Dramatis personæ Josephine, An Englishwoman Mallory, An American The Matter At Hand: Buying drinks individually v. rounds
Josephine: I started drinking with my friends in pubs regularly around the age of sixteen or seventeen – whenever it is that girls are fully grown and men can no longer distinguish between oneself and a thirty-year-old. On a Friday night we would sit in one of an enormous chain of public houses and buy rounds of pints of Kronenbourg (too young to know you don’t have to copy boys) until a bell rang at about eleven and we had to walk home because the bus had stopped running. I guess we still do that but further afield and we choose our own drinks now. Sound weird? Perhaps, like Mallory, you are a know-nothing American!
There are a lot of ways that my formative drinking years were culturally coded, but perhaps no element more than the bulk purchasing of drinks for your table. Either in silent agreement or amid a chorus of accusation, the onus falls upon each member of the company in sequence. Just as the tolling of midnight follows the clock hands’ inexorable ticking, you knew it would come but still you are surprised. It is your turn! Rise from your seat, neck the last drops in your glass, and ask: “Anybody need a drink?” Be not surprised at the polyphony of nine voices in the affirmative. Of course everybody needs a drink. Just hope that the person you like the most offers to come up and ‘help carry.’
The reasons for round-buying seem so legion and self-evident that explaining them is ridiculous but I will indulge you with the top three.
1: buying in bulk My friends and I don’t really drink endless pints any more (just as we cannot smoke endless indoor cigarettes over those now-extinct gigantic blue branded pub ashtrays) but we still buy whole bottles of wine for everybody instead of glasses for ourselves. This is not always fiscally obvious due to pub wine prices being nonsense, but it saves trips and pouring your friend a glass of wine is one of the nicest things ever.
If everybody went up to the bar at the same time, who would save the seats? Who would watch the coats and bags that are left by the table? Are you just going to leave the table empty and prone to capture by those hungry-eyed tableless, roaming about? We don’t sit at the bar so much in England so table space is highly prized.
Now, I know that not everybody should drink at the same pace. Alcohol consumption is not the best fire in which to forge communal bonds. But it is not the worst! You come to know little things about your friends. One of my best friends won’t drink anything fizzy, for example. How am I supposed to make fun of her if I don’t have to order her a vodka lime and tap water regularly? Cheers-ing, the ultimate in “we are all here and we like each other and, re: said facts, let us clink these objects” is meaningless unless everybody has a fresh and full and glistening drink to hand.
Not all of my friends drink, actually, and it has only just occurred to me that they’ve probably been saddled with unwarranted bills. So, okay, it is a bit unfair, and it probably speeds the pace of everybody’s consumption and we’re going to die premature and pasty deaths. But the British love a piss-up, we’re not that good at communicating our affection for each other, and this is just one way that we’ve learned to bond. If that’s so wrong, I don’t wanna be right.
Mallory: Josephine, I hate you and your culture is terrible. It’s this go-with-the-herd, keep-your-head-down mentality, I’ll-have-what-everyone-else-is-having-please-thank-you-and-sorry that has resulted in the loss of empire, individual moral fiber, and global respect for your disgusting nation. Everyone knows that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds should be furtively drinking off-brand tequila and orange juice in their friend’s basements until somebody calls the cops, not openly and flagrantly calling for rounds like thirty-five-year-old roues in public houses. It teaches one a proper sense of one’s place in the world: not good enough to socialize above-ground yet.
There are occasions, I will freely and generously admit — I am a broad-minded and expansive-hearted American who has no problem giving credit where credit is due, and my laugh is the laugh of the open plains — when round-buying is perfectly acceptable. A person’s birthday, for example. Any event in which a guest of honor is being fêted; say, after a promotion or some act of public good. But buying a round must be an exceptional expression of goodwill; it cannot be an act of routine. You would take a spontaneous and noble gesture and turn it into socialism. You disgust me. “It is now your turn to treat the table, whether you will or no. You have no choice in the matter, but you will lose your social standing among the group should you defer.” It is the alcoholic equivalent of the Marshall Plan and I will not stand for it. I will not clean up your mess, I will not look after your pets while you are out of town, and I will not subsidize your terrible ciders nor your ghastly tonics.
One is responsible only for oneself. This is the highest and perhaps the only good. Your nation of taxicabs and mandatory health care has made you soft and codependent. I will now list three reasons why individual drink-buying should be the standard, and then be silent, as befits an American who has made her argument known.
1. One does not order food in bulk. Why order drinks that way?
Buying a bottle of wine for the whole table requires the whole table to consume the same beverage, like pigs drinking from a trough. Were you to invite me to a dinner where the entire party were required to split a giant miso salmon, regardless of how much I personally would have preferred the steak tartare, I would certainly decline. I will drink my own drinks and let you drink your own. This is freedom.
2. The table is fine.
We do not arrive to a bar or a pub en masse, sit down as a unit, go up to the bar simultaneously, and take identical bathroom breaks in a human chain. We trickle in, singly and in pairs and occasionally in small groups, grab a drink as we enter, then drink at our own pace. We are not automatons set to the same timer. Your method allows for no variation in drinking rates — one member might be savoring a Moscow Mule while another bolts her whiskey soda. Should the Moscow Mule savorer rush herself simply because her friend is a quick drinker? This is tyranny; this has the despotic air of King George about it. With the American method, there are always a handful of people at the table.
Also, it was poor planning of you to make your country so small. You should have picked a bigger one if you were going to put so many people in it.
3. I can tell what my friends are drinking by looking at their drinks, not by buying their drinks for them.
My drink of choice is club soda and “a little bit of all of the different juices that you have, please;” I am not universally beloved by bartenders. But I take my lumps in gracious good humor and would never ask someone I considered a friend or even a coworker to purchase such a monstrosity on my behalf. It is my choice and I will answer for it. In the world of round-buying, I cannot come and go as I please — if I leave before it’s my turn to buy fourteen drinks for everyone, I am a leech and a sneak. If I arrive late, I miss out on several subsidized drinks. If I buy the first round, before everyone arrives, I have ostensibly discharged my social duty but have in fact gotten away with spending a good third less than later round-buyers — what then? It is a broken system, awash in contradictions and loopholes and without sensible exit strategies. You people have no exit strategies: this was your problem at Dunkirk, and it is your problem now.
Josephine: What’s that *gurgle gurgle*? Oh, haha, sorry, I was a little preoccupied being force-fed antibiotics in the manner of my fellow European the Strasbourg goose to notice that you had lost your fucking mind. Let’s take a moment and do some calm breathing. I’ll keep this short.
Sometimes, sweet Mallory, we need to share a giant miso salmon.
We’ll be able to split the cheque evenly; it’ll be immediately clear what everybody’s fair share is; it’ll be quicker and easier for the staff; it’s just the right thing to do.
Now, I know that it is hard to know what to do when there are difficult decisions to be made, like, should we get a giant miso salmon or a massive cauldron of kale gel or whatever it is that your people enjoy. But there’s a system in place for times like this! We all pay the same amount, each person gets to contribute one ‘say’ and then the option with the most ‘says’ is chosen. Sometimes you might feel hard done by, but can’t say fairer than that, right? If you need the freedom to say fuck you, order a steak, and get your own special little serrated knife, then I don’t know what to tell you
Perhaps this time you spend a little too much, next time a little too little. Do you know why I’m not worried about being hard done by, Mallory? Trust. I don’t drink with people I distrust. In fact, the very action of entrusting my cash to the group activity of drinking with a big drunk family of beloved human beings, trusting that I will not be hard done by, is something for which I would pay a great premium. Perhaps about as much as you would be willing to give me for these delicious antibiotics.
When I asked my sister about rounds, he said that she liked doing it “cos its like giving someone a present! then they give you one back! like Christmas! and also then you dont have to worry about minimum spend on cards.” My sister and I like to give, Mallory, to give and to receive. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote that “It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.” Buying rounds is an invitation to good humour. It is like democracy, like trust, like Christmas. I only hope, my friend, that one day you’ll let me buy you a drink.
Mallory: Charles Dickens was a serial child murderer and you are a pint-addled monster. I like to give too, but being told exactly when and how to give is a bridge too far.
Also, I never buy my friends Christmas presents. I buy Christmas presents for my family, and then I stop.
Here is my problem with your system: it allows no room for flexibility. Where individual drink-buying is the norm, round-buying is always a possibility, and if anyone feels so moved they may say “Does anyone want a drink while I’m up? I’m buying!” Gift-giving becomes spontaneous, the generous action of a kind moment. But when round-buying is expected, anyone wishing to opt out looks churlish and ungallant. Also, I refuse to believe that you have never in your life gone out drinking with at least person you didn’t care for. The law of averages is against you. So my question for you is this:
Are there any social situations in which round-buying is not expected? Does one buy rounds with coworkers? With new acquaintances? On a Tuesday night? Is one ever permitted to step off the merry-go-round?
Josephine: You don’t have to buy rounds if you’re dead broke; if you hate somebody; if you’re drinking with strangers you don’t want to befriend. The merry-go-round is optional. You don’t have to drink to vote or get health-care or anything.
It is like Christmas. It shares some characteristics with Christmas’ sublime spirit of munificence. I’m not saying that ritualised drinking is Christmas. Nobody has to give anybody presents. Nobody has to be a good person (while we’re at it, though, I’m 26 years old, live three thousand miles from my family, and the Yamaha recorder that my friend Blevin gave me for Christmas this year sits atop my desk and watches over me like a beloved familiar: shout-out to Blevin).
But back to rounds: AHA! I consider your note that round-buying is ‘always a possibility’ as a total admission of defeat. America: ring the bell of surrender! Intone the back-track lament!
Round-buying may well represent the pinnacle of the social progress which has bubbled away over the course of our many, many centuries. We’ve done terrible things, the British. As you say, we have suffered the ‘loss of empire, individual moral fiber, and global respect.’ We didn’t want those things anyway! They were dreadful and pointless. One the other side of the age of empire, the British are left with nothing to do but care for one another. Flexibility be damned: let gallantry be mandated. Aspire to be good!
Do not forget, America, that your century too has drawn to a close; we are in the twilight of your supremacy. Love freedom all you like! Perhaps that shimmer on the horizon is freedom’s waving handkerchief, bidding you farewell as it blinks in and out of focus before disappearing completely. When you’re ready for a commiserative bev, we’re waiting.