I’ll be honest. I love a drink as much as the next man – probably more. However, even as a proud Brit, I hate our general drinking culture. Or, more specifically, the drinking culture amongst my lot – the young and the millennials. We seem to combine a puritanical avoidance of drinking booze on an everyday basis with a cheerful willingness to poison ourselves to black-out levels over the weekend. Drinking seems to generally be geared towards ‘getting drunk’ rather than enjoying the drink for its own sake. How many times have I heard somebody say something along the lines of ‘I hate alcohol but I still drink to get pissed’? In general, the British seem to have a binge-drinking culture – especially amongst the young – in which getting heavily intoxicated is the main aim of the game.
This sort of mentality extends to holidays abroad, and Brits have deservedly-shameful reputations as holiday-goers. I’ve been on ‘lads trips’ before, and don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed them; but I also sometimes acted rather distastefully – especially when drunk – and even from my relatively-mild experiences I can understand why Europeans in particular despise ‘Brits abroad’ as often being drunken, culturally-insensitive louts. I remember a group of us trying to get into clubs in Berlin and being turned away primarily because we were British, and thus considered too much of a potential hassle to deal with.
According to the traditional dichotomy, Britain has a ‘dry’ rather than ‘wet’ drinking culture – i.e., we don’t tend to drink steadily or on an everyday basis, but instead hit the booze extremely hard on certain occasions, usually the weekend. This is compounded by fairly strict laws on alcohol – God help you if you are under the age of 30 and don’t have any ID – and a general societal attitude that you shouldn’t be exposed to drink under the age of 18. This leads to a nation-wide occurrence of the ‘clergyman’s daughter’; young people generally don’t have much moderating experience of alcohol, so once they do get their hands on it they go nuts – usually on cheap, nasty spirits. Furthermore, the focus on drinking to get drunk at social occasions alienates those who are teetotal or not into heavy drinking, and can lead to some unfortunate social pressures. Thus, the mix of inexperience, peer pressure, nasty drinks and a binge-drinking culture leads to Friday nights transforming many British towns into weird, surreal wastelands of fights, staggering drunks and crying girls, awash in sick and discarded kebabs.
Compare this to traditionally ‘wet’ cultures in many Mediterranean European countries, where everyday drinking is more common and they have a more relaxed attitude towards alcohol consumption in general. I’m not saying people getting drunk and acting stupidly does not occur in these countries – almost certainly it does – but their general attitude towards drink seems far more civilised. I remember publicly having a little wine as a young child on trips abroad to the Mediterranean with my family and nobody batting an eyelid. Good luck seeing that happen in the UK.
Indeed, I consider myself very fortunate that my family has always had a relaxed attitude towards drinking, and never considered it a good idea to deny me the taste of wine or beer as a young kid. I’m not saying that I was drinking hard liquor at ten, but if I was curious about the taste of my parents’ drinks, they would always allow me a sip. I think that it somewhat ‘demystified’ alcohol for me, and as such I never felt the need to drink to black-out levels at teenage house parties. Again, that is not to say that I have never gotten myself ridiculously drunk – I have – but I don’t get insensibly intoxicated each night out like so many others. Instead, I tend to drink fairly regularly – a glass of wine or two in the evening, or the occasional quiet pint with a friend, with the very-occasional heavier night out. For me, this seems like a far more reasonable approach, though strangely a lot of my peers think I am extremely odd for doing so. Many of them went on drinking bans weeks before their first-year university examinations; I remember having a glass of wine each night before my exams, and it had no discernible effect on the final outcome. A lot of my peers were incredulous that I did so, nonetheless. Because drinking is so deeply associated with getting intoxicated and going wild, they couldn’t seem to grasp that I was just happily enjoying a glass for its own sake.
I don’t want to make this seem like a proud boast of my drinking habits. It is certainly not. I still probably drink too much – one glass a night might often turns into three – and my fairly-high tolerance leads me to take in excessive quantities of booze on occasion. But I still believe the more casual, ‘wet’ drinking culture is superior to the ‘dry’, and probably leads to less alcohol-related social problems. There is strong evidence that the effect of alcohol on the mind and drunken state of people is heavily influenced by cultural attitudes rather than just biology. To simply hugely – if you think a bottle of vodka-coke is going to make you act stupidly, it probably will, while if you associate drink with relaxing, you might just chill out instead. The strange British mix of semi-puritanical abstinence throughout the week (especially for the young) mixed with a bingeing, partying attitude towards alcohol simply exacerbates our much-maligned drinking culture. We associated drink with acting wildly (or in some cases, with fighting), so that’s what happens.
I doubt this is going to change any time soon. Bingeing is the way we drink, and an accepted part of our social culture. Maybe I’ll find that as my peers get older, the focus on heavy episodic drinking ‘to get drunk’ will be replaced by a more mellow attitude towards alcohol. I hope so, anyway.
Until then, raise a glass to civilised drinking – or three….