"What, not ever?"

posted 25 September 2005

So this is a little bit quite a lot of self-interested whining, but then, isn't that why having a blog is useful? If you don't like it bugger off and write your own.

So tonight I had dinner at an authentic if somewhat chaotically staffed Korean restaurant with various lovely people, including one new person. When the time came to order drinks, a conversation began which I have had, with only minor variations, dozens if not hundreds of times now:

Them: You're not drinking?
Me: I don't drink, actually.
Them: What, not ever?

This is followed by, depending on the bluntness of the party involved, questions about it being "a relgious thing", "for medical reasons", and occasionally "what made you stop?". The answer that I have never really drunk regularly is then almost always followed by an attempt to persuade me to "just try it", with a greater or lesser degree of persistence. And I know each particular party is merely being genuinely curious and friendly, but collectively I am really getting sick of this behaviour.

What is it about not drinking that makes people so insistent that you join them? If someone says "I don't like noodles" or "I don't eat egg" or "I don't like seafood", few people spend five minutes trying to persuade them of the benefits of seafood, elaborating all the various types of seafood they might enjoy, and extolling the virtues of seafood in general. So why this fixation on a particular dietary choice? I have a few theories as to their motivations:

  • Rite of passage
    Alcohol is something you aren't allowed as a child, so drinking it is associated in everyone's minds with growing up. So there is a long-standing cultural tradition amongst teenagers of introducing younger peers to alcohol for the first time, for amusement and as an act of social bonding. Lots of the people who most strenuously attempt to persuade me to drink are from this camp, and are often under the impression that I've never drunk anything. For the record, there was one occasion in 2003 when I drank many glasses of fizzy white wine, a number of alcopops and a few additional random alcoholic drinks. I got fairly tipsy, had a good time, but was not particularly enamoured of the whole process. I know what I'm missing, and I'm quite happy to miss it, thank you. As I get older, however, this group grows smaller, as a 20 year old who's never drunk is merely a late starter, but a 24 year old who's never drunk is much less likely to ever start.
  • Balance of power
    I have a number of friends who don't like to drink when only in my company. This is because being drunk debilitates you to a greater or lesser extent, and people do not like surrendering the balance of power. So some of the people (not the same friends) who try to persuade me to drink are probably just trying to bring me down to their level to avoid the imbalance of power. Certainly one of my bigger reasons for not drinking is that I really dislike the loss of control and power over my own actions that are associated with it, but bring others down with you seems like an antisocial way of solving the problem.
  • Guilt
    This was extremely prevalent when I was in my early teens, and others were drinking who shouldn't be drinking at all: they wanted you to drink because drinking was a transgression, and to avoid the story getting back to parents it was necessary to make sure everyone was equally guilty. Obviously this is not the case any more, but I think this original motivation is still in the background for a number of people: they feel vaguely guilty about drinking, or about the amount they drink, or the way they behave when drunk. Thus, involving all parties lessens their guilt by removing the contrast. I'm not going to be sanctimonious about you drinking*, but I'm not going to start drinking just to make you feel better about it, either.

But then I question my own motives. Why do I not drink? I have a long-standing rejection of the most famous rites of passage -- in order, drinking, smoking and driving -- simply because I dislike the concept of having to perform certain tasks just to be accepted into a particular group. I don't drive because I'm bad at it, I don't smoke because it's bad for you, and one of the reasons I don't drink is that it's not good for you, either. But am I just rejecting it because it's a grown-up sort of thing to do, and I dislike associating myself with grown-up things?

I accept that health is not really a strong argument against moderate drinking, what with all the studies about good tannins and that sort of thing. Expense is another one: yes, drinking is very expensive, but it's not like I'm a model of fiscal responsibility anyway. Taste? Alcopops are almost indistinguishable from soft drinks, and I quite like the flavour of white wine.

Which leaves us with Control. This is the theory that I don't drink because drinking loosens one's inhibitions, and I'm too inhibited to even want to loosen them. This is, I think, probably the closest to the truth. The loss of control over my actions, the feeling that I am not in charge of my motivations, is a deeply scary and unsettling one to me. You can analyse that further if you want, but that's the heart of the matter. I feel like I can barely keep hold of what's going on in my life and the world as it is, why would I intentionally blur my perception still further?

I think the question should not be "why do I not drink?" The question should be "why does anyone drink?" Most people, however, list exactly the reasons I don't like drinking as reasons for it: a loosening of inhibitions, a rite of passage, a desire to fit in. Why should my motivations be so different to other people's? What in my upbringing produced such a fierce desire for control, and such a fierce rejection of doing what is expected of me by my peers? Why is my instinctive model of the right thing to do defined as "the opposite of what my peers are doing"?

I wish I knew the answer. But in the meantime, I'll be having the lemonade thanks, and please stop offering. My reasons for not drinking have nothing to do with it being a special occasion or not.

* This entry is, believe it or not, trying very hard not to be sanctimonious

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