What we can learn about other cultures through alcohol

After moving to a new country, you can discover a lot about its culture through observing how (as well as what, where, when and why) the locals like to imbibe.

Contrasting drinking styles

Some cultures prize restraint, if not abstinence (the consumption of alcohol is banned in 13 countries) while others demand absolute intoxication (when the Camba of the Amazon drink, they intend to fall flat on their faces). In a sense, these drinking cultures are easy to comprehend. Drink till you drop or don’t drink at all.

Complex cultural chemistry

But in between these extremes, there is a vast and varied catalogue of drinking styles around the world, and wherever alcoholic drinks are being consumed, there is always complex cultural chemistry in play. All of the locals know their roles in this production. Where to stand or sit, what to say or order, how to behave and drink… and, most importantly, how to make their excuses and exit.

Plenty of pitfalls

For the foreign guest, who steps onto the stage with no direction, it’s easy to fluff your lines. Sipping what should be downed in one, or knocking back what should be savoured. In some cases, visitors may fall foul of strict superstitions. In many European countries, not looking into someone’s eyes when ‘clinking glasses’ condemns them to seven years of bad sex.

Putting your foot in it

In some countries, you just need to be mindful of your body language and gestures when drinking with locals. In Japan, for example, your glass should be lower than the most senior person at the table. In Vietnam, people will touch their elbow with their left hand when raising a glass to show respect to elders.

Code of conduct

There is often an unwritten code of conduct to be learned, too. In Australia, you should ‘shout’ (buy) a round of drinks for everyone at the table. In some parts of East Africa, the third drink of the evening must be followed by a story from each drinker at the table. The best way to learn about your host country’s drinking culture is to find a helpful local guide and (over a drink) ask them how (as well as where, what and when) people like to imbibe. Just remember, before it’s time to settle the bill, to ask how locals usually settle the bill.

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