Dear Miss Manners -- I frequent a local pub, usually twice a week, and on occasion I have either been sent a drink or asked if one could be purchased for me (usually by a member of the opposite sex).
I am a single, 46-year-old female, and I am not at my favorite pub looking to "pick up" someone. However, one of the main reasons I frequent this pub is due to the fact that a variety of interesting people do, too, and we often get into wonderful and interesting conversations at the bar.
I was raised to believe that if a drink has already been purchased and sent to you, the proper thing to do is think of it as a gift, drink it (barring that one has not already over-imbibed) and thank the sender without any further obligation on my part. I was further raised to believe that if someone merely asks, "May I buy you drink?" it is perfectly proper to either accept the drink (and thank the person with no further obligation) or thank the person for the thought, but refuse the drink dependent upon the circumstances.
Some of my friends/colleagues insist that if a drink is accepted under either circumstance, then I am obligated to purchase the sender a drink. What IS proper in these situations?
Gentle Reader -- If your parents' child-rearing covered the etiquette of how to accept drinks from strangers, Miss Manners congratulates you on an unusually tutored upbringing. Most parents give up exhausted after they have managed to teach basic table manners. Or before.
Unfortunately, however, their information would now be out of date. A generation ago, a lady would not have gone to a pub alone (unless she intended to be picked up, in which case she would not have been a lady). That ladies may go there for respectable conviviality is certainly an improvement.
But the old form of flirtation with drinks has changed accordingly.
The old routine was both sly and harmless. A gentleman sent over a drink to a lady he admired, knowing that the most that could come of it, considering the presence of her escort, would be a flirtatious glance of acknowledgement. And it might equally well be refused, or receive a different sort of glance from the gentleman she was with.
What you describe is the equivalent of a stranger's offering to get you a drink at a party -- a way of introducing himself. That money is involved here, because you have moved from a social setting to a commercial one, is not the point. To accept the drink does not require that you buy a return drink, as it would when there are no courtship overtures involved, but it does commit you to talking, at least briefly, with the person who bought it. If you do not wish to do that, you should decline with thanks.
What you might do is buy Miss Manners a drink. She needs to recover from having accepted your premise that, although a lady may not go to a bar to pick up a stranger, it might just happen.
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com.