buying a round when it is my turn. But I have one friend who always asks for the most expensive drink whenever it's not his own round. Can anyone suggest the most expensive non-alcoholic drink I can demand when it is his round? A pint of orange and lemonade just doesn't stand up against a double brandy (his latest trick).
When we go out as a group of about eight of us, the group usually splits into half automatically depending whos best mates with who, then you buy rounds within your closest social circle. If we go out with more people, we tend to go in a whip, everyone puts £20 in...it's amazing how much longer that lasts and how much cheaper it appears to be!!
It's all too true...Another reason people go on the rounds is to avoid the 20 - 30 minute wait at the bar.
My friends and I have a system whereby whoever is the driver for the evening is always last to buy a round. That way the person driving is duly rewarded by being the one most likely to not have to buy a round (depending on how long we stay) but it also sorts out the alcoholic/non-alcoholic drink price problem. The driver obviously doesn't drink alcoholic drinks, and by the time the round comes round to them most people have had enough and are on soft drinks anyway. It's a win-win situation.
The round after work in Chicago is the same way. It's a way for the guys to be a part of the group.
Heather, Carol Stream, USA
I'm a non-drinker and choose to sit out of the "round crowd". I don't feel that this impacts my acceptability to the social group at all. Once people realise that I'm only on soft drinks they don't mind one iota. I tend to agree with the Scottish contingent in so much as rounds tend to lead to increased level of drinking.
As a Frenchman, I find buying drinks in rounds an very civilised way of making a disparate group (especially at work) come together as it gives occasions to start conversations with people you don't know too well. Without this, you often get large groups divide in small clusters of people who each other and there is not a lot of mingling.
When I'm in the pub with two or three friends we work on a round basis - replenishing drinks when the group is down to it's last third of a pint - it's a poor show to have someone sitting with an empty glass. I used to have a friend who would plead poverty and buy his own, but he would match us all drink for drink - just a weirdo really. If I'm out in a large group, we operate a kitty, usually kicking off at £20 a head, adding a tenner each as it dwindles.
The best rule for rounds is to get the last one. If there are three in your group they will probably drink three pints but probably not drink six! That way you are seen to be standing your round and it usually works in your favour. Nice. Hic.
Any time I'm out, we always put in a kitty or buy rounds. This goes for any group I'm with, whether it be mates, workmates, family or other. I think I must be lucky though, in that the people I socialise with all have the same view about buying drinks. Putting in a kitty is the easiest way, but when buying rounds, we always try to make sure we take our turn. Another unwritten rule for a kitty is that if someone isn't drinking alcohol, they'll only put in half the money everyone else does. Even with rounds, a non-drinker will often find that they are not allowed to buy as many rounds as the drinkers. Can't get much fairer than that!
I very rarely buy a round, and I'm as popular as the rest of my 'group' and always invited to join them at the pub ... why ... because I don't drink so I'm always 'Des' (designated driver) and no-one will let me buy a drink when I'm saving them the taxi-fare home!
Jill Cockerham, Leeds
I have read with interest your article and the comments above. Am interested in how us women fit into this, as we are very much part of pub culture too. When I go to the pub with girlfriends or work colleagues I buy rounds. When I go to the pub with my husband he will often pay for me, so when we are part of a round, the poor person buying the round buys a drink for me too. They never complain as they are kind people but of course I feel that I should pay too, and this is then turned down possibly because its seen as non-gentlemanly? Sometimes we deal with this by buying our own drinks and staying out of the round, but by doing this it feels a bit anti social. How do we get around this without my husband having to buy double the amount of rounds? I would be interested to hear how others do this.
Amanda, your husband should buy double the amount of rounds. If he is paying for you and him then he should stand his round and yours. If there's a kitty a couple should put in double the amount of money than a single person. Then each person is spending the same.
Women are bad at rounds. A majority of them stand there and take drinks in a mixed group without feeling any pressure to reciprocate. If you remind them, it's like you've punched them or something. These are the exact ones who shout most about being "equal".
David Johnson, London
I love the way that the Germans handle drink buying. You get a beer coaster, a mark gets added to the coaster for each beer that you buy - at the end of the night (or when the waitress goes off). You pay for what you drink - you can stand someone else a drink if you want to - and there's no pressure to have one each time. Alternatively, go back to the idea of everyone sticking in £20 at the start of the evening if you know there's a large number and you're not going to manage to stay standing for that many rounds
Dom M, London
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