29 June, 2014

Drinking Culture


One of the first things Americans tend to think of when they think of Germany is how much beer Germans drink. It's a well-known association with German culture, along with Oktoberfest and Lederhosen, and like some stereotypes it is in fact based in truth.

Germans drink a lot. According to Wikipedia, Germany ranks third globally for per capita beer consumption and fifth for alcohol consumption in general. In comparison, the US ranks 14th in beer consumption and a dismal 23rd in overall alcohol consumption. But despite Germany's clear dominance with regard to the sheer quantity of alcohol consumed, the United States dominates in a not-so-desirable area: irresponsible drinking.

In Germany, it's not uncommon to drink several nights a week, or even to drink every day. This is not seen as a problem since drinking is a common component of most social events and is an accepted part of German culture. (By drinking I don't necessarily mean excessive drinking; often this means just having a beer or two.) In the United States, however, the settings in which alcohol is acceptable are much more narrow, and often when drinking occurs, it is the drinking itself that is the main goal and/or the main form of entertainment. This often leads people to have not just a few drinks but many drinks at once.

This cultural difference is especially obvious on and around college campuses, which is where the majority of my experiences in this area have happened. At American college parties, alcohol is consumed at an astounding rate by nearly every person in attendance, often in the form of hazardous drinking games, and the party is considered a success if everyone is visibly intoxicated. The unstated but often implied goal of the party is to get drunk, dance like crazy and then maybe end the night by doing something stupid that one can "brag" about the next day. It's also not uncommon for people to encourage their friends to drink more than they want to, and it's totally normal for at least one person to throw up before the night is over.
Beer pong and flip cup (pictured above) are popular drinking games among American high school and college students.

In contrast, the parties and other events including alcohol that I've attended in Germany have not been as wild. People drink, and often drink heavily, but even with seemingly endless supplies of beer they are expected to know how to control themselves. And for the most part, they do.

There are several factors that contribute to these differences. First and perhaps most important is the legality of alcoholic beverages. In the United States, all alcohol is prohibited until the age of 21 (regardless of the alcohol content), alcohol cannot be consumed in most public spaces, and many states have strict rules controlling the sale of alcohol even to those of legal age. (For example, in many states it is illegal to sell or purchase alcohol on Sundays, bars and clubs selling alcoholic drinks are required to close at 1 or 2am, and in some places in the south there are entire towns or even counties where it's illegal to sell any alcohol at all.) The rationale behind these laws is based on the widely-held view that alcohol is dangerous and corrupting and that children and young adults need to be protected from it. This often leads parents and others in positions of influence to simply forbid drinking, bypassing important lessons about responsible alcohol consumption. This no-tolerance method clearly doesn't work. Young people start drinking when they want to, and the only result of these restrictions is that most American teenagers have their first experiences with alcohol in secret with their peers, who are often not experienced with drinking and are not capable of teaching each other responsible drinking habits.

This unhealthy relationship between young people and alcohol is only exacerbated when American teenagers take their respective college campuses by storm at age 18. Since most college students live on campus, or at least move away from home for the first time, the watchful eye of their parents is gone and they are free to drink as they see fit. And since most college freshman are not yet of legal drinking age, much of this drinking still goes on in secret. Fearing the negative consequences of being caught drinking underage, students often do not seek medical attention when things get out of hand and are reluctant to seek help for themselves or a friend with troubling drinking habits. It's ironic that the American safeguards intended to prevent young people from drinking actually create the situations in which the most dangerous drinking takes place.

In Germany, teenagers can legally drink beer and wine at age 16 and hard alcohol at age 18. Young people can learn from a fairly young age, and with less potent beverages, how alcohol effects their bodies and how to drink responsibly. They are trusted from a younger age to make decisions about the alcohol they consume and do not typically have to make those decisions in secret. Drinking alcohol, particularly beer, is an important part of the German social culture and is not such a hot-button issue as it is in America. Alcohol can be consumed in public, and it's not uncommon to see someone casually walking down the street drinking a beer. Also, the dorm party culture that exists on most US college campuses is fairly non-existent in Germany, and if something were to go wrong, German 18-year-olds do not have to worry about negative legal consequences of their drinking.

This isn't to say that German teenagers and young people never go overboard or that they innately know their limits as soon as beer is placed within reach. A common denominator between Americans and Germans is that nearly everyone can recall a time when either they or a friend got way too drunk and as a result something hilarious and/or painful happened. However, the differences in drinking culture are obvious when you compare a night out at a club in an American college town with a night out at a club near a German university. In the American scenario, many of the attendants are visibly drunk; in the German scenario, most of them are not. It cannot be denied that Germans know how to party and often stay out at a club until 5am or later, but the cultural preference seems to favor spreading drinks out over the course of a night, rather than the common American approach of getting drunk as quickly as possible.

I find the German approach to drinking refreshing and much more relaxed than the uptight-but-simultaneously-wild American tendency. American cultural standards often relegate alcohol solely to the sphere of partying, which encourages situation-specific and binge drinking. In contrast, drinking is part of more aspects of German culture than just partying, and the responsible drinking habits practiced in everyday social scenarios tend to carry over into the party atmosphere. While I've been in Germany, my own drinking habits have become much more tame, despite the easy availability of alcohol and the greater permissibility of drinking. I don't feel the same desire to get drunk at parties that I used to feel, because the people around me are not trying desperately to get drunk. I find that I drink now for the sake of enjoying my beverage, rather than just for the intoxicating effects.

I'll drink to that.

And just because, here's a puppy drinking beer.

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