A Guide to British Pub Etiquette

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Fri, 10 Dec 1999 13:50:58 -0800

[Thanks to NTK, which unaccountably buried it in the MEMEPOOL... Rohit]


Passport to the Pub:
A guide to British pub etiquette

1 The Basics
2 Choosing Your Pub
3 Making Contact
4 Pub-talk
5 It's Your Round
6 What's Yours?
7 The Opposite Sex
8 Games Pubgoers Play
9 Going Native

This book was written by SIRC Director Kate Fox and originally
published in 1996. All rights are the Brewers and Licensed Retailers

[Random excerpt of Section 4 follows]

4. Pub-talk

Pub-talk, the most popular activity in all pubs, is a native dialect
with its own distinctive grammar. There are two types of pub-talk.
The first type, which we may call 'choreographed pub-talk', may
initially sound remarkably like ordinary conversation, but the
patient eavesdropper will soon detect recurring patterns and rhythms.
The second type, 'coded pub-talk', will be utterly incomprehensible
to anyone who is not a regular in that particular pub.

These classifications do not refer to the subject of the
conversation, but to the way people talk - the structure of their
conversations, the unspoken rules they obey, the special terminology
they use. There are very few restrictions on what you can talk about
in British pubs: pub etiquette is concerned mainly with the form of
your conversation, not the content.

Choreographed pub-talk

We tend to think of rules and laws as unpleasant things, imposing
limits and restrictions on our behaviour, inhibiting our natural
spontaneity and creativity. The very word 'etiquette' may evoke an
image of stuffy propriety. Yet the unwritten rules governing pub-talk
are not restrictive or inhibiting - quite the opposite. Like all
other aspects of pub etiquette, they are designed to promote
sociability. If anything, they encourage more verbal exchanges, more
communication, than would otherwise occur among the naturally
reserved natives.

The greeting ritual

The greeting procedure mentioned in the last chapter is a good
example. When a regular enters the pub, you will often hear a chorus
of friendly greetings from other regulars, the publican and bar staff
("Evening, Joe", "Alright, Joe?", "Wotcha, Joe", "Usual is it,
Joe?", etc.). The regular responds to each greeting, usually
addressing the greeter by name or nickname ("Evening, Doc", "Alright,
there, Lofty?", "Wotcha, Bill" "Usual, thanks, Pauline", etc.).
No-one is conscious of obeying a rule or following a formula, yet you
will hear the same greeting ritual in every pub in the country.
Pub etiquette does not dictate the actual words to be used in this
exchange - and you may hear some inventive and idiosyncratic
variations. The words may not even be particularly polite: a regular
may be greeted with "Back again, Joe? - haven't you got a home to go
to?" or "Ah, just in time to buy your round, Joe!".

How to join in

When you first enter a pub, don't just order a drink - start by
saying "Good evening" or "Good morning" (both are often shortened to
" 'ning"), with a friendly nod and a smile, to the bar staff and the
regulars at the bar counter. For most natives, this will trigger an
automatic, reflex greeting-response, even if it is only a nod. Don't
worry if the initial response is somewhat reserved. By greeting
before ordering, you have communicated friendly intentions. Although
this does not make you an 'instant regular', it will be noticed, and
your subsequent attempts to initiate contact will be received more

The pub-argument

A more complex example of choreographed pub-talk is the pub-argument.
You may well hear a lot of arguments in pubs - arguing is the most
popular pastime of regular pubgoers - and some may seem to be quite
heated. But pub-arguments are not like arguments in the real world.
They are conducted in accordance with a strict code of etiquette.
This code is based on the First Commandment of pub law: "Thou shalt
not take things too seriously".

The etiquette of pub-arguments reflects the principles enshrined in
the unwritten 'constitution' governing all social interaction in the
pub: the constitution prescribes equality, reciprocity, the pursuit
of intimacy and a tacit non-aggression pact. Any student of human
relations will recognise these principles as the essential foundation
of all social bonding, and social bonding is what pub-arguments are
all about.
Rule number one: The pub-argument is an enjoyable game - no strong
views or deeply held convictions are necessary to engage in a lively
dispute. Pub regulars will often start an argument about anything,
just for the fun of it.