Belfast Telegraph

If you want to know what a man feels deep down, first get him to swap his lager for a latte

Cafe culture could offer an alternative to men's abusive relationship with the demon drink, writes Gail Walker

Now we are once more in the aftermath of the annual Holyland disorder, coinciding with university holidays and the feast of Ireland's patron saint - the one who drove all sober people into the sea - it may or may not come as a surprise to discover that, according to research by the University of Pittsburgh, men need alcohol in social situations to "open up".

Dr Michael Sayette says that "men are more likely to 'catch' smiles from each other after drinking, reducing the awkwardness among a group of them".

"Alcohol especially seems to facilitate smiling in men. They need it more than women, who experience more similar bonding effects when they are sober."

Yes, I can hear you going "awwww, diddums" from here.

The study of 720 people of both sexes found that alcohol makes people like each other more, cuts down on the awkward silences and helps bonding. But it was especially beneficial for men.

Before we file this latest research under "Obvious, Bleedin'', we should perhaps pause for thought.

What has us so screwed up - men and women, but men more obviously - that we can't even smile at each other without being half-cut; so twisted that the idea of "opening up" is inconceivable without alcohol juicing our social instincts.

Maybe it's not in our genes or whatever. Maybe it is because we've been trained like Pavlov's dogs to equate booze with a kind of honesty, a kind of happiness, a kind of freedom.

We speak with semi-admiration of so and so being "off the leash", "on the lash", "out of his tree", full, stoned and stocious. There is a cute machismo about drinking - even though it leads to deaths on the roads, breaks up families and results in lives lost to addiction.

Correspondingly, we despise those who don't drink. They are killjoys, not-to-be-trusted, spies and probably hypocritical puritans and preachy moralisers, telling others how to live without even having to speak.

This is truer in Northern Ireland than most places. Here, drink is seen as the prime - if not the sole - oiler of the social wheels.

But it could be argued that we ourselves show just how facile is the idea that boozing is proper socialising. On the contrary, we show just how self-defeating the booze culture is.

Oh yes, we certainly drink a lot and mix a lot, we smiley, happy people - but we are also among the most introverted and most emotionally constipated societies in the Western world.

If we followed the logic of the Pittsburgh survey, we should be one of the most touchy-feely, emotion-sharing people on the face of the planet. Correct me if I'm wrong, but somehow I can't help thinking we're not.

Maybe we should ask ourselves what kind of emotion, what kind of empathy, what kind of sociability is set off by the ingestion of a poison, a depressant and mind-altering substance?

Why do we equate the inane friendliness based in booze as grounded in integrity, in reality? The slobbering drunk putting his arm around the shoulder of the man next to him and saying "you're my mate, you are" is not the essence of friendship, companionship and emotional expression. It is rather the antithesis. It is a mock - and mocking - idea of a relationship.

Surely we should be looking to allow people to be what they are - not, by definition, what they are not?

Also, isn't the idea that men are essentially emotional cripples who need artificial crutches to get on with their own lives, that men are big sulky children incapable of expressing their feelings for fear of losing face, something that we need to combat, not encourage?

Look at TV advertising - men are always portrayed as infantile fools, trapped and undone by their own masculinity. True, Mag Lad culture may be in decline, but it is still there, passing off patheticness - whether thinly disguised misogyny or a blind refusal to grow up - as a lifestyle choice and a sign of having a sense of humour.

If men are constantly portrayed as uptight, emotionally-repressed, hapless and helpless sorts who only feel at home in pubs or pottering around in a shed or garage, is it any wonder they begin to believe it and act accordingly - because that's what being a man is.

Except of course, it isn't.

Men are three times as likely as women to take their own lives. Which seems to indicate that whatever is wrong, the lads/pub/booze culture isn't helping.

Of course, it does help the economy. We may have gotten rid of tobacco advertising, but just look at the nonsense around both alcohol and gambling advertising! Imagine if we were promoting cigarettes with "smoke sensibly", "stop smoking when the fun stops", or still using celebrities like David Beckham to flog spanking new packets of tabs.

Imagine the absurdity of "remember to stop smoking when you've had enough - stop giving us your money". As if anyone would believe that nonsense, because the manufacturers would be banking on addiction precisely to keep people smoking.

Yet that's what adverts on TV for online gambling and booze are doing right now. There is something a bit off about surveys which support stereotypes. Maybe we need to offer men other outlets to socialise and not be labelled as a metrosexual or - worse - a hipster.

Perhaps our growing cafe society points the way. There you have men chatting amicably to men, men to women, women to women, groups, people having a solo coffee, people engaging with each other, others hunched over their laptops.

Isn't there something more honest, less hysterical, less threatening here than the pumped-up slobber and machismo of our pub culture? Sadly, the vast majority of those in our cafes are young. But maybe cafe culture can be a bridge ahead to a healthier social life.

Would our male friends, relations and colleagues not benefit from a broader media view of what it is to be a "man"? How about presenting men as fathers, homemakers, carers, workers, readers, at concerts and in the cinemas, people at ease with themselves and with those around them - not always the stunted parodies of manhood forever breaking into a childlike squeal, shouting at football, cashing out their bets with 10 minutes of the match still to play, vomiting in the gutters, zapping tiny armies on their mobile phones, flying head-first through windscreens?

To peddle versions that "real" men do this, that or the other, is just as demeaning as all those "real" women untruths we have long been aware of and fighting against. We need to acknowledge that - in our media and in our individual "expectations" - men need a little bit of liberation also.

It might just save a lot of lives - theirs and ours.

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