Drinking at conferences

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 11, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Usually, I'm not slow to give an opinion. However, after reading Ryan Funduk's "Our Culture of Exclusion" (http://ryanfunduk.com/culture-of-exclusion/), and its discussion of binge drinking at conferences, I realize that I don't know nearly enough to venture an opinion -- at least one that is worth reading, anyway. The most I can do is express the suspicion that Funduk might be right.

The reason I can't address the question with any authority is that I spent the first decade of the millennium caring for my sick partner. She could neither travel nor drink for much of that time, so for the most part neither did I. And, since her death, I haven't really resumed either habit.

If anything, I had the vague idea that coffee shops had replaced bars as the place to discuss business. That's probably true to an extent, at least during the day time: I can't remember a single time in the past decade when I've been invited to talk business in a bar, although I have had a few meals in restaurants that sold beer and wine.

Yet even I know that, at night, at a conference, things are different. You have many people traveling and acting like they're on vacation. Many are relatively young, with more money than they've ever had in their life. Some, as Funduk observes, may be caught up with the mystique of being a "brogrammer" (http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-03-01/the-rise-of-the-brogrammer), a kind of post-university frat rat in the IT department, for whom drinking is a part of the workplace culture. Others are older executives, accustomed to the expectations of another era when drinking was the norm.

Under these circumstances, nobody should be surprised that conference attendees party hard. Very few conferences of any size do not have a major party every night, and the fact that corporations sponsor these parties is enough to suggest their popularity.

Nor is it surprising that, in these circumstances, excesses sometimes happen. I remember one conference at which one of the featured speakers, after increasingly drunken and hilarious karaoke, was found stumbling around the parking lot trying to find his car, having forgotten that he hadn't brought it. Later, he disappeared, so thoroughly that he missed his keynote the next morning and had everyone concerned for his well-being.

I have heard of worse. Far worse, up to and including sexual assault. Probably, you have, too. After a while, you can easily start to wonder whether the culture of heavy drinking needs to be changed.

Who's Excluded?

I raise the issue because it is easy to see reasons for being concerned, even if actual crimes are not committed. Basically, if heavy drinking is the norm, some people are likely to feel excluded.

For instance, if you are the sort who starts the day at the gym, or you're simply old, on medication, jet-lagged or a light drinker, you may not want to spend every evening drinking. Yet missing a party could mean that you miss the chance to participate in discussions that later become important.
That leaves you with the choice of missing out or being bored -- and nothing is more boring, believe me, than being the only sober person at the party. You may also have the problem of losing respect for colleagues you see over-indulging and acting like you've never seem them act before.

Some women, too, may feel excluded. A predominantly male group gathered for drinking will almost inevitably make most women feel like outsiders through their jokes and actions -- even if the gathering doesn't eventually end up at a strip club, which at some conferences is rumored to be a tradition.

Other stories, such as those told about the female staff at various parties over the years (http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Stonehenge_OSCON_parties) are more than enough to make women feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. At a time when the community is finally becoming more aware of the need to encourage women's participation, this seems the last result than anyone would want.

But even if you have no problems with an evening of drinking, you still might worry about the impression created. If you are an employer, you might worry about the impression that your employees create while wearing a badge and perhaps a shirt that carries your corporation's name.  You don't have to dig very deeply before you realize that reputations have been made and lost at these parties. You might easily wonder if the tradition of partying is worth the risk.

Any problem here?

Alcoholic parties do, of course, have a long tradition. And perhaps, despite the anecdotal evidence, their abuse and exclusion aren't widespread enough to be much of a concern.

Still, if they need to be reconsidered, that would hardly be the end of the world. One of the charities with which I am involved works closely with First Nations. Because of the concern over higher than usual rates of alcoholism among First Nations people, and the fact that some abstain as a matter of cultural pride, last year we were asked by several elders that the annual reception be dry.

We agreed, and the effect on the reception was imperceptible. People still came, and they still enjoyed themselves. The only difference was they carried coffee or soft drinks instead of beer or wine as they mingled, and the organizers didn't have to worry about getting a license or policing under-age drinking. From this experience, I conclude that you can still put on a good party without serving alcohol.

However, as I said, I'm far from sure that such a change is necessary. I'm sure that some stories of substance abuse grow in the telling, and, if nothing else, people would simply organize their own parties, away from the conference. Still, I'd be interested in seeing if anything happened if one or two conferences decided to go dry.

What do you think? Is conference drinking an empty issue, too exaggerated to worry about? Or are there reasons for some level of concern?

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