Alcohol and the Tech Industry

no-alcoholAn article on Alcohol and the Tech Industry, written by Kara Sowles, came through my twitter stream today, followed by a few enthusiastic virtual thumbs up. I’ve written before about the Tech industry and inappropriate behavior (often as a result of overindulgence of alcohol), and I don’t have any problems with the suggestions Ms. Sowles makes about how to improve the experience at a conference.

Having said that, I do think there was a bit of victimhood inherent in her article, and I found myself thinking that while her suggestions are spot-on, it came close to using guilt as a weapon to get what she wants. 

Honestly, when I say “came close” I mean that quite literally. She doesn’t quite do that, but there is a prolonged “woe are those who forego alcohol” preamble. I do agree that there is an overdependence upon alcohol in professional circles (tech in particular), and I would like to see a movement away from it as a draw and social currency. I’m just not quite sure that Ms. Sowles connects the dots in the right way.

Pleasing Everyone?

Ms. Sowles spends quite a bit of time discussing the reasons why some people can’t or won’t drink alcohol, and uses that as the main justification for her suggestions about modifying offerings at events.

The simple truth is that many people – for many reasons – have health issues. I cannot count the number of times that I – as a diabetic – have had to go without because the only options were sugared drinks. I recall one particularly unpleasant evening where the event organizer was a rabid “organic” fangirl, and was absolutely incensed and offended that I would even ask for a drink with artificial sweetener, insisting that the “natural sugars” were better for me.

“Those artificial sweeteners will kill you!” she said repeatedly, with no apparent sense of hypocrisy or awareness of what she was suggesting.

Those of us with dietary requirements – be they diabetes, allergies, alcohol aversion, etc. – have always had to cope with the “lowest common denominator” at events. Speaking for myself (only), it’s well-understood that I’m going to be on my own to bring refreshments as the filler used in the buffet-style foods will have items I’m allergic to, the diet soda will often be a small percentage of the overall offering and gone long before everything else.

Fruit juices? Same problem for diabetics as sugared soda (worse, in most cases).

Do I ask for special treatment? If by ‘special’ you mean if I ask for catering to go check for “anything diet” then yes I do. Do I expect it? No, because these aren’t weddings; these are lowest-common-denominator events. It’s a crapshoot – it’s always a crapshoot – whether you’re a diabetic or not. It’s just that those of us with health issues tend to have a higher percentage of rolling craps.

Taking Responsibility

The reason why I felt compelled to jot down these thoughts was because I have absolutely no problems with the “5 tips for including Non-Alcoholic Drinks At Events” which Ms. Sowles suggests. I mean, these are all very ‘nice to have’ things at events. Some cost quite a bit of money, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with the suggestions.

alcohol_retail_in_australia_2-300x225Where I have issue is that they simply don’t address the main complaints with which she begins her article. She discusses the social pressures in drinking alcohol at events (which are not limited to tech events, by the way, as the entire article could be read exactly the same by taking out the term “tech”), she discusses the peer-pressure, the social currency involved. She discusses the feeling of being unsafe at events where there is alcohol served.

All of these observations are spot-on.

However, none of her solutions address them.

To me, it comes down to the intrapersonal choices we struggle with as individuals (that is, those choices that are inside us, the internal conversations that lead us to the choices we make). Those who are introverted struggle with these kinds of dilemmas – to attend, not to attend, to interact or engage or not – every time. Alcohol is but one component of those issues. Ms. Sowles implies that somehow it is the event organizer’s responsibilities to mitigate these concerns, and that by making “ginger beer available!” and marketing such items before the event, can somehow accomplish this.

What you drink (or don’t drink), how you act (or don’t act), and how much you participate (or don’t participate) is an individual choice. It is unreasonable to expect that event organizers need to cater to (pun intended) every single personality quirk. As it stands we have Kosher meals, vegetarian/vegan options, gluten-free, etc. Ms. Sowles’ suggestions of “beer, wine, craft root beer, and ginger beer available!” could easily be ripped apart by someone who either doesn’t like those choices, or can’t have those choices: “Where’s the diabetic option?” (I put this in facetiously, btw).

Making the Choice

My point is that you can’t please all the people all the time, and it’s a choice people make to attend or not to attend. If you choose to attend, and there are gives and takes associated with both choices.

Ms. Sowles is absolutely correct – by not attending, there is a risk of “out of sight, out of mind.” You may miss out of the bonding experience with colleagues and potential partners. It’s a missed networking opportunity.

awkwardAttending events poses risks as well, as Ms. Sowles also points out. There is the boorish behavior, the chance of sexism or inappropriateness. There is the unpleasantness of peer-pressure or, depending on how many people are involved, anxiety due to crowds (something I cope with often).

Choices can be hard, and they have consequences.

Ms. Sowles seems to imply that the choice is removed from her (and others who do not like to drink), merely because she feels uncomfortable with refusing alcohol in the presence of a group. She spends an entire section of her article on this, as a matter of fact (“Why don’t you drink?”), but neglects to offer a suggestion on how to solve the problem. One infers that “if only the organizers would offer something that looks like an alcoholic drink I can fake it!”

I don’t believe that works, or will ever work. In fact, all that would lead to is the next complaint that the organizers had chosen the wrong type of alcoholic fake-out. Try again.

Ultimately, that is an unfair burden to place on people who don’t know you and are trying to manage the best experience for the reasonable cost. It’s a balance – usually decided by budget. Moreover, it’s unreasonable to expect that individual insecurities should be solved by marketing and water stations. There are social networking techniques which work quite well:

“No, thank you.”

“I prefer this right now.”

“I’m not in the mood.”

“I don’t drink when I have to drive.”

And, my personal favorite when people push or ask ‘why’:

“‘No’ is a sufficient answer.”

Bottom Line

Ms. Sowles brings up some good points, and some excellent suggestions for making a reception event a more delicious experience. I would have liked to see her tie in the personal responsibility a little bit more and address some of the more systemic problems associated with cultures of alcohol (if she thinks tech conferences are bad, she should live in Europe for a while).

Ultimately social anxiety can not be fixed by drink choice (either alcoholic or non-alcoholic). Seeking external solutions for those problems will always lead to disappointment and frustration, and it’s important not to imply that there is a quick-fix for them.

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