The Perils of Giving Up Alcohol in Norway

Norway is not very difficult for English immigrants to adapt to. If an English person struggles to integrate here, then they should basically just accept that they should stay in the UK forever. If the culture shock were measured on the Richter Scale, then moving to Norway is roughly equivalent to an elephant fart. Everyone can speak your language, the weather is similar, and importantly the weekend drinking culture is more or less identical. Heck, Norway has even imported Saturday night Turkish kebab culture in the same way the UK has.

Drinking,  like in the UK, is key to making friends in Norway. Yes you can go for coffee with someone, but unlike in America – or at least what I understand from watching Friends – nobody spends a serious amount of time in coffee shops in groups or even twos. It would be fundamentally weird for me to invite a new potential male friend to go for coffee or tea, even more so a Coca Cola. Let’s try to imagine it:

Me: Hey Stein (new potential friend) – lets grab some some soft drinks on Friday? Whaddya say?
Stein: Errr – (looks down) errrr (frowns) errr okay… there is my bus (Stein hurries off to the bus).

See, it wouldn’t work. That’s why there are no coffee shops open after 7pm. Meeting for coffee is a fundamentally short activity; it is universally accepted that you stay for just one coffee.  The words “I’ll get the next one” or “one for the road” or “this is my round” could never be uttered in a coffee shop.  While this provides a helpful time limit on the institution of meeting for coffee in the afternoon, it also ensures that one never cements a friendship over coffee. Maybe children make friends over several Sprites, but not civilised adults. At least in Norway and the UK, for that you have the pub.

The pub, a party, or a club – these are the fixed locations for friendship formation. A drink is essential. Socialising and drinking are so intertwined in British and Norwegian culture they are virtually inseparable. It is the only time you are likely to spend hours at one time talking to the same group of people. Remove the drink from the person and it doesn’t make sense anymore. The idea of sitting in a bar without a drink and talking to your friends is ludicrous. Hence why folk will nurse their drink for hours, or go home if they don’t have any more money for drinks. Somebody who doesn’t drink is viewed with suspicion and in some ways rightly so.

Getting to know someone properly involves getting to know what they are really like. If someone is sober and determined to stay that way, then it implies that they are hiding something. Perhaps they don’t want to drink because it will loosen their tongue and they will let say something racist or misogynistic, or kill a small animal for fun. Furthermore, drunkenness lets down your social guard, makes you more open, more forward and thus more capable of making a fundamental connection with whom you are talking to (provided of course they are equally drunk). It is commonly said in the UK that you never really know someone until you have been shitfaced together. If you can vomit on each other’s shoes then that helps too.  I don’t consider this necessarily a problem, I consider it as just a feature of the culture. A culture I am comfortable, and happy to be a part.

Nonetheless, I have recently given up drinking for a while, for a number of reasons, none of which I will bore you with now. However, I will say that none of them come under any of the headings that people assume if you tell them you aren’t drinking:  A. I am not an alcoholic, B. I am not driving, C. My liver is –  to my knowledge –not about to explode, D. I am not pregnant.

It has however, presented me with considerable social difficulties that I have rarely seen discussed in print.

There are no good credible alternatives to drinking alcohol in bars. If you order an orange juice, you are making a statement. It’s like you are rubbing in everyone’s face that you are taking the healthy option and implicitly looking down your nose at everyone else who is drinking. If you drink fizzy drinks you give the impression of having the taste buds of a child, and people will sit waiting for you to offer around some Haribo.  All of these things draw attention to your non-drinking behaviour.

Regardless of your reasons, non-drinking marks you out. It will be the focus of the conversation, people will congratulate your actions, declare that they wish they  could do what you have done and then slowly edge away from you.  I don’t blame them, non-drinkers are famously sanctimonious, remember everything you do (and love to remind you of it the next day), are often preachy about the virtues of not drinking, and are often very boring.

A good but imperfect way of getting around this is how you explain your non-drinking. Instead of saying “I have given up drinking” – which implies your virtue, state it in language that implies you are still on their side of the fence. “I am having a white month” – is something that every drinker has considered at some point.  Not only does it not imply righteousness, but it implies that the month before was especially unrighteous.  Drinkers can relate to the concept, the assumed motivation, and it therefore seems less sociopathic.  Regardless though, both people are aware that over the course of the night the drinker will progressively be losing control while the sober person won’t. This is naturally unsettling.

Ideally one would like to avoid the conversation altogether. This is where non-alcoholic beer should be the answer. It would be easy at this point to criticise the taste, maybe compare it to ditchwater or bleach or something. But actually if I shut my eyes and concentrate I can just about get a placebo relaxation effect, similar to the effect that I get from drinking (although after about three or four beers your body realises it’s been tricked and starts to feel a bit sick and empty, like it is irritated at your deceit).

But that assumes that you can order an alcohol-free beer without your drinking friend noticing.  Norway should be commended for making it a legal requirement for bars to serve non-alcoholic beer. However, if they want to help people avoid the social stigma of not drinking, they should ensure that it can be sold in the quantities of regular beer. The two main alcohol-free beers in Norway, Munkholm and Clausthauler, only come in pathetic snitt sized glasses.  Automatically drawing attention to your drinking habits, trapping you in the same conversation outlined above. Moreover, in a weird financial kick in the face, despite the cheapness of alcohol-free beers in the supermarket and the massive taxes on actual alcohol, alcohol-free beers in a bar are actually more expensive per millilitre than real beer in Norway.

Even If you can get away with drinking non-alcoholic drinks without anyone noticing, then there remain ethical dilemmas.  I recently went to a party and drank alcohol-free wine. Nobody noticed and I didn’t have to explain my drinking habits, moreover I met several new people who were drinking, whom I had long conversations with and who I will likely stay in touch with. However, I am pretty sure that these people assumed I was drinking like them. When in fact I was kind of deceiving them. Basically, I was a guy drinking fake wine, while everyone else got drunk around me. There is a word for that – creepy. If I were on a date, it would be kind of rapey.

Luckily, I am only giving up drinking temporarily. But my experience at the moment has opened my eyes to the  social perils of alcohol-free life. I will probably still avoid non-drinkers if I can though.

Follow at your leisure on Twitter @beaumontpaul, for more occasional sober insights. 


About Paul David Beaumont

Occasional journalist, part-time socialist & full time International Relations PhD student. Available for hire - but never in the morning. Academia page:
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10 Responses to The Perils of Giving Up Alcohol in Norway

  1. Actually, I think most people don’t give a shit if you’re not drinking. It says a lot more about you that you felt the need to give it up, that you see it as such a massive deal, and that you feel able to write a thousand words about it but don’t feel it’s relevant to “bore us” with why you’re doing it in the first place. It paints a woeful image of your approach to social interaction that you spend time thinking about how to make friends with people without being open about what you believe in. Nothing gets on my tits more than people that think they believe in something but can’t be bothered to risk the wrath of society and so try to keep their belief secret. If you don’t want to drink, then don’t drink, but, if it’s worth doing, then you should at least have the balls to rub it in people’s faces, which, I guess ironically, is what this article does. I don’t even know what to think anymore.

    • You have missed the point Cagedbrain :). I can’t tell people why I gave up drinking because I would fall into the trap of being patronising and righteous. Also, people’s prejudice against non drinkers are not necessarily conscious. as much as one would not like to mind, you can’t escape the growing divide intoxication puts between you and the other. It is inescapable. The most commonly voiced and widely understood problem this creates is how annoying it is to be around drunk people when you’re sober, but it works in the inverse as well, even if it is rarely expressed. Amongst good/old existing friends this is not a huge problem, but the focus here is on friendship formation, in which case this gap is harder to bridge.

      “I think most people don’t give a shit if you’re not drinking” – They may say they don’t and that it does’t matter n’t I think you are delusional if you think it doesn’t make a huge difference to your pattern of interaction with someone you meet; from the activities you suggest, to the topic and direction of your conversation and thus to your chances of friendship/the type of friendship you have.

      • Yes, it is true that I have trouble escaping the inescapable divide, but I don’t think I have missed the point though. The problem is not that people will think you are being “patronising and righteous” but rather that you think that most people will think that. I totally don’t buy the argument that the way people perceive of non-drinker is somehow “unconscious”. It’s very much an open social/cultural question; you can either be comfortable with a non-drinker or not. Blaming it on some vague notion of unconscious prejudice just makes you an apologist for the socially inept, for people who are unable to form meaningful relationships without first getting pissed and for the sort of mob-mentality that prevents people from being comfortable with being different.

        PS I love your rhetoric:

        “I think you are delusional if you think it doesn’t make a huge difference to your pattern of interaction with someone you meet”

        Mr argument was never “alcohol doesn’t affect your behaviour”. You manage to slide in calling me delusional for something I’ve never said. You should go into politics.

  2. Jimbo says:

    This Braincage guy…I don’t like him.

  3. Enzo says:

    As a non-drinker (for boring reasons) I agree. I don’t drink, therefore my social interactionsa re greatly reduced. Fortunately, I am not boring, and mot people will assume I was completely drunk despite not having had a drop of alcohol.

    Now that I think about it, that’s probably not a good thing.

  4. TheSumerian says:

    Thank you for writing what we’re all drinking.

  5. Kari Lovise says:

    I love your writing, has done since I first read it in Tuntreet. (Samfunnet is one of the few places alcoholfree beer is cheaper pr/l btw)
    As a sober person at Samfunnet, I’m agreeing with Enzo, it’s all about behaviour. Of course, those I know well, know I’m not drinking, but for others I might seem as drunk as the next student. (they tried to throw me out once, my zombie walk was too alike drunken walk). Of course, in the span of a conversation they figure it out, specially since I drink coke, not beer. With or without alcohol, I still don’t like it.

  6. Hilarie says:

    It’s true what you write. I am married to a Norwegian (we live in the U.S.) and for the first several years we were always drunk while in Norway. I remember the first time I was there in the summer and we stumbled out of a bar after 2 a.m. and looking up at the sun on the horizon I felt like things were just completely fucked up and wrong, or being in a hotel and directing my naked husband back to his bed because out of confusion he was wandering the hall outside our room looking for a place to take a piss. Now, our trips to Norway mostly consist of hiking, biking, and things of a “healthy” sort of nature. I still find it very hard to go out in Norway and not be hammered for some reason. Enjoy the sobriety this month (or maybe you’re already done with that). If nothing else, at least it’s given you a different perspective for a while. I like your writing.

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