Advice for Ugly Americans on How to Get Your Pint Re-Filled, UK-style

In the brilliant film Syriana, George Clooney’s character, a spy, tells an Arab that he is Canadian, not American. This technique is often recommended to Americans travelling in Middle East hot spots, as a way of lowering the likelihood of verbal or physical aggression. I have been to Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and Jordan and was physically assaulted in one of them and verbally threatened in another, but have never resorted to the “Canadian lie”. Until the night before last that is, when I felt the need to use it in London.

My favorite London pub was fairly busy, and the barkeeps were working hard. Two Americans a bit down the bar from me drained their glasses and wanted a refill. I know this because one of them started banging his empty glass hard on his pub mat to get attention and the other raised his voice at the barman’s back and said “Hey c’mon, give us another beer!”.

In the name of the Queen, St. Michael and St. George: No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

I have witnessed similar cringe-inducing displays by my countrymen and women on other UK visits. These two Yanks at least didn’t wave around a credit card or a fiver, so it could have been worse (though not by much). In my continuing quest to improve Anglo-American relations, let me advise any ugly Americans out there about the classy method for getting your glass refilled in a British pub.

First, have respect for the talents of British barkeeps. They have an amazing ability to commit a queue to memory. If you threw ten balls from the pool table into the air in rapid succession and to different heights, a good British bartender will be able to recall later the order in which the balls hit the ground. They develop this cognitive talent through years of serving customers. Barkeeps have a preternatural sense of who came in when and who got served when. If your glass isn’t refilled promptly the most likely explanation is that your spot in the queue has yet to be reached. Thus you can usually follow the old theater advice: Don’t just do something, stand there. The barman will typically approach you without any prompting when the moment is ripe.

If simply waiting with an empty glass doesn’t generate a refill, here is what to do if you want to be Michael Caine cool (literally, Sir Michael shows this technique very subtly in the early part of the film Harry Brown from which the photo above comes). Pick up your empty glass, tilt it slightly and then turn it very slowly in your hand. Some people turn the glass itself, others hold it firmly and turn their hand at the wrist. The slower the turn the better. The message of your movement should be that you know how to drink beer and the barman knows how to serve it; you both exist in an atmosphere of professional trust. Everyone knows what they are doing, everyone is calm, everyone is an adult; no hysterics, panic, haste or words are needed.

As you turn your empty glass, don’t stare at the barman but keep a rough sense where he is. When he looks over, briefly meet his eyes. If you have a good set of eyebrows, a slight raise of the eyebrows will do it. You can widen your eyes a bit for good measure. These gestures should be subtle, like you would use if you were bidding for a portrait at Christie’s and a rival bidder was seated just behind you.

If your eyebrows aren’t easily noticeable from across a crowded room, it is acceptable to nod. Do it but once and slightly. I have never had this not work.

Master these skills and you will never be an ugly American, and will not risk reducing someone like me to lying like I did the other night. After the barman let the two American clods jump the re-fill queue (my own spot, in fact), he came over and shook his head at me and said “These Americans…”. I put on my best Canuck accent and said “Yeah, we get them up in Ottawa sometimes too”

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

27 thoughts on “Advice for Ugly Americans on How to Get Your Pint Re-Filled, UK-style”

  1. Best Michael Caine scene in a pub is in Get Carter (a classic British gangster movie). Caine (as Carter, a gangster having an affair with his crime boss’ moll) returns to his home town of Newcastle, where his brother has died in some local skulduggery. First night home, Caine enters a crowded hostelry, and orders a pint of bitter. As the barman begins to pour, he clicks his fingers and says in a commanding tone that sills evertyone instantly: “Thin glass!”. Point taken: don’t mess with Carter.

    Ignore the Sylvester Stallone remake of this film. Can you imagine Stallone pulling that off?

  2. Having been raised bilingually (my mother is German), I could pretend to be German in such a situation. On the other hand, I’m not sure if that would be an actual improvement over being identified as an American in a London pub …

  3. First, have respect for the talents of British barkeeps. They have an amazing ability to commit a queue to memory. If you threw ten balls from the pool table into the air in rapid succession and to different heights, a good British bartender will be able to recall later the order in which the balls hit the ground. They develop this cognitive talent through years of serving customers. Barkeeps have a preternatural sense of who came in when and who got served when.

    Is this really a systematic difference between British and American bartenders? I mean, I try to have respect for the professional skills of anyone who’s doing a job, but I’ve seen American bartenders who weren’t highly skilled at keeping track of who’s next in line, and I’d assume that there are probably less than stellar British bartenders out there as well. The general ‘don’t be rude or pushy’ point holds, but I don’t see the basis for having greater respect for the bartender’s presumably preternatural skills just because you’re outside the US.

  4. The Ugly American…
    I haven’t seen the movie.
    Have read the book. I thought it powerful. And worth of a reread someday…

    It has always perturbed a bit that “The Ugly American” is actually a hero and an extraordinary role model. I still carry him in me, even though I probably read that novel 20 years ago. That’s powerful writing. Of course it was all a play on appearances and words by Burdick and Lederer. But still, whenever I see reference to the “Ugly American” it is well for someone to remember just how beautiful he was:

    In the novel, a Burmese journalist says “For some reason, the [American] people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They’re loud and ostentatious.” The “ugly American” of the book title fundamentally refers to the plain-looking engineer Atkins, who lives with the local people, who comes to understand their needs, and who offers genuinely useful assistance with small-scale projects such as the development of a simple bicycle-powered water pump. It is argued in the book that the Communists are successful because they practice tactics similar to those of Atkins. According to an article published in Newsweek in May 1959, the “real” “Ugly American” was identified as an International Cooperative Agency technician named Otto Hunerwadel, who, with his wife Helen, served in Burma from 1949 until his death in 1952. They lived in the villages and taught farming techniques and helped start home canning industries.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ugly_American

  5. Katja,
    Couldn’t you claim you were Dutch? Could the Brits really distinguish between a German and a Dutchwoman? (AFAIK, a perfect American accent is by no means inconsistent with a Dutch education.)

  6. LizardBreath: Where on Earth in what I wrote do you divine an insult to US bartenders? If I said London is beautiful in May would you mount a stout defense of the spring day qualities of Paris, New York or Barcelona on the assumption that I was obviously trying to denigrate those lovely locales?

  7. “The Ugly American” is actually a hero

    Hmm. Maybe I need to read it again. My remembrance is that Atkins is so naively idealistic that he cannot accurately perceive the political environment, and in an excess of self-confidence he gets himself and several other people killed.

  8. Canadians who make displays of their nationality annoy me. Most Americans are just as polite as most Canadians. Unfortunately the polite majority suffer from the sins of the obnoxious minority.

    Years ago I went into a small pub in Dorset and ordered a pint. After serving some other customers the barkeeper came back and asked me what part of Canada I was from. I was a bit surprised that someone in rural England would have such knowledge of North American accents. I asked him and he told me it was because I had said “please” when I ordered the beer.

  9. I would not have hidden my identity. I probably would have said something like, “Yeah, we have our a**holes too.”

  10. The language I quoted from your post makes a number of statements about the competence and preternatural skills, which make asking for service unnecessary and impolite, of British bartenders specifically. The strong implication is that the same statements aren’t true of bartenders generally, and that Americans might be unfamiliar with bartenders with those qualities, both of which seemed peculiar to me.

  11. To be thought canadian in a good way, just tell people politely you’re american, and let them insist you’re poutitng them on.

    But for the (sometimes) quality of US bartenders I would blame our social structure, lack of a social safety net, and general hostility to the working class. Not a lot of people who can do anything else are bartender or waitstaff these decades, especially not in the major cities. They’re models or actors or alcoholic playwrights or working their way through some transitional situation or other. And their tips (essential to financial survival) tend to depend on chin or cleavage or light conversation rather than perfect calibration of who gets served next. (Oddly, I had the opposite problem in my local on a day — the pint whisked away for a refill with an inch or two still standing.)

  12. Lizarbreath: The strong implication…

    An implication is in the writer’s mind, an inference is in the reader’s. I know my own mind, and it doesn’t see life as a zero sum game in which a compliment to one person is an insult to all others. You are welcome to infer a need to defend American bartenders, and, undaunted by the lack of any opposition to your views, to remain defiant. But please don’t put responsibility for your decision on this grandson of an American barkeep.

    Toby: I lived for a time in Newcastle and the Geordies say that that awesome film captures the city of that time very well. Bit of trivia for you: In the scene you cite where Caine orders the scotch, you can see a man with polydactyly — he gets a brief closeup as he drinks his beer.

  13. “Not a lot of people who can do anything else are bartender or waitstaff these decades, especially not in the major cities.”

    ‘These decades’? Are you posting from the late 90’s? If so, I have bad news…………………. 🙂

  14. While I was living in Germany it was constantly assumed that I was from the UK or (twice)Ireland rather than the United States. The reason given was usually along the lines of “Your accent isn’t great but otherwise your German is pretty good… you must be British.” It was a strange back-handed compliment. The assumption was strong enough that several times individuals who knew me (one professor in particular) would ask me questions about the UK. What do you think about the monarchy? What do you think of Blair? Funny but definitely a bit strange…

  15. when I first visited the UK, I was often asked “Are you Canadian?” As the odds are about 10:1 against this bet, I finally asked someone why the question came in this form. “We’ve found that the Americans aren’t offended if we ask if they’re Canadian, but the Canadians become quite huffy if we guess American at first.” A useful illustration of the importance of base rates (and when to ignore them) and the cost-of-error function in decision theory.

  16. Ebenezer, I was mostly just kidding. Even when my husband and I moved to Scotland during the high tide of the Bush administration, I didn’t experience any anti-American prejudice, so I had no need to practice this kind of deception. However, my husband is an Englishman, so maybe I was given a pass because of that. 🙂

    Sven, I’ve received compliments on my German myself in Germany [1], but people always assumed that I was American. There is an unfortunate stereotype in continental Europe that Americans rarely learn another language because all the world speaks English, but the same stereotype has traditionally been applied to the British as well.

    [1] I speak German with a slight Midwestern accent and English with a slight German accent, which can lead to the interesting (at times) experience of getting treated like a foreigner in both countries of which I am a citizen.

  17. Sorry Keith, I’m with Lizardbreath on this one. You wrote, “British barkeeps . . . have an amazing ability to commit a queue to memory.” That does carry an implication of a connection between the British part and the amazing part. You have clarified that you meant, “like their counterparts everywhere,”; update accepted, and agree with. And did the louts show you their passports? How do you know they weren’t Canadian? Some of those people have accents that can pass.

  18. I speak German with a slight Midwestern accent

    Me too, with Bavarian drawl thrown on top. Makes for an interesting conversation starter.

    Accents aside, another enjoyable post. Thank you.

  19. I don’t know about preternatural skills, but I don’t find it so hard to consider the possibility that British bartenders may, in general, be better and/or less variable in their competence than US bartenders. There are certainly (from what I read) differences between pubs in the UK and bars in the US in terms of their function in society and their place in their patrons’ hearts. There are plenty of bars in the US that hire bartenders with the idea that they’re unskilled labor, and perhaps that model doesn’t fly in the UK. If this discussion were about cab drivers, would anyone object to the generalization that London cab drivers are better than New York cab drivers? London cab drivers actually have to pass exams to certify they know where they’re going; New York cabbies certainly don’t. Seems likely to produce better-on-average London cabbies than New York cabbies.

    I’ve never set foot in the UK outside of an airport, so I speak from ignorance of the actual facts. But my point is, it’s not so hard to imagine that there could be real variables that make a UK-better-than-US bartenders generalization as legitimate as any generalization.

  20. ” The message of your movement should be that you know how to drink beer and the barman knows how to serve it; you both exist in an atmosphere of professional trust. Everyone knows what they are doing, everyone is calm, everyone is an adult; no hysterics, panic, haste or words are needed.”

    WTF? It’s not a hostage situation. It’s a GD bar. Professional trust? Oh god give me a break. If the bartender is obviously ignoring you because you ARE an american then he’s the @$$hole. If he’s doing his best and just hasn’t gotten to you then that’s fine but all this bs about you knowing how to drink beer and him knowing how to serve it is just ridiculous.

  21. “These decades” as in “it was sometime before 1990, probably before 1980 or even 1970, that the idea of career bartenders and waitstaff (like the tiny minority of ancient waiters who hang on in a few old restaurants) pretty much went away in the metro US.

Comments are closed.