After gallivanting about London for nearly a month, I feel it is a safe assumption that I have frequented enough public houses to constitute an adequate sample size for assessment. While naturally each establishment is home to its own unique charm and atmosphere, the consistent nature of the social dynamic experienced myself seems to validate many of the assertions made by the anthropologist Kate Fox regarding the “Byzantine” nature of the appropriate social etiquette.
As the initial thoughts of an entrant pub-goer tend to primarily be concerned with the procuring of a drink, it only makes sense that the etiquette of the counter would be the first foreign atmosphere encountered by the prospective reveler. Fox discusses what she calls a “pantomime rule” in force when attempting to signal the bartender. Essentially, one has to effectively convey their need for service without resorting to verbal utterances or obvious physical gestures. This was one of the first strange customs I observed upon my arrival in the United Kingdom. At a crowded bar, the patrons are oddly silent unless already served and conversing with others in a similar situation. Those who are waiting tend to either swirl their empty glasses for all to see or make awkward eye contact with every bartender who passes their way. I’ve often found the best way to hail for service is to make a brief point of eye contact and to motion with my eyes towards my outstretched hand holding money.
Moreover, the order in which one is served seems to be based on an acknowledged, unspoken custom. It seems one simply has to trust that the bartender has noted the in order in which all patrons has arrived to the counter and is doing his best to serve them accordingly. Fox insists that the English bartenders tend to be particularly good at this though I personally have had mixed results. Sometimes I have witnessed several individuals come and go well before I have even been acknowledged. In such cases, I have no qualms about violating the “pantomime rule” and establishing my position in the queue. It’s also likely true that the adherence to these rigidly defined rules fluctuates depending on the level of business currently experienced by the bar staff. A crowded or understaffed establishment is more likely to see violations of these rules as the logistical burden caused by the larger number of patrons will affect the bartender’s ability to formulate a mental queue.
Nevertheless, Fox does seem to be accurate at least when it comes to the general social dynamic of pubs. They do seem to be places where normal rules of social etiquette tend to be relaxed. She notes that a pub may be the one place where it is considered socially acceptable to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger and even to proffer one’s own name with liberality. Indeed, on a recent trip to Edinburgh, our entourage went on a pub crawl and were actually engaged in conversation by two locals on the merits of gun control and the likeliness of a Brexit. While I am certain that they introduced themselves, I must confess that their names have since escaped me. Thus far, the pub does seem to be the venue that offers the most colorful of experiences.