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Understanding Australia’s drinking culture

AUSTRALIA’s drinking culture can be a little intimidating for foreigners unaccustomed to it. Faridah Wu explores how Australia views drinking as a way to encourage social interactivity, the potential health problems that can arise from binge-drinking and offers tips to international students who don’t want to drink or drink too much.

Photo: Paul Hocksenar via Flickr

Photo: Paul Hocksenar via Flickr

I was clutching a takeaway cup of coffee and trying to get to class when I saw a group of university students like myself hanging out, talking, and drinking beer.

Ordinarily this could be considered normal, but it was 12 o’clock! In the afternoon!

In my head, drinking alcohol always seemed to be an activity best reserved during happy hours and night time escapades, not consumed alongside brunch. I suppose that’s because in the culture I grew up in, consuming alcohol is generally reserved to dinner, post-dinner activities and special occasions.

But some Australians don’t seem to agree. In a country that loves its beer and barbeque, there’s never a “wrong” time to drink alcohol.

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A warning that drinking alcohol in public spaces are prohibited in certain areas. Photo: Faridah Wu.

Once I managed to wrap my head around that concept, I grew a lot less inhibited whenever someone asked if I’d like to “grab a beer” after class. I was also no longer surprised to see people enjoying a drink at a pub after work every day.

As someone who refrains from drinking for religious and personal reasons, most of the time people are content to let me sit with my lemonade as we catch up with each other’s lives.

But that is not always the case.

There are plenty of people who, whether alone or in groups, have attempted to guilt me into drinking, with reasons ranging from, “How do you not know that you don’t like it if you’ve never tried it before?” to “It’s just for one night, we’ll look the other way and no one ever has to know”.

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Photo: Fredrik Rubensson via Flickr

Once, after telling an acquaintance that I don’t drink and I don’t smoke, he puffed on his cigarette and gruffly asked: “So what do you do for fun?” A rude question perhaps, but in this culture where alcohol consumption is a common social activity, he felt that it was a valid question to ask.

The other day, as a matter of fact, this guy who was coming from the grocery store with a new case of beer even offered one to me as a thank-you for helping him to open the door! Alcohol in Australia is a cultural norm; it serves as a means to encourage social interactivity.

But with such a casual attitude towards alcohol also comes the rise of alcohol-related problems such as binge-drinking, alcohol-fuelled violence and health problems. These problems are normally heightened during music festivals and other large social gatherings where it is easy to get caught up in festivities and difficult to keep track of how much you’ve already drunk.

These issues have been debated in the media with some also opposed to the idea that alcohol is the root of the problem.

Personally, as someone who doesn’t drink a drop of alcohol, it makes it easier for me to say no to drinking and not have to submit to peer pressure. But it is difficult, especially if you don’t want to run the risk of being labeled “the boring one”.

If you’re having trouble trying to say no to drinking (or excessive drinking), you’re not alone. Here are some ways in which you could keep yourself safe without limiting your fun:

  • Every group needs a designated driver: Not only will you not be pressured into drinking alcohol, you group of friends can be assured that everyone will be safe at the end of the day.
  • Ask for support from others: I’ve had several friends help divide the tension when another friend tried to pressure me into drinking once.
  • Get a non-alcoholic drink: If you have a coke or an iced tea in your hands, people may be less likely to offer you a drink.
  • Set a limit before you start drinking and stick to it!
  • Drink equal amounts of water for every alcohol you consume: One glass of water for every glass of alcohol will help to dilute the alcohol in your body.
  • Do not drink on an empty stomach: It will lead to intoxication more quickly.
  • Use some excuses like “I’ve had enough for tonight” or “I need to keep a clear head”: Saying that you’ve got something on the next morning would work too.

Have you ever felt intimidated by Australia’s drinking standards? What are some of your stories of alcohol-related culture shock when you first came to Australia? What are some of your best strategies to combat peer pressure? What excuses have you heard someone use when refusing a drink? Let us know in the comments section below. 

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Meld Magazine was incorporated as an independent not-for-profit media outlet in September 2008 to reach out to international students in Melbourne, and provide students the opportunity to gain real work experience.

Many international students live in or around the city because of the proximity to their colleges and universities, and that was where we decided to focus our efforts first. Many of us live, work and study locally too. Our editorial team is made of both local and international students, and it has worked to our advantage in providing local content in every sense of the word.

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