There’s a scene in the 2013 comedy film The World’s End in which a group of middle-aged old school friends are on a nostalgic pub crawl, yet one of them, Andy Knightly, insists on abstaining from alcohol. “I haven’t had a drink for sixteen years Gary,” he tells the ring-leader and lush Gary King. “You must be thirsty then,” Gary retorts.
This social dynamic – the reluctant non-drinker coerced to join in with the drinking majority – will be familiar to many readers. And given the health risks of excess alcohol consumption, it’s also a scenario that’s caught the attention of health psychologists. How are non-drinkers perceived? Does gender identity play a part in the pressure to drink?
For a new study Dominic Conroy and Richard de Visser interviewed 12 middle-class undergrads aged 20 to 29. There were seven men and five women and all were regular drinkers. The semi-structured interviews, loosely guided towards discussion about non-drinkers, were conducted by a man in his early 30s.
Three main themes emerged from the interviews – first, non-drinking was seen as something strange that required explanation. “It seems a bit alien, doesn’t it?” said Tina. “It’ll be like ‘why are you not joining in? …. Why do you want to alienate?” said Andy. There were also signs of ambivalence. “… in a way respect but … in a way you’re probably more likely to distance yourself from someone like that as well,” said Penny.
The second theme was that non-drinkers were seen as anti-social, but also more sociable at the same time. “It can be kind of awkward,” said Sarah. “Maybe [they’re] actually more sociable actually because you don’t need the alcohol to umm … [be] social with people,” said Andy. “… y’know they’re the lucky ones they don’t need a stimulant already to have fun … it’s all in there already it’s in their heads.”
The final theme related to the difference between the way non-drinking was perceived in men and women. Mike said that to stop drinking with his life-long male friends would be a rejection of them – it’s something they’d always done together. In contrast, there seemed more tolerance of non-drinking by women, and even facilitating strategies – if one woman was abstaining, one interviewee described how another female member of the group might join them so that they didn’t feel left out. There was also a sense of respect for a woman who chose not to drink: “Oh, good for her, y’know, she’s looking after herself,” said Tina. But for a man, Tina added, “it’s like ‘Oh why are you not having a drink?’ kind of ‘Man up!’.”
This idea of non-drinking by men as somehow unmanly was most strongly encapsulated in the descriptions given by the interviewee Mike, who said there are issues of (heterosexual) masculinity in drinking stamina. “Why he’s not drinking with us? [said of a non-drinking friend] … he’s gonna be … he’s being gay tonight [we might say]… I think we’re playing on the stereotype that a masculine heterosexual man can drink more.”
Conroy and de Visser acknowledged that their study has limitations – including the narrow middle class student sample and the likely influence of the interviewer. But nonetheless they said there were useful clues here towards helping reduce excess drinking, especially among students. ” … [O]ne route upon which health promotion campaigns might capitalise to promote a more positive view of non-drinking among men [is] emphasising that diverse modes of masculinity and social behaviour exist beyond those embedded in dominant hegemonic assumptions.”
Conroy D, and de Visser R (2013). ‘Man up!’: Discursive constructions of non-drinkers among UK undergraduates. Journal of health psychology, 18 (11), 1432-44 PMID: 23188922