My flatmate Rich is an engineer and he often comes home with a dreadful story about how he has to be a man. He knows what’s going on, but he’s unable to throw his hands up and stop playing.
The other engineers and the construction managers and the builders and all the others Rich works with sound like they rely on aggression, shouting, racism and intimidation to get through the day. It’s just the environment, Rich says, as a weak Nazi would have said about the necessity of Jew/gay/black elimination.
Rich’s most recent story is about Friday night drinks. Rich was due to meet his girlfriend Jen near her place in Archway but had an hour to kill between turning off his computer at work and needing to be on the Tube to get to Shadwell. His colleague Mike invited him for a drink. Sure, thought Rich, just one drink with Mike and then I can be on my way.
But it wasn’t to be. Rich and Mike were having their beers and a packet of crisps in the pub, which was some sort of awful modern party place near Westfield Shopping Centre, and some of their other colleagues arrived from the office, including a woman who we’ll call Monica. A girl, as Rich calls her. There aren’t that many girls at work, he says, it must be hard for them being in such a macho place. Especially when they’re referred to as children, I thought.
Rich and Mike were just finishing their drinks when the others arrived, and one of them offered to buy Rich and Mike another drink. Rich knew what this meant. He’s told me the same story time and again. He knows that if someone buys him a drink he’ll have to buy them a drink back, plus all the others involved in the round. That lot are in there every night, he says. I’m not doing that.
After his second beer Rich really ought to have left to meet Jen. But the chatting was continuing and, well, he now owed someone a drink. When it looked like time for someone to go to the bar, Monica dredged her drink and said good night. Don’t ever expect to get anything out of her, one of the guys said, meaning that she never plays the game of rounds. Rich thinks Monica is out of order here too. It is the prevailing feeling in the group. Either you’re in the round or you’re not. If you’re in, you need to buy. I haven’t yet asked Rich how Monica would be viewed if she stayed out of rounds and got her own drinks. She’s already an outsider, so it might be that she’s allowed to stay outside of the rounds without the others caring. Or it might be that she’s viewed even harsher. I wonder how the hell it might go down if she didn’t drink alcohol too.
Anyway, so Rich took to the bar to get the next round, another five beers or so. £25 or so. He must have stood there wanting to get away, wanting to meet Jen, not wanting to spend £25, and not wanting to talk about concrete columns for another hour. But he got in the round, drank up and then left. He couldn’t even stick around to recoup his outlay through future rounds. He knew he’d never do this because he was going to meet Jen. And yet he couldn’t afford the cost of not playing in the rounds. It wouldn’t only have been ridicule; it would have been harsh judgement. He would have caused actual offence.
Other people can stand up to this. I think that Monica, in her own way, stood up to it. But not Rich. I can’t stand confrontation, he says. It’s just not worth it. I’ll have a laugh and a chat about concrete columns, but that’s all. Rich is so afraid of confrontation that he sees it where it doesn’t even exist. He lacks the imagination that a disagreement doesn’t have to be a confrontation if both sides are sensible. Even though he knows an abstract conversation about morality is safe, his body reacts to it like a confrontation and he cowers. It’s really bizarre. So saying something like, Thanks guys but I’m not doing rounds—that would be impossible for Rich. He’s seen how Monica is mocked and judged and shunned; surely the cost would only be heavier for a man.
Rich says, I spent the best part of £40 for a quick drink. He is a man caught in the headlights of custom, frozen still and completely baffled.