Welcome to the U.S.: Alcohol

No AlcoholToday we begin a new intermittent series on U.S. American culture, mostly for the benefit of our international students, but hopefully also enlightening for readers from the U.S.

First a note on terminology. In the intercultural world, “U.S. American” is preferred to “American,” because “American,” as it is normally used, does not include all the other “Americas,” such as Central America, South America, and the non-U.S. countries of what is commonly referred to as North America.

In my still-brief time at I-House I have met many residents who don’t understand why our alcohol policy is so strict, at least as judged by their cultural standards. (I hear these comments and questions mostly, but not exclusively, from European residents.) A simple answer to the question is that I-House’s policies must follow federal and California state law, but that begs the deeper cultural questions about why U.S. and California laws are as strict as they are. (As an aside, I-House is the only campus residence that permits any use of alcohol at all in public spaces.)

The cultural explanation that I offer begins with the role of religion in the founding of the United States, and its continued influence on U.S. American culture.In the Calvinist tradition, which had significant influence on the development of U.S. American society, humans are seen as inherently sinful, and so we must devote as much of our energy as we can to avoiding sin (including “glorifying God” by working hard).  In this view humans are weak, and always ready to sin. Sex and alcohol are forms of sin, because they are “of the flesh” and take us further from God. According to this logic in its purest form, alcohol can be seen as directly opposed to God. Therefore we must be very careful in how we handle alcohol, and in how we regulate its use.  And we have to be especially vigilant about protecting our most vulnerable citizens — our children — from the “corrupting” influence of alcohol.

This is an overly simplistic explanation, and I’m not saying that U.S., California and I-House alcohol policies are all inspired directly by Calvinism. However, in the U.S. alcohol does still tend to be thought of as a “forbidden fruit” and as (potentially) “sinful,” especially if used in excess, and as an enabler of other “sinful” activities such as sex. As my seventh-grade teacher said during our brief “alcohol education” module, “It’s the sin that makes you grin.”

Understanding the cultural bases of alcohol laws and policies in the U.S. may not lessen your annoyance, but we hope it will at least help you do what we interculturalists call “shifting frames of reference.” Understanding something doesn’t mean you will end up liking it, but we hope the understanding itself is helpful.

About Jason D. Patent

Jason is the inaugural director of the Center for Intercultural Leadership at International House Berkeley. His career spans the education, business, and non-profit sectors. He has spent over ten years living and working in China and is passionate about helping China and the U.S. to understand each other better. Jason holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from UC Berkeley.
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2 Responses to Welcome to the U.S.: Alcohol

  1. Henk says:

    If the consumption of alcohol is considered a sin, why are so many commercials during the super bowl about alcoholic beverages?

  2. Jason D. Patent says:

    Great question, Henk. Humans are famously inconsistent, and the same goes for cultures. You make an astute observation. And the U.S. American obsession with alcohol goes far beyond commercials: there are high rates of alcoholism in this country, and sadly I have many personal stories about my own loved ones suffering from alcoholism. So, you’re absolutely right that the “sin” narrative is not the only one.

    Still, as I quoted in the blog post, “It’s the sin that makes you grin.” Some people claim that with any taboo there will be a push-and-pull between the culture’s disapproval of something and the desire to do it *because* the culture disapproves. I think that can explain part of this, but not all of it, since in many ways mainstream U.S. American culture *does* approve not only of alcohol consumption but of drunkenness — in other words, I don’t think it’s accurate to claim that drunkenness is really “taboo” in the U.S.

    The tension between alcohol-as-fun and alcohol-as-sin is sometimes explored in the idea of “Saturday night and Sunday morning,” which appears, among other places, in many country and western songs. The idea is that sometimes people go crazy getting drunk on Saturday night and then go to church on Sunday to pray for forgiveness.

    To summarize: just like people, cultures are filled with contradictions and paradoxes, and I thank you for pointing this one out.

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