Drinking on cue: Social groups heavily influence drinkers’ attitudes, actions
Post and Courier
By Hanna Raskin
September 8, 2015
British anthropologists in the 1980s set out to quantify everything they could about a pub in a Northwest U.K. textile town. They wrote down what patrons discussed, and timed how quickly they drank.
They also measured the amount of ale in drinkers’ glasses at various intervals, confirming a phenomenon first noted by researchers 40 years earlier: “The majority of pub-goers tend, when drinking in a group, to drink level; very often there is not a quarter of an inch difference between the depth of beer in the glasses of a group of drinkers.” Indeed, the resident community’s ideas concerning how much to drink were so internalized that even blind drinkers stayed exactly on pace.
“Level drinking” isn’t confined to bars. People generally pick up drinking cues from the people around them.
“You probably go out with friends who drink about the same as you do,” says University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Janet Chrzan, author of “Alcohol: Social Drinking in Cultural Context.” “Then it becomes very normative, so each social group says ‘this is the way everybody drinks.’ If it’s OK to be pretty bloody tiddly at a party, then that’s the way you’re going to drink.”
In other words, Charleston’s drinking habits — the cocktails mixed for parents at children’s birthday parties, the expensive wine ordered at lunch — may strike a visitor from east Tennessee or Provo, Utah, as unspeakably wicked. But for most healthy adults, there’s nothing objectively wrong with having, on average, one drink a day, as 12.5 percent of Charlestonians do.
“More than 14 alcohol equivalents a week, you start having correlations with some kind of health problems, but again, that’s a correlation,” Chrzan says. “It’s not actually a problem unless there are consequences.”
In recent years, consequences for Charleston have started to mount: Alcohol-related arrests and hospitalizations are up, and the county leads the state in drunken driving deaths. The statistics suggest that the long-established drinking level is creeping upward, or that the culture responsible for it is attracting more visitors inclined to act recklessly. There’s likely some truth to both explanations.
Outside of Charleston, many television viewers have formed opinions of the city based on “Southern Charm,” the reality show chronicling young, white and wealthy Charlestonians. A few of the featured socialites work. All of them drink. They drink when they’re getting dressed, when they’re walking on the Battery and when they’ve completed a doctor’s appointment. It’s “pretty common” to wake up drunk on a Saturday, cast member Craig Conover remarks at one point.
But such ostentatious displays of imbibing aren’t solely for audiences elsewhere. While the Charleston Wine + Food Festival acquired its charismatic reputation partly by always being ready with a good drink, the festival this weekend is launching ticket sales for an event billed as “A Boozy Brunch.” Promotional copy urges attendees to “sip your way around the rosé-, Bloody Mary- and cocktail-peppered lawn.”
Of course, there’s strong historical precedent for shoehorning liquor into any local occasion. “Any account you find of people visiting Charleston, wine and Madeira and all kinds of alcoholic beverages are always mentioned,” Lowcountry food historian John Martin Taylor says of surviving documentation from the 18th and 19th centuries. “What is painted is either a totally debauched society, or some of the finest wines (the writer has) ever drunk.”
According to Taylor, Charleston in 1743 imported a “six-month supply” of 65,000 gallons of alcohol. “This is when the population is about 5,000 people, more than half of whom are enslaved and not allowed to drink,” he adds.
The racial dimensions of drinking in Charleston were significant, Chrzan says. “Alcohol was something that was for free white males to indulge in, the same way a 16-year-old thinks it’s really cool to get drunk. When people are socially advantaged, that encourages increased use.”
Demonstrating class status through spirits was still a viable tactic in 1950, when The Junior League of Charleston included 36 recipes for alcoholic beverages in “Charleston Receipts.” But Martin suspects more practical reasons may have driven early Charlestonians to the bottle: “Life was hard, even if you’re wealthy and all that,” he says. “You’re wearing woolens and there’s no air conditioning and there’s no flush toilet. Have a damn drink.”
Generally speaking, drinking patterns in the U.S. follow one of two models. There’s the Southern European model, in which alcohol is consumed openly, but rarely to excess: Chrzan says that’s the reigning model in her hometown of San Francisco. Philadelphia, where she lives now, follows the Northern European model, in which copious amounts of alcohol are drunk in secret. “In San Francisco, I would always offer people a drink,” she says. “Here, that’s not what people do. What people told me is ‘You’re such a huge drinker.’ ”
Befitting its polyglot population, Charleston ended up drawing on both traditions and proudly drinking more than most Southern Europeans would consider prudent. Alcohol was easy and relatively cheap to obtain in a port city, so drinking became a cornerstone of hospitality. “There’s not a single time that I entered a house in South Carolina that I wasn’t offered a cocktail,” Chrzan says.
That kind of warm welcome helped Charleston win “friendliest city” honors from Conde Nast Traveler in back-to-back years, so it’s no surprise that the city isn’t in any rush to officially downplay it. “I think you will see alcohol in some of our photography: That’s part of the experience,” Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau director Helen Hill says. Hill says the CVB is especially eager to promote the new microbreweries and craft distilleries that have opened around Charleston.
“We’re not boring,” she says. “You don’t have to have just a glass of Chardonnay; you’re going to try an interesting gin-and-tonic.”
Of the city’s 5 million annual visitors, a good number heed the CVB’s advice, sometimes drinking more than they would drink at home. Chrzan refers to the practice as time-out drinking. “That happens when people do not have to engage with particular kinds of responsibilities,” she explains. But in a tourist economy, time-out drinking establishes standards for residents, who grow accustomed to the idea of drinking early in the day, at the theater or around the pool. It also contributes to the growth of tightly packed drinking districts, such as King Street.
From bar to hospital
According to Ali Mokdad, the lead author of a county-level health study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Education, there are two primary determinants of heavy drinking: The community’s attitude toward alcohol and alcohol availability. “It’s not how many bars there are; it’s how close they are,” Mokdad says. “People tend to bar-hop, and there’s competition between these guys to get you in.”
College of Charleston Dean of Students Jeri Cabot is familiar with the problems posed by bars clustered together, especially when they’re located on the edge of campus. “Proximity matters,” she says. “Drink specials matter. To me, that is the most concerning thing we see is establishments that are offering $1 shots, and they say ‘the ID looks so good.’ The person in front of you does not look 21. Just make the call.”
Every semester, a few dozen College of Charleston students are taken to the hospital after drinking too much. “We know they have this tremendous sense of freedom, but they get into a lot of trouble,” Roper St. Francis case manager Ione Sack says. “We’ve seen kids end up in comas. That’s actually quite heartbreaking, where it’s not so much they want to party, but they’re addicted.”
Roper St. Francis is treating an increased number of alcohol-related complaints: “It’s definitely an upward trend,” Sack says. “People are found at Marion Square, passed out in a car, passed out in a parking lot. We have people coming here from other areas, thinking they can make a new life and start fresh and all of that. And then they’re feeling pretty desperate and they turn to alcohol.”
The cases wheeled through Roper St. Francis’ doors are the most extreme. But the notion that there’s more fun to be had in Charleston is pervasive: It’s what compels brides-to-be from Columbia to plan blowout bachelorette parties on upper King Street, and golfing retirees from New York City to order a fourth round of vodka sodas. In response to the flurry of drinking activity on King Street, the Charleston Police Department this year established a unit dedicated to the corridor.
Owning the statistics
Over the past five years, the number of alcohol-related arrests citywide has nearly doubled, from 1,559 arrests to 2,784 arrests. While King Street incidents account for just a fraction of the total, Lt. Heath King suspects the new unit, which has been under development since 2011, may have contributed to the uptick.
“This is not the no-fun police,” King clarifies. “We’re not going to arrest slightly intoxicated people for the good of the order.”
Instead, he says, unit members are getting to know bartenders and bouncers so that it’s more likely police will be called in before potentially violent situations escalate. Previously, King says, bar owners hesitated to ask the police for help because they feared they’d be penalized if an underage drinker was on the premises. While the unit is focused on reducing underage possession, King wants to make sure fights “don’t spill out in the street.”
“As long as we remain a safe, hospitable city, people can go out and not have to worry about going out and getting punched in the face,” King says, adding that if alcohol consumption gets out of control, “it’s not going to be good for anybody. We’re going to decline.”
In 300 years, not much has changed: Brawls and ambulance rides represent the debauchery that visitors wrote home about in the 18th century. And Charleston’s double billing on this year’s list of nominees for a James Beard Foundation best wine service award (courtesy of FIG and McCrady’s) speaks to the city’s ongoing dedication to presenting the finest wines that visitors have ever tasted.
Craftsmanship and connoisseurship thrive in the local liquor industry. “Accounts that don’t have good drink menus, it’s tough for them to survive,” says Reed Davis, William Grant & Sons’ S.C. district manager. So does the area’s legacy of facilitating camaraderie with cocktail. Sen. Lindsey Graham recently promised, in an allusion to Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill hashing out problems over whiskey, “We’ll drink more if I’m president.”
Yet the good and bad both stem from Charlestonians’ distinctive tendency to drink more than other Southerners.
“The answer is not to ban alcohol,” Chrzan says of the troubling issues surrounding high rates of consumption. “The answer is to drink without consequences. And that means you have to look in the mirror and say, ‘I drink. I’m not on the down low. I own this.’