English drinking for foreigners

Ingvild Lindgren Skarpeid comes from Norway and went to university in the UK

Coming from the cold and windy Oslo, I arrived in the UK as an 18-year-old inexperienced geek. Ready for my studies, ready for knowledge and ready for new experiences, I was keen on integrating as much as possible in the English community. I could however not have been prepared for the street knowledge awaiting me outside working hours…

For me, as for many other foreigners, partying in the UK for the first time was a bit of a shock. The history, tradition and rituals connected to drinking in the UK appeared quite particular. I found that drinks came in 0.56 and not in the usual 0.5 litres. At the same time a beer was suddenly not just a beer but a lager, ale or bitter. Several other measures posed difficulties for me: I quickly gathered that the number of 'units' of alcohol one is recommended to drink in one night is essential in British drinking culture. But I quickly found it vital to distinguish between the recommended number and the expected number of units you are supposed to consume. Whereas the advised amount for a girl is 3 units (about three small glasses of wine), it became quite clear to me after having arrived on the island that it would be difficult to integrate without at least pretending to consume 10 -15 'units'. This was, I admit, my greatest failure in the integration process. Still, according to my Irish friend I should be thanking God I was not on an exchange in Ireland.

Photo: imaaagine (youthmedia.eu)
Partying in the UK means a looot of alcohol

I also found the 'drinking calendar' interesting. Arriving the UK in September, I was greeted with a Stella, and the first months passed with light beers and happy warm evenings. Mulled wine and lager had their peak in mid-December, with the making of traditional roast dinners and general British cosiness which I found that no-one else can imitate. In early January, champagne was introduced to us for about 30 minutes, but quickly replaced by cheap 3-litre boxes of wine as the household adapted to our over-stretched budgets.

As spring approached, the drinking games took over our Saturday evenings and the classical 'binge-drinking' was fully introduced. This I unfortunately knew from Scandinavia, but it was clear that the English had practised it to perfection. In addition to the unreasonable levels of drunkenness, binge drinking was here closely associated with a certain expected attire, behaviour and language use. It was not only the volume of alcohol consumed that posed problems for the many international students. In the UK, showing skin is not only appropriate; it is a necessity and a cultural code on a night out. Semi-nakedness is completely endorsed, and if the dress code is not followed – if you put on jeans and a t-shirt instead of the traditional mini dress you will inevitably end up feeling like your mum. Warm clothes are, apparently, for the weak.


Pubcrawl: To walk from pub to pub, having one or more drinks in each pub. The aim is to pass by as many pubs as possible in one night, hence the term pub 'crawl'.

Pubgolf: 18 bars, 18 drinks. For novices, the mini-pubgolf is possible with only 12 bars and 12 drinks. The one who wins at pubgolf often requires some help to get home. Before leaving, you should at least make sure he/(or occasionally she) has the number of a taxi company stored on his/her phone. Be nice!

Being pissed vs being pissed off: a mistake made by many foreigners. In the UK, being pissed means to be drunk (see 'off your face') whereas if you are 'pissed off' you are angry or irritated. You don't want to be both at the same time.

BYOB: Bring Your Own Booze. Important to write in birthday party invitations unless you want to spend all your money on Tesco Value drink for the guests.

The traditional British evening ended, according to my observations, at three in the morning, with the night spent in your flatmate's friend's bed. Not unlike most European countries, I imagine. But in the UK you must at the very least remember to say 'sorry', or at least 'pleased to meet you' before you awkwardly leave the next morning: I have found, after all, that there do exist some drinking faux-pas in the UK. You are expected to be respectful and polite even when in a vertically drunken state: even when drunk, you must stay in your place in the queue. And you must remember to mumble 'sorry babe, really sorry like' before turning your back to your newfound love of the evening and throw up on the kebab you've just bought.

But you do not have to stay in some randomer's bed to end the evening, and you do not have to eat kebabs. You can, as I did, prefer the continental drinking style and there is no pressure to drink beer instead of orange juice (unless you're watching football. Obviously.) This is after all optional. If the British drinking style sounds tempting to you however, you might appreciate this piece of advice: after the club closes at one (maybe two if you're particularly lucky), make sure you go and buy yet another bottle of Tesco Value vodka from the 24h shop. In Great Britain, I learned that the party's not over before the fat lady neighbour screams in frustration.

IN -935 DAYS