Let me say first that I don't smoke, so I don't understand this. I do, however, find it a fascinating sociological phenomenon. No matter what the culture (I have personally witnessed this in six nations, and been told of it happening in many more; I have never been told that it doesn't happen), no matter how selfish the persons involved, it appears to hold true. The scene is this: If a smoker is smoking, and another person (unknown to the first) comes up and uses the Universal Passphrase, then then smoker is obligated (or perhaps universally willing) to hand over a cigarette, free of charge- and provide a light, if necessary.

There are, of course, conditions that must apply. They are:

  • The smokers typically must not know each other otherwise; if they do know each other, the exchange is governed by other rules, such as "hey, you owe me a beer, you bastard, you can't have one." Note that knowing each other doesn't preclude the handing over of a butt, but (ha ha) that's not as curious because they're friends.
  • The person inquiring must be out of cigarettes, that is, they must claim to be and look like they're telling the truth.
  • The person asked for a cigarette should be smoking. If they're not, then cigarettes must be visible on their person; however, if they're not smoking, refusals are possible.
  • The Universal Blocking Code may, at the option of the smoker, apply: "Dude, I only have one left." Note, however, that often the smoker will hand over their last cigarette, confounding the societally expected norms even further. randombit informs me that in a similar exchange, if a smoker's last cigarette is offered, the requester will (much of the time) refuse to accept it on discovering it is the smoker's last.

So, the explanations that I have come up with are varied. One, cigarettes are actually quasi-communal! This seems unlikely, but possible; it's unlikely because smokers must typically buy them, and because of the list of conditions above. Two, the smoker is always sympathetic to potential nicotine withdrawal symptoms, even in another person. Three, the smoker complies because they foresee themselves needing a smoke at some point in the future and the present disutility of losing a cig is low enough, compared to the potential future disutility of going into withdrawal, that it's worth complying to reinforce the norm of sharing. Or, four, there's a bond of brotherhood among smokers that demands such sharing. This is likely reinforced by the siege mentality that smoker/non-smoker interactions are taking on.

Whichever way, I think it's interesting. Especially as a non-smoker, because I find that when smokers interact with non-smokers, both sides seem to cling to as selfish a set of behaviors as possible.


As a smoker, I would tend to agree with most everything that has been written....BUT that doesn't mean I like it.
When you ask for a cigarette, Do I not cry out?
When I pull the cigarette from the pack does it's brethren not mourn?
When I hand you the cigarette does my wallet not bleed?

Honestly though, I think the universal pass phrase is primarily kept in use due to fear. No one wants to say "No" because you will never know who and when you will have to borrow a cigarette from someone. It is about building connections. I have found these connections also extend past the cigarettes themselves. I have gained valuable information and assistance in the business world from other smokers whom I met while smoking outside some building or another. Perhaps there is a bit of tribal or clan mentality that goes along with smoking, especially since it is becoming more and more frowned upon.

Also, let us not forget proper (but not required) etiquette when two acquaintences go through the ritual.:

If you borrow a smoke from someone you know (not know well, just encounter semi-frequently)and you do it on a basis that is considerably lop-sided in your favor. It is considered good manners to buy that person a "thank you" pack as a means of showing appreciation for all the times they saved your ass. This also insures the giver does not feel short changed and will not mind giving you smokes in the future because they can depend on you to keep things honest.

In the societies I am familiar with, there is a wide range of variation in the acceptability of this practice. In the UK, only beggars and vagrants (or your mates) will attempt to bum a fag off you - which seems a bit more restricted than the reports above suggest it is in the USA - but in Italy it is a perfectly acceptable practice in even fairly polite company, with its very own verb, scrocciare (Scusi, signora, ma sarebbe possibile scrocciare una sigaretta? ... ah, grazie).

When I was first a student, I could judge the affluence of the group I was with using a communal property ownership hierarchy: this descended from the level where a quarter of dope (or a bottle of Scotch, perhaps) was deemed to be for group consumption - quite common - to a level where a packet of cigarettes was communal - getting towards the end of term, a long time after the grant cheques came through - and on to the point of real desperation, where a box of matches became a group purchase.

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