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”

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.