“Can I buy you a drink?”
I’m sure you’re familiar with the question. Whether it was being hissed into your ear or screamed at you from across a crowded bar, you probably encountered it at least once in your life. You may have even known it intimately, welcoming it into your everyday discourse and murmuring it, unprompted, to strangers that caught your eye.
“Excuse me, beautiful — can I buy you a drink?”
So it’s bittersweet to be announcing the passing of “Can I Buy You A Drink?’” Bitter because of the circumstances (a deadly pandemic wreaking havoc across the globe), but sweet because, well, it was really old. And it really, really, needed to die.
“Can I Buy You A Drink?” lost its life in late March, when the coronavirus began shutting down the world’s towns and cities, and annihilating our favorite bars, our sex lives and the hallowed cross-section between them. Within days, there were no drinks to be bought and no bars to buy them from. Instead, dating moved almost exclusively online — bars were swapped for virtual bedroom dates, and drink-purchasing for giant digital sex orgies. It was just the death knell we needed to send the crusty old question to the grave.
Its passing, although abrupt, was a long time coming. While no one really knows how old “Can I Buy You A Drink?” was, it’s likely to have been around for as long as drinks were purchasable. In theory, that means it was probably born around the same time as the first Roman taverns, more than 2,000 years ago. In the centuries since, the question became enshrined in dating culture; its syllables slithering out of men’s mouths — and yes, it was mostly men — as they prowled the world’s bars, pubs and restaurants.
Even if you were never asked the question directly, you would have heard it. Pop culture hammered the words into our psyches whenever it could. Think Bill Murray repeatedly sidling up to Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day, or Ryan Gosling crooning to a creeped-out Emma Stone in Crazy, Stupid, Love. And hey, remember Hoobastank? They released a song — with trumpets! — dedicated to the question (“Can I Buy You A Drink?”). So did Florida rapper T-Pain (“Buy You A Drank”).
If you wanted to use the question yourself, the rules were simple. First, you needed to locate your prey (an attractive person of any gender), and approach them purposefully (it didn’t matter if they were with friends, in conversation or engrossed in another activity). You then asked to buy them a drink (ideally an alcoholic beverage around the $10 mark).
If they accepted, you would stay with your prey during ingestion, indulging in conversation and subtly assessing their value (how many more drinks you think they’re worth). Because, as singer Miguel once gravely intoned in his 2013 classic “How Many Drinks?”: “Yeah you look good, and I got money / But I don’t wanna waste my time.”
Leo, 29 from New York, was a close companion of “Can I Buy You A Drink?.” He remembers asking the question often until he hit his 20s, but then, he says, the pair grew apart. “It was my go-to line when I was younger,” he recalls. “You’d see a girl you liked in a bar, offer to buy them a drink and then chat while she drank it. It’s alcohol, too, which helped loosen everyone up.”
Unlike other kinds of beverage-buying — such as rounds for your friends, or drinks for your loved ones — the rules around “Can I Buy You A Drink?” were more complex. For one thing, it came burdened with a heap of unspoken obligations. It was, by its very nature, transactional: an opportunity to buy someone’s time while you decided whether or not you wanted to sleep with them. As one redditor has claimed, it was kind of like “an application fee for dating.”
For this reason, the question was always seen as controversial. For feminists, it played into twisted patriarchal-capitalist stereotypes, positioning the bar as a shop, with the men as the shoppers and the women as the product. You go in, make your choice and go forward with your transaction. Any deviations — say, turning down the offer, or requesting a non-alcoholic drink instead — were generally received poorly.
“I guess, back then, I thought offering to buy a drink was a polite thing to do” adds Leo. “But now, when I think back, it was kind of weird. It’s like a tacit agreement: You’re buying their time.”
It wasn’t only getting heat from feminists. In the last few years of its life, it also lost popularity among men, particularly as the incel and Men’s Rights movements gained traction. After all, buying drinks technically counts as courtship, and courtship — if you missed this memo — is only for “cucks and betas.”
Like many other women, my personal history with “Can I Buy You A Drink?” was tangled. The first time I heard it, I was 14 years old. Back then, me and my friends would regularly sneak into central London nightclubs — clammy, subterranean venues haunted by skinny jeans and five o’clock shadows — while men twice our age salivated around us.
I got to know the question intimately in the years that followed. Men — eyes glazed, breath pungent — would grab at my waist, brush back my hair and bark the words at me over the pulsing 2000s electro.
“Hey cutie, you sure you should be out this late? Let me buy you a drink.”
At the time, I’d feel both grateful and obliged to these men. Grateful, because they’d picked me — me! — out of the crowd and gifted me with a Red Bull vodka. Obliged, because I felt like I should probably make the purchase worth their while, even if that just meant talking to them for a few hours about their band, their divorce or their favorite post-industrial dubstep records.
And this sense of obligation is no joke, either. There are lengthy, heated debates online about the best way to turn down the offer of a drink — because for many women, the thought of being seen as impolite, even to men they’ve never met, is too much to bear. “Women, particularly young women, are socially conditioned to please and to compromise,” says Sara, a 27-year-old from Chicago, and a sworn enemy of “Can I Buy You A Drink?” “You don’t want to kick up a fuss or put yourself in any dangerous position, so you go along with certain things to prevent any trouble. It’s like a safety thing. I think a lot of men are aware of that, too.”
Of course, not all women feel this way. There were plenty who brushed off any feelings of obligation and made the most of the “Can I Buy You A Drink?” transaction, approaching it more like a no-strings-attached business deal. Ally, 32 from London, is one of these people, and considered herself a close friend of the question. “If I was broke, which was usually the case, then yes, a man could buy me a drink,” she says. “I just took the drink and went — I couldn’t give a shit. I’ve gotten men to buy me bottles of champagne, then taken the bottle and walked off to a different corner of the bar.”
“You just have to know who to say yes to,” she continues. “If they were a real ugly pest who I knew would bother me, I’d say no. But some were easier to fuck off than others. You’d go for the weaker ones.”
Other women — including many feminists — have also spoken about their love of the question. Writer Karley Sciortino once called it “lovingly misogynistic Don Draper shit,” and compared the buying-a-drink (and paying-for-a-date) transaction to a power play. To her, it was inoffensive and fun, a morphed recreation of “dom-sub sexual dynamics.”
I respectfully disagree. It sounds great, but when it’s someone you don’t know, these dynamics can easily become distorted.
And so, I am now taking this opportunity to once again repeat my earlier sentiment: “Can I Buy You A Drink?” really needed to die. It had a good run — thousands of years — and left behind a trail of complex memories, but, that’s it. Sorry, but life is complicated enough without having to indulge vague, linguistic power-plays with strangers. We’re all too tired, and we’re all too confused. Besides, with the fourth wave of feminism still crashing through our societies, it’s a wonder it ever held on so long.
For those of you mourning, fear not — “Can I Buy You A Drink?” is survived by several cursed sons. The first, “Wanna quarantine and chill?,” has already been spotted on several dating apps since the beginning of the pandemic, as has the more flagrantly offensive “If coronavirus doesn’t take you out, can I?”
Which begs the question: We may be entering a new world, but can we be sure that it will be a better one?