Drinking Culture: U.S. Versus U.K.

While the U.S. can be known for its crazy parties and wild drinking habits (think “Project X” and “American Pie”), the entire view of alcohol, as well as its place in American culture, could not be farther from England’s take. After a semester abroad in Leeds, England, here’s the skinny:

Coming from Fargo — ranked the drunkest city in America by the Center for Disease Control, and North Dakota with the highest percentage of binge drinking in the nation — I thought I’d known my fair share of drinking culture. But England has completely flipped my views on alcohol and alcohol consumption.

Obviously, the biggest difference between the two countries is the legal drinking age, U.S. is 21 and U.K. is 18. This could potentially correlate to the higher percentage of British university students who drink, seeing as most students are of legal age when they enter university, and therefore don’t risk the harsh consequences of getting caught illegally consuming alcohol (a serious misdemeanor in the U.S.).


My flatmates and British friends were floored by the severity of punishment doled out to underage drinkers in America, as students in the U.K. are treated as adults from the time they turn 18. I’ve even heard stories of police simply pouring out the booze of 16-year-olds and giving them rides home instead of taking them to jail. In the U.S., a similar situation would potentially result in a night in jail, a minor-in-consumption on your record and a load of fines.

Pub culture

“In England, pubs are an escape. They are where we go to relax after a hard exam, a long day of work or a stressful experience,” said Rachel Wellborn, the study abroad director. “If someone extends an invitation to you to go to a pub with them, they are inviting you to relax with them. If you decline, this can be seen as an affront — as your way of showing them that they aren’t good enough to let down your hair with.”

But, along with accepting an invitation to a pub, comes the responsibility of understanding the social etiquette involved.

The rounds system is a prime example:

If you go to a pub with a group of eight people, and one person stands up and asks what you’d like to drink, gets your answer and heads to the bar, he is not just being nice.

You have entered a rounds system. This means that he is going to bring back whatever it is you wanted for the entire table. All eight people will generally drink whatever you’re drinking. As soon as the first round is finished, a different person gets the same thing for the entire table and picks up the tab for that round.

It is fine to say, “No, thanks, I’m only going to have a couple of pints tonight,” to politely excuse yourself from this tradition at the beginning of the night.

As soon as you agree to that first drink, you’re in it for the long haul.

After five pints, if you’re pissed (drunk) and bring back seven pints for the table and a glass of water for yourself, you’ve committed a faux pas. Though your group may be too polite to say anything, they will all secretly think you’re cheap for not paying for a full round when they all had to.

So, know your limit beforehand and avoid rounds if you’re not prepared to drink eight pints over the course of the night.

Peer pressure

Because drinking is synonymous with relaxing and comradery in Britain, the pressure to drink can be intense, as it can be a social infraction to not want to drink with friends.

In the U.S., the peer pressure I have encountered comes from underage friends wanting me to join them in their law-breaking activity. It is more a means of not being alone in the case of being caught and punished than of taking your refusal as a personal affront.

Though my British friends would likely argue with the statement that their peer pressure stems from a personal motive, the entire practice of drinking as a social activity is so ingrained in the culture that they don’t realize it. The pressure from them is much more relentless and personal than that from U.S. friends.

From an American standpoint, this sounds a bit like bullying. But this pressure is not meant to be malicious — they simply want you to be able to have as good a time with them as they are willing to have with you.

Drinking and university

When I arrived in Leeds, one of the first things I looked into was various societies and clubs to join. While perusing the descriptions associated with each, I noticed a common theme — each society listed some sort of weekly affiliation with a bar or pub or highlighted a themed Otley Run. An Otley Run is a bar crawl specific to Leeds involving 19 pubs along a street called Otley Road. Participants normally dress in costumes of a specific theme and the point is to drink one pint in each pub along the route.

Clubs in the U.S. rarely openly associate themselves with alcohol for fear of losing funding or official club status or to maintain a reputation. In the U.K., the consumption of alcohol is one of the biggest reasons to join a society — to socialize with new friends who have common interests.

It was difficult coming from a culture where it is almost taboo to drink before the golden age of 21 to a culture where drinking and socializing go hand in hand.

This is one of the cultural gaps that is hard to overcome and even harder to explain to people back home. Americans are trained from a young age to associate drinking with bad things. But maybe, if we were instead taught from a younger age that it should be done in moderation, there wouldn’t be so much hype and excitement behind binge drinking and breaking the law.

As always, be safe. Cheers!

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