May 14, 2020

British Pub Culture | ANON

NOT my original words. They came to me through the ether and the only credit I have thius far found is : ‘KJMB’, for now planted here for posterity.

Ancient, unwritten, unspoken rules of English pub culture.

Pub. 1859, slang shortening of public house (see public (adj.)), which originally meant “any building open to the public” (1570s), then “inn that provides food and is licensed to sell ale, wine, and spirits” (1660s), and finally “tavern” (1768). Pub crawl first attested 1910 in British slang.

The Pub is a central part of English life and culture. That may sound like a standard guidebook thing to say, but I really mean it: the importance of the pub in English culture cannot be over-emphasized. Over three- quarters of the adult population go to pubs, and over a third are ‘regulars’, visiting the pub at least once a week. For many it is a second home. It also provides the perfect ‘representative sample’ of the English population for any social scientist, as pubs are frequented by people of all ages, all social classes, all education-levels and every conceivable occupation. It would be impossible even to attempt to understand Englishness without spending a lot of time in pubs, and it would almost be possible to achieve a good understanding of Englishness without ever leaving the pub.

I say ‘almost’ because the pub – like all drinking-places, in all cultures – is a special environment, with its own rules and social dynamics. My colleagues and I have conducted quite extensive cross-cultural research on drinking-places, (well someone had to do it) which showed that drinking is, in all societies, essentially a social activity, and that most cultures have specific, designated environments for communal drinking. Our research revealed three significant cross-cultural similarities or ‘constants’ regarding such drinking-places:

  1. In all cultures, the drinking-place is a special environment, a separate social world with its own customs and values

  2. Drinking-places tend to be socially integrative, egalitarian environments, or at least environments in which status distinctions are based on different criteria from those operating in the outside world

  3. The primary function of drinking-places is the facilitation of social bonding

So, although the pub is very much part of English culture, it also has its own ‘social micro-climate’22. Like all drinking-places, it is in some respects a ‘liminal’ zone, an equivocal, marginal, borderline state, in which one finds a degree of ‘cultural remission’ – a structured, temporary relaxation or suspension of normal social controls (also known as ‘legitimised deviance’ or ‘time-out behaviour’). It is partly because of this caveat that an examination of the rules of English pub-talk should tell us a lot about Englishness.


The Sociability Rule

For a start, the first rule of English pub-talk tells us why pubs are such a vital part of our culture. This is the sociability rule: the bar of the pub is one of the very few places in England where it is socially acceptable to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. At the bar, normal rules of privacy and reserve are suspended, we are granted temporary ‘remission’ from our conventional social inhibitions, and friendly conversation with strangers is considered entirely appropriate and normal behaviour.

Foreign visitors often find it hard to come to terms with the fact that there is no waiter service in English pubs. Indeed, one of the most poignant sights of the English summer (or the funniest, depending on your sense of humour) is the group of thirsty tourists sitting patiently at a pub table, waiting for someone to come and take their order.

My first, callously scientific, response to this sight was to take out my stopwatch and start timing how long it would take tourists of different nationalities to realise that there was no waiter service. (For the record, the fastest time – two minutes, twenty-four seconds – was achieved by a sharp-eyed American couple; the slowest – forty-five minutes, thirteen seconds – was a group of young Italians, although to be fair, they were engrossed in an animated debate about football and did not appear much concerned about the apparent lack of service.

A French couple marched out of the pub, muttering bitterly about the poor service and les Anglais in general, after a twenty-four-minute wait.) Once I had obtained sufficient data, however, I became more sympathetic, eventually almost to the point of writing a little paperback book on pub etiquette for tourists. The field research for this book – a sort of nine-month nationwide pub-crawl – also provided much useful material on Englishness.

In the pub-etiquette book, I could explain that the sociability rule only applies at the bar, so having to go up to the bar to buy drinks gives the English valuable opportunities for social contact. Waiter service, I could point out, would isolate people at separate tables. This may not be a problem in more naturally outgoing and sociable cultures, where people do not require any assistance to strike up a conversation with those seated near them, but, I argue rather defensively, the English are somewhat reserved and inhibited, and we need all the help we can get. It is much easier for us to drift casually into ‘accidental’ chat while waiting at the bar than deliberately to break into the conversation at a neighbouring table. The no-waiter-service system is designed to promote sociability. But not rampant, uncontrolled sociability. ‘Cultural remission’ is not just a fancy academic way of saying ‘letting your hair down’. It does not mean abandoning all inhibitions and doing exactly as you please. It means, quite specifically, a structured, ordered, conventionalized relaxation of normal social conventions. In English pubs, the suspension of normal privacy rules is limited to the bar, and in some cases, to a lesser degree, to tables situated very near the bar – those furthest from the bar being universally understood to be the most ‘private’. I found a few other exceptions: the sociability rule also applies to a more limited extent (and subject to quite strict rules of introduction) around the dart-board and pool table, but only to those standing near the players: the tables in the vicinity of these games are still ‘private’.

The English need the social facilitation of legitimised deviance at the bar, but we also still value our privacy. The division of the pub into ‘public’ and ‘private’ zones is a perfect, and very English, compromise: it allows us to break the rules, but ensures that we do so in a comfortingly ordered and rule-governed manner.

The Invisible-queue Rule

Before we can even begin to explore the complex etiquette involved in pub-talk, we stumble across another rule of pub behaviour that involves a brief digression from our focus on conversation rules, but will help us to prove (in the correct sense of ‘test’) a ‘rule of Englishness’. The issue is queuing. The bar is the only place in England in which anything is sold without the formation of a queue. Many commentators have observed that queuing is almost a national pastime for the English, who automatically arrange themselves into orderly lines at bus stops, shop counters, ice-cream vans, entrances, exits, lifts – and, according to some of the baffled tourists I interviewed, sometimes in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason.

According to one unwritten rule, ‘an Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.’ When I first heard this comment, I thought it was an amusing exaggeration, but then I started to observe people more closely, and found not only that it was true, but also that I do it myself. When waiting alone for a bus or at a taxi stop, I do not just lounge about anywhere roughly within striking distance of the stop, as people do in other countries – I stand directly under the sign, facing in the correct direction, exactly as though I were at the head of a queue. I form an orderly queue of one. If you are English, you probably do this too.

In our drinking-places, however, we do not form an orderly queue at all: we gather haphazardly along the bar. At first, this struck me as contrary to all English instincts, rules and customs, until I realised that there is in fact a queue, an invisible queue, and that both the bar staff and the customers are aware of each person’s position in this queue. Everyone knows who is next: the person who reached the bar counter before you will be served before you, and any obvious attempt to get served out of turn will be ignored by the bar staff and severely frowned upon by other customers. In other words, it will be treated as queue-jumping. The system is not infallible, but English bar staff are exceptionally skilled at identifying who is next in the invisible queue. The bar counter is ‘the exception that proves the rule’ about English queuing: it is only an apparent exception – and another example of the orderly nature of English disorder.

The Pantomime Rule

The rules of English pub-talk regulate non-verbal as well as verbal communication – in fact, some of them actively prohibit use of the verbal medium, such as the pantomime rule. Bar staff do their best to ensure that everyone is served in proper turn, but it is still necessary to attract their attention and make them aware that one is waiting to be served. There is, however, a strict etiquette involved in attracting the attention of bar staff: this must be done without speaking, without making any noise and without resorting to the vulgarity of obvious gesticulation. (Yes, we are back in Looking-Glass land again. The truth of English etiquette is indeed stranger than even the strangest of fiction.)

The prescribed approach is best described as a sort of subtle pantomime – not the kind of pantomime we see on stage at Christmas, but more like an Ingmar Bergman film in which the twitch of an eyebrow speaks volumes. The object is to make eye contact with the barman. But calling out to him is not permitted, and almost all other obvious means of attracting attention, such as tapping coins on the counter, snapping fingers or waving are equally frowned upon.

It is acceptable to let bar staff know one is waiting to be served by holding money or an empty glass in one’s hand. The pantomime rule allows us to tilt the empty glass, or perhaps turn it slowly in a circular motion (some seasoned pubgoers told me that this indicates the passing of time). The etiquette here is frighteningly precise: it is permitted to perch one’s elbow on the bar, for example, with either money or an empty glass in a raised hand, but not to raise one’s whole arm and wave the notes or glass around.

The pantomime rule requires the adoption of an expectant, hopeful, even slightly anxious expression. If a customer looks too contented, bar staff may assume that he or she is already being served. Those waiting to be served must stay alert and keep their eye on the bar staff at all times. Once eye contact is made, a quick lift of the eyebrows, sometimes accompanied by an upward jerk of the chin, and a hopeful smile, lets the staff know you are waiting. They respond to these pantomime signals with a smile or a nod, a raised finger or hand, and perhaps a similar eyebrow-lift. This is code for ‘I see that you are waiting and will serve you as soon as possible’. The English perform this pantomime sequence instinctively, without being aware of following a rigid etiquette and never question the extraordinary handicaps (no speaking, no waving, no noise, constant alertness to subtle non-verbal signals) imposed by the rule. Foreigners find the eyebrow-twitching pantomime ritual baffling – incredulous tourists often told me that they could not understand how the English ever managed to buy themselves a drink – but it is surprisingly effective. Everyone does get served, usually in the right order, and without undue fuss, noise or argument.

Researching the pantomime rule (and the other unwritten rules of pub behaviour) was something of a test of my own ability to stand back from my native culture and observe it as a detached scientist. As a native pubgoer, I had always performed the pantomime ritual automatically, like everyone else, without ever questioning or even noticing its strange and complex rules. But to write the pub-etiquette book, I had to force myself to become a ‘professional alien’, even in my own local pub. It is quite an interesting (although somewhat disconcerting) mental exercise, to clear one’s mind of everything one normally takes for granted – and to scrutinise, dissect and question every detail of a routine which is almost as familiar, mindless and mechanical as brushing one’s teeth.

Exception to the Pantomime Rule

There is one important exception to the pantomime rule, and as usual it is a rule-governed exception. While waiting to be served at a pub bar counter, you may hear people calling out to the bar staff ‘Oi, any chance of a bloody drink sometime this millennium?’ or ‘Get a move on: I’ve been stood here since last Thursday!’ or committing other blatant breaches of the pantomime rule. You would be advised not to follow their example: the only people permitted to speak in this manner are the established ‘regulars’ (regular customers of the pub), and the rude remarks are made in the context of the special etiquette governing relations between bar staff and regulars.

The Rules of Ps and Qs (Please and Thank you)

The rules governing the ordering of drinks, however, apply to everyone. First, it is customary in England for just one or at the most two members of a group to go up to the bar to order drinks for the group, and for only one to make the actual payment. (This rule is not merely designed to make life easier for bar staff, or to avoid that English pet hate ‘fuss’. It is related to another complex set of rules: the etiquette of round-buying, which will be covered later.) Second, the correct way to order a beer is ‘A pint of bitter [or lager], please’. For a half-pint, this is always shortened to ‘Half a bitter [or lager], please’.

The ‘please’ is very important: foreigners or novices will be forgiven mistakes in other elements of the order, but omitting the ‘please’ is a serious offence. It is also vital to say ‘thank-you’ (or ‘thanks’, or ‘cheers’, or at the very least the non-verbal equivalent – eye contact, nod and smile), when the drinks are handed over, and again when the change is given.

This rule applies not just in pubs, but when ordering or purchasing anything, anywhere in England: in shops, restaurants, trains, buses and hotels, staff expect to be treated politely, and this means saying please and thank-you. The politeness is reciprocal: a bartender or shop assistant will say, ‘That’ll be four pounds fifty, then, please’, and will usually say ‘Thank you’, or an equivalent, when you hand over the money. The generic rule is that every request (by either staff or customer) must end with ‘please’ and every fulfilment of a request (ditto) requires a ‘thank-you’.

During my research on Englishness, I diligently counted all the pleases and thank-yous involved in every purchase I made, and found that, for example, a typical transaction in a newsagent’s or corner shop (such as, say, my usual purchase of a bar of chocolate, a newspaper and a packet of cigarettes) usually involves two pleases and three thank-yous (although there is no upper limit on thank-yous, and I have often counted five).

The simple purchase of a drink and a packet of crisps in a pub also typically requires two pleases and three thank-yous.

England may be a highly class-conscious society, but these politeness rules suggest that the culture is also; in many ways, remarkably egalitarian – or at least that it is not done to draw attention to status differences.

Service staff may often be of a lower social class than their customers (and linguistic class-indicators ensure that where this is the case both parties will be aware of it), but there is a conspicuous lack of servility in their demeanour, and the unwritten rules require that they be treated with courtesy and respect. Like all rules, these are sometimes broken, but when this does occur, it is noticed and frowned upon.

The “And One for Yourself?” Rule – and the Principles of Polite Egalitarianism

In the special social micro-climate of the pub, I found that the rules of egalitarian courtesy are even more complex, and more strictly observed. For example, it is not customary in English pubs to tip the publican or bar staff who serves you. The usual practice is, instead, to buy them a drink. To give bar staff a tip would be an impolite reminder of their ‘service’ role, whereas to offer a drink is to treat them as equals. The rules governing the manner in which such drinks must be offered reflect both polite egalitarianism and a peculiarly English squeamishness about money. The prescribed etiquette for offering a drink to the publican or bar staff is to say, “And one for yourself?” or “And will you have one yourself?” at the end of your order. The offer must be clearly phrased as a question, not an instruction, and should be made discreetly, not bellowed out in an unseemly public display of generosity.

If one is not ordering drinks, it is still acceptable to ask the bartender or publican ‘Will you have a drink?’ but the “And one for yourself?” approach is much preferred, as it implies that the customer and the bartender are having a drink together, that the bartender is being included in the ‘round’. I observed that the English also tend to avoid using the word ‘buy’. To ask, ‘Can I buy you a drink?’ would in theory be acceptable, but in practice is rarely heard, as it carries the suggestion that money is involved. The English are perfectly well aware that money is involved, but prefer not to call attention to the fact. We know that the publican and bar staff are providing us with a service in exchange for money and indeed that the “and one for yourself?” ritual is a somewhat convoluted and tortuous way of giving them a tip – but it would be indecorous to highlight the pecuniary aspects of this relationship.

And the bar staff collude in this squeamishness. If the ‘And one for yourself?’ offer is accepted, it is customary for bar staff to say, ‘Thanks, I’ll have a half [or whatever]’ and add the price of their chosen drink to the total cost of the order. They will then state the new total clearly: ‘That’ll be five pounds twenty, then, please’ – thus indirectly letting you know the price of the drink you have just bought them, without actually mentioning the amount which in any case will not be large, as the unwritten rules require them to choose a relatively inexpensive drink. By stating the revised total, they are also, in a subtle and oblique manner, making the customer aware of their abstemious choice of beverage. The understanding that this is not a tip but an invitation to ‘join’ the customer in a drink, is also reinforced by the behaviour of the bar staff when consuming the drink. They will always raise their glass in the customer’s direction, and say ‘Cheers’ or ‘Thanks’, which is normal practice between friends on receiving a drink as part of a ‘round’. When the bar is particularly busy, the staff may not have time to pour or consume the drink immediately. It is quite acceptable in these circumstances for them to accept the ‘And one for yourself?’ offer, add the price of their drink to the customer’s order, and enjoy the drink later when the bar is less crowded. On pouring the drink, however, even several hours later, bar staff will go to some lengths to ensure that they catch the relevant customer’s eye and raise the glass in acknowledgement, with a nod and a smile and a ‘cheers’ if the customer is within earshot.

It could be argued that, although more egalitarian than conventional tipping, this ‘one-way commensality’ – giving without receiving in return – is none the less a dominance signal. This argument would have some merit, were it not that the gesture is often reciprocated by publicans and bar staff, who will usually not allow a customer, particularly a regular, to buy them many drinks before attempting to return the favour. There will still, in the final reckoning, be some asymmetry, but such reckonings never occur, and even an occasional reciprocation on the part of the publican or bar staff serves to maintain the impression of a friendly exchange between equals.

To many foreign visitors, the “And one for yourself?” ritual seems like an unnecessarily circuitous and complicated way of giving a tip – a gesture accomplished almost everywhere else in the world by the simple handing over of a few coins. A bemused American, to whom I explained the rule, expressed incredulity at the ‘Byzantine’ nature of English pub etiquette, and a French visitor bluntly dismissed the entire procedure as “typical English hypocrisy”.

Although other foreigners told me that they found our convoluted courtesies charming, if somewhat bizarre, I have to admit that these two critics both have a point. English rules of politeness are undeniably rather complex, and, in their tortuous attempts to deny or disguise the realities of status differences, clearly hypocritical. But then, surely all politeness is a form of hypocrisy: almost by definition, it involves pretence. The sociolinguists Brown and Levinson argue that politeness ‘presupposes [the] potential for aggression as it seeks to disarm it, and makes possible communication between potentially aggressive parties’. Also in the context of a discussion of aggression, Jeremy Paxman observes that our strict codes of manners and etiquette seem ‘to have been developed by the English to protect themselves from themselves’.

We are, perhaps more than many other cultures, intensely conscious of class and status differences. George Orwell correctly described England as ‘the most class-ridden country under the sun’. Our labyrinthine rules and codes of polite egalitarianism are a disguise, an elaborate charade, a severe collective case of what psychotherapists would call ‘denial’. Our polite egalitarianism is not an expression of our true social relations, any more than a polite smile is a manifestation of genuine pleasure or a polite nod a signal of real agreement. Our endless pleases disguise orders and instructions as requests; our constant thank-yous maintain an illusion of friendly equality; the ‘And one for yourself?’ ritual requires an extraordinary act of communal self-deception, whereby we all agree to pretend that nothing so vulgar as money nor so degrading as ‘service’ is involved in the purchase of drinks in a bar.

Hypocrisy? At one level, clearly, yes: our politenesses are all sham, pretence, dissimulation – an artificial veneer of harmony and parity masking quite different social realities. But I have always understood the term hypocrisy to imply conscious, deliberate deception of others, whereas English polite egalitarianism seems to involve a collective, even collaborative, self-delusion. Our politeness’s are evidently not a reflection of sincere, heartfelt beliefs, but neither are they cynical, calculating attempts to deceive. And perhaps we need our polite egalitarianism to protect us from ourselves – to prevent our acute consciousness of class differences from expressing itself in less acceptable ways.

###The Rules of Regular-speak

I mentioned above, in the context of the pantomime rule, that there is a special code of etiquette governing the behaviour and speech of pub ‘regulars’ (regular customers of a particular pub), which, among other privileges, allows them to break the pantomime rule. The special code does not, however, allow them to jump the invisible queue – as this would violate the over-riding English rule about queuing, itself a subsidiary, it would seem, of a more general rule of Englishness about ‘fairness’. It is worth examining the rules of regular-speak in more detail, as they represent a ‘conventionalized deviation from convention’, which should provide further clues that will help us in our search for the defining characteristics of Englishness.

###Greeting Rules

When a regular enters the pub, there will often be a chorus of friendly greetings from the other regulars, the publican and the bar staff. Publicans and bar staff, always address regulars by name, and regulars always address the publican, bar staff and each other by name. Indeed, I have noticed that in the pub, names are used rather more often than is strictly necessary, as though to emphasize the familiarity and personal connections between members of this small ‘tribe’. This is particularly striking as a contrast to ‘mainstream’ English conversation codes, in which names are used significantly less than in other cultures, and where over-use of names is frowned upon as cloyingly American.

The bonding effect among pub regulars is further reinforced by the use of nicknames – pubs are always full of people called ‘Shorty’, ‘Yorkshire’, ‘Doc’, ‘Lofty’, etc. To call someone by a nickname universally indicates a high degree of familiarity. Normally, only family and close friends use nicknames. The frequent use of nicknames between regulars, publican and bar staff gives them a sense of belonging – and gives us a helpful insight into the nature of social relations in English pubs. It is worth noting in this context that some regular pubgoers have a ‘pub-nickname’ which is not used by their friends and family outside the pub, and may not even be known to these groups. Pub-nicknames are often ironic: a very short regular may be known as Lofty, for example. In my own local pub, although I was normally known as ‘Stick’ (a reference to my rather scrawny figure), the landlord went through a phase of calling me ‘Pillsbury’. The greeting rules require the publican, bar staff and regulars to welcome a regular with a chorus of ‘Evening, Bill’, ‘Wotcha, Bill’, ‘Alright, Bill?’, ‘Usual, is it, Bill?’, and so on. The regular must respond to each greeting, normally addressing the greeter by name or nickname: ‘Evening, Doc’, ‘Wotcha, Joe’, ‘Alright there, Lofty’, ‘Usual, thanks, Mandy’. The rules do not prescribe the exact words to be used in these exchanges, and one often hears inventive, idiosyncratic, humorous or even mock-insulting variations, such as ‘Ah, just in time to buy your round, Bill!’ or ‘Back again, Doc? Haven’t you got a home to go to?’

The Rules of Coded Pub-talk

If you spend hundreds of hours sitting eavesdropping in pubs, you will notice that many pub conversations could be described as ‘choreographed’, in the sense that they follow a prescribed pattern, and are conducted in accordance with strict rules – although participants are not conscious of this, and obey the rules instinctively. While the rules of this choreographed pub-talk may not be immediately obvious to outsiders, the conversations can be followed and understood. One type of regular-speak, however, is utterly incomprehensible to outsiders, and can be understood only by the regular customers of a particular pub. This is because the regulars are effectively speaking in code, using a private language. Here is my favourite typical example of coded pub-talk, from the etiquette research:

The scene is a busy Sunday lunchtime in a local pub. A few REGULARS are standing at the bar, where the PUBLICAN is serving. A male REGULAR enters, and by the time he reaches the bar, the PUBLICAN has already started pouring his usual pint. The PUBLICAN places the pint on the counter in front of the REGULAR, who fishes in his pocket for money.

REGULAR 1: ‘Where’s meat and two veg, then?’

PUBLICAN: ‘Dunno, mate – should be here by now.’

REGULAR 2: ‘Must be doing a Harry!’

(– All laugh –)

REGULAR 1: ‘Put one in the wood for him, then – and yourself?’

PUBLICAN: ‘I’ll have one for Ron, thanks.’

To decode this conversation, you would need to know that the initial question about ‘meat and two veg’ was not a request for a meal, but an enquiry as to the whereabouts of another regular, nicknamed ‘Meat-and-two- veg’ because of his rather stolid, conservative nature (meat with two vegetables being the most traditional, unadventurous English meal). Such witty nicknames are common: in another pub, there is a regular known as TLA, which stands for Three Letter Acronym, because of his penchant for business-school jargon.

One would also have to know that ‘doing a Harry’, in this pub, is code for ‘getting lost’, Harry being another regular, a somewhat absent-minded man, who once, three years ago, managed to get lost on his way to the pub, and is still teased about the incident. ‘Put one in the wood for him’ is a local version of a more common pub- talk expression, meaning ‘reserve a pint of beer to give him when he arrives, which I will pay for now’ (The more usual phrase is ‘Put one in for . . .’ or ‘Leave one in for . . .’ – ‘Put one in the wood for . . .’ is a regional variation, found mainly in parts of Kent.) The phrase ‘and yourself?’ is shorthand for ‘and one for yourself?’ the approved formula for offering a drink. The ‘Ron’ referred to by the publican, however, is not a person, but a contraction of ‘later on’.

So: Regular 1 is buying a drink now, to be served to the traditionalist Meat-and-two-veg when he arrives (assuming the latter has not repeated Harry’s mistake and got lost) and offering the publican a drink, which he accepts, but will not consume until later on, when he is less busy. Simple, really – if you happen to be a member of this particular pub-tribe, and familiar with all its legends, nicknames, quirks, codes, abbreviations and in-jokes In our national scientific pub-crawls, we found that every pub has its own private code of in-jokes, nicknames, phrases and gestures. Like the ‘private languages’ of other social units such as families, couples, school-friends and work-mates, this coded pub-talk emphasizes and reinforces the social bonds between pub regulars. It also emphasizes and reinforces the sense of equality among them. In the pub, your position in the ‘mainstream’ social hierarchy is irrelevant: acceptance and popularity in this liminal world are based on quite different criteria, to do with personal qualities, quirks and habits. ‘Meat-and-two-veg’ could be a bank manager or an unemployed bricklayer. His affectionately teasing nickname is a reference to his middle-of-the-road tastes, his rather conservative outlook on life. In the pub, he is liked, and mocked, for these idiosyncratic foibles; his social class and occupational status are immaterial. ‘Harry’ might be an absent-minded professor, or an absent-minded plumber. If he were a professor, he might be nicknamed ‘Doc’, and I heard of a plumber whose unfortunate pub- nickname was ‘Leaky’, but Harry’s absent-mindedness, not his professional rank, is the quality for which he is known, liked and teased at the Rose and Crown.

So, coded pub-talk facilitates social bonding and reinforces egalitarian values. I mentioned earlier, however, that the primary function of all drinking-places, in all cultures, is the facilitation of social bonding, and that all drinking-places tend to be socially integrative, egalitarian environments – so what, if anything is peculiarly English about the bonding and egalitarianism we find embedded in coded pub-talk?

There are aspects of this pub-talk that do seem to be identifiably English, such as the celebration of eccentricity, the constant undercurrent of humour, the wit and linguistic inventiveness. But the ‘universal’ features of facilitation of bonding and egalitarianism are distinctive here only in the degree to which they deviate from the mainstream culture – which is characterized by greater reserve and social inhibition, and more pervasive and acute class-consciousness, than many other societies. It is not that sociability and equality are peculiar to English drinking-places, but that the contrast with our conventional norms is more striking, and that, perhaps, we have a greater need for the drinking-place as a facilitator of sociable egalitarianism – as a liminal world in which the normal rules are suspended.

The Rules of the Pub-argument

I mentioned earlier that regulars are not only exempt from the pantomime rule but are allowed to make remarks such as ‘Oi, Spadge, when you’ve quite finished your little chat, I wouldn’t mind another pint, if it’s not too much bloody trouble!’ Banter, backchat and mock-insults of this kind (often involving the use of heavy irony), are a standard feature of conversations between regulars and bar staff, and among fellow regulars.

Pub-arguments, which are not like ‘real’ arguments in the ‘real world’, are an extension of this kind of banter. Arguing is probably the most popular form of conversation in pubs, particularly among males, and pub-arguments may often appear quite heated. The majority, however, are conducted in accordance with a strict code of etiquette, based on what must be regarded as the First Commandment of pub law: ‘Thou shalt not take things too seriously’.

The rules of pub-arguments also reflect the principles enshrined in what might be called the ‘unwritten constitution’ governing all social interaction in this special environment. This pub constitution prescribes equality, reciprocity, the pursuit of intimacy and a tacit non-aggression pact. Students of human relations will recognise these principles as being among the foundations of all social bonding – and it seems that social bonding is indeed the underlying purpose of the pub-argument.

It is collectively understood, although never stated, that the pub-argument (like the Mine’s Better than Yours ritual described earlier) is essentially an enjoyable game. No strong views or deeply held convictions are necessary for pub regulars to engage in lively disputes – in fact, they would be a hindrance. Regulars will frequently start an argument about anything, or nothing, just for the fun of it. A bored regular will deliberately spark off an argument by making an outrageous or extreme statement, and then sit back and wait for the inevitable cries of ‘bollocks!’ The instigator must then hotly defend his assertion, which he secretly knows to be indefensible. He will then counter-attack by accusing his adversaries of stupidity, ignorance or something less polite. The exchange often continues in this manner for some time, although the attacks and counter-attacks tend to drift away from the original issue, moving on to other contentious matters – and the need to argue among male pubgoers is such that almost any subject, however innocuous, can become a controversial issue.

Pubgoers have a knack for generating disputes out of thin air. Like despairing auctioneers taking bids from ‘phantom’ buyers, they will vehemently refute a statement nobody has made, or tell a silent companion to shut up. They get away with this because other regulars are also looking for a good excuse to argue. The following example, recorded in my own local pub, is typical:

REGULAR 1: (accusingly): ‘What?’

REGULAR 2: (puzzled): ‘I didn’t say anything.’

REGULAR 1: ‘Yes you did!’

REGULAR 2: (still bemused): ‘No I didn’t!’

REGULAR 1: (belligerent): ‘You did, you said it was my round – and it’s not my round!’

REGULAR 2: (entering into the spirit of things): ‘I didn’t bloody say anything, but now you come to mention it, it is your round!’

REGULAR 1: (mock-outraged): ‘Bollocks – it’s Joey’s round!’

REGULAR 2: (taunting): Then why are you hassling me about it, eh?’ REGULAR 1: (now thoroughly enjoying himself): ‘I’m not – you started it!’ REGULAR 2: (ditto): ‘Didn’t!’

REGULAR 1: ‘Did!’

And so on. As I sat watching, sipping my beer, smiling the tolerant-but-slightly-superior smile characteristic of females listening patiently to male pub-arguments, the dispute meandered into other issues, but the opponents continued to buy each other drinks, and by the end everyone had, as usual, forgotten what the argument was supposed to be about. The rules state that no-one ever wins a pub-argument, and no-one ever surrenders. (The pub-argument is one context in which the quintessentially English gentlemanly edict that ‘it is not the winning, but the taking part’ that matters, still holds true.) The antagonists remain the best of mates, and a good time is had by all.

This sort of pointless, childish fight-picking might appear to be in contravention of the pub ‘constitution’, with its prescription of intimacy and non-aggression, but the fact is that arguing, for English males, is a crucial element of the ‘pursuit of intimacy’. The pub-argument allows them to show interest in one another, to express emotion, to reveal their personal beliefs, attitudes and aspirations – and to discover those of their companions. It allows them to become closer, more intimate, without acknowledging that this is their purpose. The pub- argument allows them to achieve intimacy under the macho camouflage of competition. The English male’s tendency to aggression is channelled into harmless verbal fisticuffs, with the ‘symbolic handshake’ of round- buying serving to prevent any escalation into more serious, physical violence.

Similar male-bonding arguments do of course take place outside the pub – among work-mates, for example, and among members of sports teams and clubs, or just among friends – and follow much the same rules. But the pub-argument is the best, most archetypal example of the English male-bonding argument. The English male- bonding argument also shares many features with similar practices in other cultures: all such ‘ritual disputes’ involve a tacit non-aggression pact, for example – in effect, an understanding that all the insults and attacks are not to be taken too seriously. What is distinctively English about the English version; it seems to me, is that our natural aversion to earnestness – and specifically our predilection for irony – makes this understanding much easier to achieve and to maintain.

The Free-association Rule

In the pub, even sticking to the same subject for more than a few minutes may sometimes be taken as a sign of excessive seriousness. Psychoanalysts use a technique called ‘free-association’, in which the therapist asks the patient to say whatever comes into his or her mind in association with a particular word or phrase. If you spend some time eavesdropping in pubs, you will notice that English pub-talk often exhibits the same qualities as these free-association sessions, which may help to explain its socially therapeutic effects. In the pub, the normally reserved and cautious English shed some of their inhibitions, and give voice to whatever passing thought happens to occur to them.

The free-association rule states that pub conversations do not have to progress in any kind of logical or orderly manner; they need not stick to the point, nor must they reach a conclusion. When pubgoers are in free- association mode, which is much of the time, attempts to get them to focus on a particular subject for more than a few minutes are fruitless, and only serve to make one unpopular.

The free-association rule allows pub-talk to move in a mysterious way – mostly in apparently random sideways leaps. A comment about the weather somehow triggers a brief argument about football, which prompts a prediction about the fate of a television soap-opera character, which leads to a discussion of a current political scandal, which provokes some banter about the sex-life of the barman, which is interrupted by a regular demanding immediate assistance with a crossword clue, which in turn leads to a comment about the latest health-scare, which somehow turns into a debate about another regular’s broken watch-strap, which sets off a friendly dispute about whose round it is, and so on. You can sometimes see a sort of vague logic in some of the connections, but most topic-shifts are accidental, prompted by participants free-associating with a random word or phrase.

The free-association rule is not just a matter of avoidance of seriousness. It is a licence to deviate from conventional social norms, to let one’s guard down a bit. Among the English, this kind of loose, easy, disordered, haphazard conversation, in which people feel relaxed and comfortable enough to say more or less whatever occurs to them, is only normally found among close friends or family. In the pub, however, I found that free- association talk seems to occur naturally even among people who do not know each other. It is most common among regulars, but at the bar counter, strangers can easily be drawn in to the rambling chat. In any case, it must be understood here that people who regularly frequent the same pub are not necessarily, or even normally, close friends in the usual sense of the term. It is very rare for fellow regulars to invite each other to their homes, for example, even when they have been meeting and sharing their random thoughts every day for many years.

So: the free-association conversation patterns of English pubgoers, even among relative strangers, resemble those of a comfortable, close-knit family – which seems to contradict the usual perception of the English as reserved, stand-offish and inhibited. But when I looked a bit closer and listened a bit more carefully, the boundaries and restrictions emerged. I discovered that this was yet another example of strictly limited, and closely regulated, cultural remission.

The free-association rule allows us to deviate from the normal codes of ‘Public’ conversation and to enjoy some of the looseness of ‘private’ or ‘intimate’ talk – but only up to a point. The clue is in the word ‘patterns’. The structure of free-association pub-talk is like that of the private conversation among close friends or family, but the content is far more restricted. Even in free-association mode, fellow pubgoers (unless they also happen to be close friends) do not pour their hearts out to each other; they do not reveal – except inadvertently – their private fears or secret desires.

In fact, it is not done to talk about ‘personal’ matters at all, unless such matters can be aired in a non-serious manner, in accordance with the First Commandment. Jokes about one’s divorce, depression, illness, work problems, delinquent children or other private difficulties and dysfunctions are fine – indeed, wry humour about life’s tragedies is a standard feature of pub-talk. But earnest heart-to-heart outpourings are frowned upon. Such tearful exchanges do take place in pubs, of course, but these are private conversations, between friends or couples or family: it is not considered appropriate to conduct them at the bar counter, and, most importantly, these private conversations are among the few that are not subject to the free-association rule.

PUB-TALK Rules and Englishness

So what have we learnt? What do the rules of pub-talk tell us about Englishness?

The sociability rule confirms the characteristic revealed by the weather-speak rules of context and reciprocity– namely the ingenious use of ‘facilitators’ to overcome our natural reserve and inhibitions. But this rule has added a couple of new twists to this theme. First, we find that in promoting sociability, the English are very careful to avoid sacrificing privacy. Second, the strict limits and caveats to the sociability rule indicate that even when we depart from convention, we do so in a controlled, orderly manner.

In the invisible queue rule, we find another example of ‘orderly disorder’, and evidence of the importance of queuing, which itself could be an indication of the importance of ‘fairness’ (this makes me wonder if perhaps the traditional English reverence for ‘fair play’ is still stronger than the doom-mongers would have us believe). In the pantomime rule, we see again the precedence of etiquette over logic – along with a marked dislike of fuss, noise and drawing attention to oneself, confirming earlier evidence indicating that social inhibition might be among the defining characteristics of Englishness.

The rules of Ps and Qs confirm the supreme importance of courtesy, and our squeamishness about calling attention to class and status differences. The “And one for yourself?” rule exposes both the hypocrisies and the virtues of English ‘polite egalitarianism’.

The deviations from convention involved in the rules of regular-speak provide a particularly rich source of indicators of Englishness. The excessive use of names (and nicknames) prescribed by the greeting rules contrasts sharply with mainstream English conversation-codes, in which over-use of names is frowned upon as too cloyingly familiar. It occurs to me that perhaps our official, snooty, well-bred contempt for such familiarity masks a secret need for it, expressed only in liminal zones.

As well as facilitating uncharacteristic sociability, the rules of coded pub-talk highlight another ‘deviation’: the escape from mainstream social hierarchies. We see that although sociability and egalitarianism are universal features of drinking-places, the contrast with conventional norms is particularly striking in the English case (only matched by the Japanese, also a culture noted for reserve, formality and acute sensitivity to status differences and also, perhaps significantly, a society inhabiting a small, overcrowded island). In coded pub-talk and in the pub-argument rules, we also find that undercurrent of humour that characterizes much English conversation, along with a sharp wit and linguistic inventiveness. Finally, the free-association rule provides yet another example of regulated deregulation, ordered disorder, method in (apparent) madness.

We’ll tot all this up later, when we’ve examined enough different aspects of English culture to build up a representative sample of its unspoken rules, from which we can distil our ‘quintessence’s of Englishness’. In our exploration of the minutiae of conversation codes, we are already starting to see some recurring themes, but we must be ruthless: will these themes appear again in other contexts, such as the way we decorate our homes, our behaviour on trains and buses, the customs and rituals of the workplace, the rules of eating and drinking, sex and shopping?

📜 observations

Previous post
Value Yourself Golconde (Magritte). Golconde is a synonym for ‘mine of wealth’. Do this exercise and then look at the projects you take on. How many of them
Next post
The 4 Lessons The Elephant in the Airport Tom Evslin on why we should focus on single issues at our peril. He concludes with 4 lessons : Pilots are taught never