It was winter 2002 and Stockholm was in the grip of a tooth-crackingly cold snap. It was an Östermalm bar of the type where the barmen measure their level of coolness by the distance between the bottle and the glass when they pour a cocktail. And it heralded a blazing row with the one-day-to-be Mrs Syndrome.
I arrived a little later than the rest of the group. Heading towards the bar for a drink, I noticed that everyone else was cradling near-empties.
“Can I get anyone else a drink?” I asked. (Oh, the naivety!)
They all accepted graciously.
In those days I spoke even less Swedish than I do now. While others chatted, I drank, and before long I was ready for another. Nobody else seemed inclined to head barwards so I took the initiative once again.
And you can’t stand at a bar without offering to get a round in. At least not where I come from – that would be like not opening a door for a woman or not letting people off the train before you try to barge your way on. No, the unwritten but unbreakable rule of drinks-buying is that if you’re buying one for yourself, you offer to buy one for everyone.
“Can I get anyone else a drink?” I asked.
That evening cost me a small fortune.
On the way home I detected a certain frostiness about my Swedette, and it wasn’t because it was seventeen degrees below zero.
“That was embarrassing,” she said. “Why did you have to keep buying everyone drinks?”
Even if my lips hadn’t been frozen together and my teeth chattering like a pair of castanets, I would have been speechless.
“Were you trying to prove something? They thought you were being flash.”
I’ll spare you the rest of the dispute but when we finally found some common ground a few days later we agreed on one thing: when in Sweden, you don’t buy rounds of drinks.
I’ve discussed this with Swedes a number of times since then and their explanation is always eminently logical. Why should you buy six drinks in a round if you’re only going to stay for three? Why should you buy someone an expensive cocktail when you’re only drinking beer?
Sounds reasonable. But hang on – what happened to the Swedish model? Where’s the all for one, one for all attitude? Where’s the ‘I pay for your sick leave, you pay for mine’ approach when it really matters?
Buying rounds of drinks brings people together, I say to them. In the long run you know that it all evens out; it encourages trust and friendship.
The only thing it encourages is alcoholism, they invariably reply. A culture of round-buying means that people drink more even if they don’t really want to because they don’t want to feel short-changed at the end of the night. It’s a gamble (another bad thing). It’s risky.
So I tell them that they’re thinking about it in the wrong way. Quite simply, buying a round of drinks is just good manners. It’s a sign of the respect and warmth you feel for your dear friends.
I’m not suggesting that Swedes are tight-fisted – heavens, no. But they should perhaps be aware that in certain scenarios, people of a more southern disposition may wonder if they had their pockets stitched up before they went out for the night.
In the interests of cultural assimilation I pursue the point. And I think I may have found a chink in their armour.
It’s inefficient for everyone to go to the bar individually. It causes an uncomfortable, sweaty crush and all that time spent trying to catch the eye of a high-pouring barman is time that could be spent with the friends you’ve come out to see.
Buying rounds is something bars should encourage. It’s bad business to have dozens of people clogging up the bar area – just add up the time it takes to serve a hundred people with one drink each compared to twenty people with five drinks each. All that faffing around with the credit card machine – a policy of ’rounds only’ could save bars a fortune in employment costs.
I hope I’ve persuaded them, because I’m looking forward to the next time we go out together. I’m looking forward to being asked what I’m having by someone on my side of the bar. And I can’t wait to see their face when I reply, “A bottle of Dom Perignon, please.”