(Appeared in Washington Square News.)
A couple of months ago I attended a seminar about improving social skills in the academic world. At some point, the speaker was talking about how to properly refuse an alcoholic beverage during a social event. As it turns out, it’s not polite to say “sorry, I don’t drink alcohol,” she explained. You have to tell the other person that you are “in a soft-drink mood” that day, so as not to give the impression that you are judging your interlocutor’s drinking preferences.
If, like myself, you are not particularly tempted by the chemical “benefits” of ethanol, you might be wondering how long it’ll take before people like us have to attend support groups as part of a treatment to our “problem.”
Ironic extrapolations apart, as a matter of fact I do judge people who drink alcohol, and here is my judgement. If your genetic code is such that you appreciate ethyl-based beverages, the amount that you drink is not of my business, as long as you keep the consequences of your drinking habits to yourself and those who support your behavior. If you are a soft-drink person who decide to start drinking just to “fit” into some sort of group, then you should be ashamed for not doing a small sacrifice for the other side, in view of helping to change our extremely alcohol-centered culture. After all, if people on the group you are trying to be part of do not respect your drinking preferences, than the group is certainly not for you.
At first view, it seems to be easy to argue against the consumption of alcohol. To start with, I could list some disturbing long-term effects to the cardiovascular, immune, digestive, and nervous systems. As if that weren’t frightening enough, I’d bring in some up-to-date statistics showing the correlation between booze and violent crime, hospital visits, sexual abuse, and car accidents. Afterwards, an emphasis on the greater gravity of binge drinking, and on the amplified damaging effects of alcohol when the brain is developing (as in the teen ages), should settle the question.
But those facts are widely known, and yet, social pressure out-weights worrisome prognostics for too many individuals. The path is well known: some social drinkers turn into daily drinkers, and a portion of daily drinkers eventually become alcohol addicts. The pressure is in part due to the (easily refutable) view that alcohol is necessary for a person to feel more comfortable (the fashionable word these days is “confident”) in social settings. Another part is consequence of the fact that alcohol has been omnipresent in social events ever since mankind discovered it, and there haven’t been too many newcomers that bothered questioning the social conventions. I mean, why aren’t bars that offer only exotic tropical juices more common? Is it really necessary to drink alcohol in order to appreciate live music and conversation?
The third important factor is marketing pressure. Companies make sure that our brains are bombarded with views that vodka X is associated with “awesome party with lots of hot girls,” or that beer Y is synonym of fun gatherings with your friends while watching a game. Sure enough, special ads are prepared for times of festivities such as Mardi Gras (or Carnival), when consumption increases. This type of marketing is somehow regulated in most countries (in Brazil, for instance, beer ads must be accompanied by warnings for moderate drinking), but considering the gravity of alcohol for public health and safety, one wonders how strong is the lobby of those companies in the political sphere.
The U.S. are an exception in what concerns the age threshold from which it’s legal to order alcohol, establishing it as 21, while in most other places the starting point is 18. It’s a policy to be proud of, since, in general, full brain maturity is not reached until age 25 (well beyond the teen years). Likewise, in line with the marketing argument just presented, the so called “open container laws” also deserve merit.
Alcohol is entirely banned in some cultures, due to religious beliefs. Seeing booze as malefic does not require referring to super-natural law enforcement, though. The measurable facts are clear, and the only reason they are ignored is the cultural hype that has been built around it, at such a level that it leads non-drinkers to feel bad about their condition. In light of this, I warn the soft-drink person who is concerned about social politeness that it’s in fact wrong to say “sorry, I don’t drink alcohol.” But to correct the phrase, it suffices to subtract “sorry.”