Drinking is often seen as one of the pillars of university culture. It’s such a huge part of uni life for some – I knew people who made their decision about which university to head to based on its nightlife reputation. And fair enough, you wouldn’t want to head to somewhere out in the sticks if you’re planning on raving every night.
But there’s a large amount of students who head to uni with no plans to drink, who have to navigate new relationships without the common ground of drinking together. So the questions is: Are societies doing enough to make both drinkers and non-drinkers feel welcome at socials?
Tee-total students who come to university are usually well prepared for situation where they may be the only one not drinking, and probably already have experience with staying sober on nights out. People decide not to drink for many different reasons; it may be cultural, religious, having had a bad experience with alcohol in the past, simply not enjoying the taste or the feeling, or a whole host of other things.
Many students choose to stop drinking for the sake of their mental health, as one Physics student told me: “It just takes me days to recover from a night out, drinking is fun at the time but my headspace is not a good place to be in the day after. [Drinking] stopped being worth the fun after a while, so now I enjoy my time with my friends with a coke, and it’s benefited my mental health greatly.”
Another English Literature student said that “one of the worst things to happen on a night out when you’re not drinking is to be with someone who can’t just accept the fact that you’re not. You lose the whole night explaining yourself and justifying your reasons, which sometimes can be quite personal and not something you want to get into when you’ve come out for a good time.
“I’ve been on nights out where someone has found out that I wasn’t drinking and then literally not left my side the entire night, constantly questioning me and trying to get me to drink. It’s not what I’ve come out for, I just want to dance with my friends!”
One of the first things societies can do to help include those who choose not to drink is just not make a big deal out of it. They’ve come out for just as good a night as everybody else, ready to cut some crazy moves on the dance floor, just without a drink in-hand. One of the best ways I’ve ever seen this done at a society social was at the Choir and Orchestra Society (CAOS) post end-of-year-concert party, where there is always the traditional ‘Boat Race’. In the Boat Race, teams compete to down four pints as fast as possible, with up to four members in each team.
Without any prompting or questions asked, the committee announced the event, including acceptable non-alcoholic options for competitors, which were a pint of milk or tonic water (gross). There was no special announcement, no framing the options as ‘alternatives’, just these are what you have to drink to win. It was refreshing to see the sober options normalised rather than alienated as ‘alternate to the real thing’.
Societies can incorporate things like this into drinking socials to give sober members a chance to participate without feeling alienated. Drinking games are great fun, and societies can add sober options to the game to include everyone.
These changes work well for students who don’t drink personally, but still enjoy a good night out.
Others however choose to avoid being around alcohol or environments where a lot of heavy drinking is taking place all together. This can present problems when most, or all, of a society’s socials are based around drinking. A classic bar crawl is always a good night, but it doesn’t have to be the only social in your society’s roster. There are endless possibilities for good socials in non-alcoholic spaces, or socials that aren’t completely based on drinking. Everyone loves a good night at Dog Bowl, cinema trips, karaoke, ice skating, or even a good movie night for some smaller societies. Add a little creativity to your society’s social calendar and you’ll find that you have a much wider attendance from members, and some fun stories to tell other than “we were so wasted”.
There’s loads that societies can be doing to include sober members, and making it not a big deal is the first step. If your society has a wide variety of socials, it will normalise a non-drinking lifestyle for students who choose to follow it, and make uni much more fun for everyone.