Monday 22 November 2021

A toxic conversation

Last week, Mark Johnson published a thought-provoking blogpost about how the language people use to talk about drinking can have an adverse impact on those who are having a problem with it, informed by his own experience.

He acknowledges that the traditional macho culture of “man up”, “gerrit down your neck” and “halves are for sissies” is much less prevalent now. At least within enthusiast circles, this has been helped by the way that the desire to try as many beers as possible has normalised the drinking of halves and even thirds.

But there is still the unhelpful construction that “if you’re doing THAT, then you have a problem”. This can easily make those who are struggling feel even worse about themselves. It can also serve to stigmatise those whose drinking habits don’t conform to those of the speaker. I’ve often heard people claim “I never drink at lunchtimes” as some kind of badge of honour, and it’s all too easy to sneer at those who enjoy a morning drink in Wetherspoon’s, when in reality they’re just doing it a different way from those who have a few pints in the evening.

He also discusses how some people use a reward system to control their alcohol intake:

Some people temper their beer intake by way of a personal reward system. If you do enough exercise or enough tasks from a to-do list then you earn the right to beer. You put beer in a place where it has the same value as your payslip or fixing a leak in the bath. Again, that is fine if you are whole but it puts pressure on the more vulnerable.
As he says, it works for some, but can be unhelpful for others. If you’ve had a bad day, then you may feel you have to deny yourself that soothing pint that might just take the edge off. It has parallels with the alternation of dieting and bingeing that many people trying to control their weight experience. In general, it isn’t really a good idea to make it a guilt trip.

On a related note, while rewards aren’t something I go in for beyond maybe having a celebratory drink on my birthday, I do tend to set a rough “drinking budget”. This is not to say I feel I have a problem, but for someone from whom beer and pubs are a major interest, it makes sense to keep tabs on my consumption. I generally have a good idea what I will be doing over the next few weeks, so I can estimate my likely intake. The possible downside of this is that, if I’m running substantially below budget, then there may be a temptation to compensate by having a bit more. But, as I grow older, my appetite for (and ability to) drinking lots tends to diminish anyway.

The point that most resonates with me is that of how the censure of people who don’t, or hardly, drink, can be counterproductive. This is a theme that I have often mentioned on this blog over the years. As a society, we currently drink a fair bit more than we did in the 1970s (although less than we did fifteen years ago), but we have become increasingly censorious about it. This reduces the range of occasions when people will contemplate a visit to the pub and is a major cause of the decline of the pub trade.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is the pressure that comes from people - often friends or family members - questioning why you ARE drinking. People, for whom drinking is reserved for special events or weekends, can be overbearing in their derision of those who have a more casual approach to drink.

If you don't indulge in beer as much as others, there is inquisition over the simple idea of a pint after work on a Tuesday, a bottle of beer whilst cooking a Sunday roast, a celebratory can at the top of a hill after a steep climb. The questioning as to why you are having a beer – often phrased as why you need to have it - can have the same guilt-like effect as the previous mentioned beer reward system.

Those for whom pubs are a major part of their life often forget that not far off half the adult population never visit one from one month to the next, and a substantial proportion of those who do only go there for a meal. Going to the pub for a drink is very much a minority activity.

I’ve found this myself in discussions with relatives and work colleagues. If they’re likely to say “You had a pint? Of BEER?” then it’s easier just not to mention it, which makes it seem furtive and leads to the compartmentalisation of life. If normal, moderate drinking has to become a secret activity, then where does that leave problem drinking? As he concludes:

If we could remove the guilt surrounding drink then our relationship with it would be much healthier. People will not understand unless they have been to *that* place, but if people were allowed to drink whenever they wanted then they would drink a lot less.


  1. My advice is to turn your boozing into a respectable hobby. Join CAMRA and become a respectable drunk of virtuous real ale. Then you are not getting hammered, you are campaigning. Claim to have a pre existing medical condition to blame your ruined health on that people can mention in the obituary that will appear in Opening Times just before your mid 50s. For the real loony juice develop an interest in cider.

  2. The word "alcohol" is used much more frequently nowadays, and usually pejoratively. Young people say "I don't do alcohol", as if it's a merely drug to be injected or inhaled. There are shops with aisles named "Alcohol" instead of "Beers, Wines and Spirits".

    1. It's rare now for any TV dramas to show alcoholic drinks in a positive light. Drinking alcohol tends to be portrayed either as a character weakness or a sign of being a Bad Person.

  3. I was surprised to see advertisements for Brewdog on TV this weekend. I have seen so few advertisements for alcohol that I assumed it was banned

    1. I record virtually everything and watch it at my leisure, so I generally fast forward through the adverts. Half the time I have no idea what they're even advertising.

    2. You would have noticed the Brewdog advert even at x32. I did


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