Monday, May 24, 2010

Alcohol by Volume

"Alcohol is necessary for a man so that he can have a good opinion of himself, undisturbed by the facts."
~ Finley Peter Dunne

As anyone who knows me will assure you, I am a person who likes a glass of wine...or a gin and tonic...or a gin martini (extremely dry, extremely cold) at least as well as the next person. But I am not a fan of drunkenness and have seen far too many wonderful people brought down by alcohol.

Last October Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker writer and author of books including The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, gave a talk on drinking problems at the annual New Yorker Festival. He had come across some research done by Yale and others several decades ago and found some surprises. The main one, as he noted in a February 15, 2010 New Yorker article, was this: "Drunkenness is not disinhibition. Drunkenness is myopia."

As he explained, "Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background disappear. That's why drinking makes you think you are attractive when the world thinks otherwise: the alcohol removes the little constraining voice from the outside world that normally keeps our self-assessments in check."

During his talk, Gladwell described the role of social norms in controlling drunkenness. The model far too many young Americans follow — getting blotto and, not infrequently, getting into trouble — is not the only option. In other parts of the world, people drink without behaving like imbeciles.

I found myself thinking about that the other night as I walked up Third Avenue in Manhattan. It was a balmy Thursday evening, the kind that leads young women to slip into their slinkiest outfits and highest heels and head wherever the young men they fancy gather. On Third Avenue, that means bars with sidewalk seating. Two things stood out to me: (1) the ritualistic behavior of these mobs of nubile young people peacocking around in their finery; and (2) the deafening volume of their flirtations.

I have yet to step into a crowded tea house or coffee bar where anyone had to yell to be heard. What is it about alcohol that encourages shouting? Perhaps science or Malcolm Gladwell will answer this one day.

"Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic. The second is intimate. The third is routine. After that you take the girl's clothes off."
~ Raymond Chandler

Photo by liber, posted on Flickr Commons.


  1. What is it about alcohol that encourages shouting?

    Maybe a combination of drunken disinhibition and self-importance, and the likelihood of drinking where there's loud music.

    Ireland has a very troubling relationship with drink. Most people grow out of the phase of drinking in order to get as drunk as possible, but too many don't.

  2. Thanks, Stan. It just occurred to me that over-excited hormones may be another contributing factor. Just look at teenage girls, who seem to shriek ever five minutes.

    The majority of my ancestors were from Ireland, and many Irish Americans continue their troubled relationship with drink over here. For some reason, my family has been spared. No one in my immediate family is an alcoholic. We're very, very fortunate.

  3. A friend of mine recently took her doctor's advice and quit drinking. She looks great and says she feels wonderful. The only problem, she says, is that in social settings "the noise level is painful." She says she never noticed it when she was drinking herself.

  4. I can easily imagine that. Alcohol probably dulls one's sense of hearing along with everything else. It takes a little effort to find quiet a place to meet — most bars don't seem to put any thought into sound-proofing. Whenever my friends and I find somewhere comfortable, we end up going there repeatedly.