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The little differences: 3. One for all, or everybody for themselves

The biggest number of small cultural differences between expats and locals, it seems, emerge when you’re enjoying a drink or two.

By Martin Pütter

At times, people really do miss what is right in front of them. Not convinced? Then I suggest you go to Mr. Pickwick pub in Steinenvorstadt, close to the heart of Basel’s city centre. During the warm months when this pub puts chairs and tables outside, you can sometimes see people sitting down and waiting to be served (it also happens indoors). What they miss right in front of them: little signs announcing “self-service at the bar.” After a while they get up and leave, utterly disgruntled that they did not get served. But the sign on their table was so close that, as my late mum would have said: “If it had been a dog, it would have bitten them.”

These patrons only have themselves to blame – not just for being challenged in terms of powers of observation, but also for being ignorant of a particular difference between Anglo-Saxon and Swiss culture. To put it simply, in pubs you order your drink at the bar, whereas in Swiss boozers you sit at a table and wait for staff to come and take your order. The landlord at Pickwick’s at least makes an effort to point out the difference.

“This round’s on me”

Occasionally, regulars at this pub make an impromptu bet on whether these ignoramuses will notice the signs and come to the bar. And more often than not the winner will then announce: “This round’s on me.” Now, the concept of buying a round is not unknown in Switzerland, but it is more the exception than the rule. In the Anglo-Saxon world it is the other way round. (In writing “Anglo-Saxon” I am excluding the USA and Canada, for the simple reason that my friends from across the pond told me that this concept is alien to them.)

The first time I encountered the buying of rounds was during my overseas year as a student at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Having been bought round after round by my fellow students, I felt in turn pleasantly surprised, bemused, and ultimately embarrassed. After a fortnight of not having had to pay for a drink I summoned the courage to ask my “academic mother” Angie (freshers are “adopted” by older students at St. Andrews) why everybody was buying me drinks. Sooner or later, she said, I was expected to buy a round myself. My cheeks turned crimson, but Angie saved me further blushes: “At least you asked. Other overseas students never get it.”


I had grown up with a (Swiss) drinking culture where everybody paid for their own drinks. Rounds were only paid if somebody had a reason to celebrate (birthday, impending fatherhood, new job, etc.). All of a sudden I was thrown into a culture that handled things the other way round – or in other words: from “everybody for themselves” to “one for all”.

There is a lot of etiquette involved when buying rounds and ordering drinks – as I learned first in St. Andrews and then when doing research for this series. A journalist for an English newspaper even came up with a guide for buying rounds, known as “Greaves’ rules” – you can read them, for example, on the website oxfordpubguide.

There are also many explanations why Brits (and Aussies and Kiwis) buy rounds: it is a symbolic gesture, to show equality among members of a group and to build camaraderie among then. On a deeper level, “(…) it prevents bloodshed. Reciprocal gift-giving is the most effective means of preventing aggression between nations, tribes or individuals”. So says “Passport to the Pub” by the Social Issues Research Centre. And Angie also told me it is OK to say “no” when someone asks if you want a drink, “but you have to explain why, and it has to be a good reason”.

Further differences

One of the regulars at Pickwick’s is Kevin, a black belt in judo (third dan) and a rugby player – so you don’t mess with him. I remember that once, being distracted, I forgot to add “please” when ordering drinks. “You locals are always so rude when ordering drinks, you never say please or thanks,” he growled at me. I believe I bought him a drink (for why, see above), and then watched others ordering their drinks. And, truth be told, more often than not Kevin was right. Expats say “please” a lot more than the locals when ordering drinks. And then I found a list of “dos and don’ts” on smittenbybritain where it says: “Do say please and thank you, a lot. (…) A lack of manners can get you ignored at best, or banned from the pub altogether.”

Also noticeable is the fact that expats do not clink glasses – or if they do, then just once. The locals, it seems, insist on clinking every time they want to take a sip from their glass, and it’s good form to look at each other while you are clinking. “I was told it means seven years of bad sex if you don’t do this,” another patron of Pickwick’s explained.

Finally, when you pay for the drinks you ordered you do not tip – at least that is the general rule in the UK. But, much to the delight of the staff at Pickwick’s, the patrons at this pub have broken this rule. Whether locals or expats, many customers leave a tip.

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