A Brief Sociology of Social Lubrication

It seems almost ridiculous that I’ve lived in England for eight months now and haven’t yet blogged about the one thing more British than bangers and mash: alcohol.  Having just barely survived “my” birthday garden party and finally recovered from last week’s Boat Club Dinner, I suppose now is as good a time as any to share a few thoughts on the U.K.’s “drinking culture” (or, as I’m going to argue, lack thereof—in multiple senses).

It's cultural.

There is a certain mystique about European drinking among Americans (or, at least, among left-leaning Americans who think Europe is populated by more than just namby-pamby effeminate socialists and would like to be able to drink before twenty-one).  The logic goes something like this: in Europe, the drinking age is lower, and kids are introduced to alcohol at a young age.  As a consequence, they learn how to approach alcohol responsibly, under the watchful eyes of their parents.  Ergo, Europeans don’t have the same problems with binge drinking and alcoholism as Americans, who live in a sheltered state of denial until they arrive at college and go absolutely ape-shit.

The standard narrative about the U.K., though, is almost the exact opposite (which maybe proves England is its own continent, after all).  My first concrete sign of the different way the British approached alcohol came while I was still in the U.S., when I filled out a National Health Service medical form.  In addition to standard questions about height and weight, the form askedme how often I drank alcohol.  While a similar form in the U.S. might have categories like “Never” and “One per month,” the British equivalent offered “one to five per week” as its minimum category.  My first week here, a Scottish friend asked me how I was finding the national sport.  I wasn’t sure what he meant, until he explained, “You know, alcoholism.”

We convince our econ professors to have some champagne... at 11 a.m.

Without a doubt, the “lower drinking age = more responsibility” equation doesn’t seem to hold, at least in the academic bubble in which I live.  Particularly at this time of year—with exams finishing—Oxford is a pretty messy shit-show.  It’s not just students, though: running along the Thames today, I was amazed at the number of people knocking back beers before noon. The English really do manage to incorporate alcohol into everything: encounters with academic advisers, open seminars, and club meetings all somehow seem to involve drinking.  I went to church with my housemate Nicola today, and on the way out, the vicar was dispensing champagne.

The other kind of "boat race."

I think, though, that all these differences are of quantity, not type.  While the statistics suggest that the English are, as a nation, a bit drunker than most (barring Australia and Eastern Europe), I’m not sure how much this can really be declared adistinctive drinking “culture.”  As far as I can tell (and my perception is definitely skewed by being in a university environment) the basic rules and functions of drinking here are pretty familiar.  People drink to celebrate holidays and to mark achievements; the one’s who are getting really drunk are the late teens and twenty-somethings; older people drinking heavily is frowned upon.  Sometimes, in fact, the parallels between drinking at Oxford and at Princeton become almost too weird: at Boat Club Dinner last week, it hit me that “fines” (“I’ll fine anyone who fell into the river this term”) was pretty much the exact same as the “chugs” we do at Band Bandquet (“Everyone from the West Coast: drink!”).

Many of my American friends here seem constantly aghast at how English students drink—blind to how similar their behavior was to our own when we were undergraduates.  Perhaps the differences are more generational than cultural: when I really reflect on it, in my travels, drinking has often been more a universal than a source of difference.*  Amidst the non-stop culture shock that was my trip to Uganda, drinking a beer at the end of the day with my research team members felt natural and familiar.  As for mainland Europe, I can say with quite a bit of confidence that our assumptions about their generally responsible attitude to alcohol is bunk.  After all, at my party, it was a bunch of Eastern Europeans who raged until the porters shut us down, and last month, it was Christoph’s German friends who managed to break our dining room table—while playing a game taught to them by an American.

Just a few Europeans behaving responsibly.

I suppose this is all an instance of how, if we look for difference, we can find it—to the extent that we might even miss some blatant similarities.  While my time here has made me a bit more skeptical about a lower drinking age as a panacea for America’s frat-party woes, I do like the idea that alcohol can bring the world together, bound by our shared irresponsibility and immaturity.

* Of course, I’ve never been to a Muslim country.

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Jukebox: Dropkick Murphys – Kiss Me I’m Shitfaced

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