i dream of being possible

on networking at conferences and a culture of drinking

When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I didn’t drink.1 I didn’t really see the point and it was expensive. Part of it was cultural/environmental since neither my mom or dad drank all that much. My dad maybe would have a beer or two every so often at a family gathering but not often since he always had to drive us home. He didn’t keep alcohol around the house. And for things like celebrations and holidays, some of my titos and titas would drink but it was never an integral part of the celebration, this was really only something I saw on TV or in movies (and I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of TV when I was young).

So when I turned eighteen, I got a tattoo instead of getting drunk (although I did go to a bar and have a few drinks). I had a slow start for a few other reasons (I don’t like wine and I’m allergic to beer, which is what most people I knew where drinking). Either way, it just wasn’t something I did often. I did go to bars and clubs, but just didn’t drink.

I bring all of this up because as any person who has done this type of socializing but isn’t drinking (whatever the motivation) knows, this is something that apparently perturbs a great deal of people. Not drinking at a party is tantamount to going around and kicking puppies. Not only are you no fun, but you apparently suck the fun out of everyone else. Or so the incredible amount of peer pressure people put on you makes it seem.

Fast forward a few more years and, yes, I’m now drinking socially but still not very frequently. But I start going to conferences and attempting to do that kind of professional style networking. My first few conferences, I really missed out on opportunities to meet and talk with people because I didn’t realize that networking primarily occurs in bars or restaurants. With drinking.2

The thing is, though, is that very few of the social events I’ve seen (actully, make that none) advertised or organized at conferences have been dry events. Or even simply events whose primary focus doesn’t appear to be drinking in some way or shape.

And I want to make it very clear: this is a problem. Especially for tech-focused events.

It is a well known fact that tech is largely comprised of white men. Do you know what group of people I find most terrifying? Groups of drunk white men. Before anyone starts wagging their finger at me for this, avoiding groups of drunk white men has become a survival mechanism for me. Because after high school ended (and thus leaving behind grade school bullies) a substantive portion of my experiences of homophobia, transmisogyny, threats of assault, threats of sexual assault, sexual harassment, racism, etc., has been from groups of drunk white men.

But this is only one reason to consider including sober/dry events as part of your conference/social/networking planning. Because even if the above wasn’t true, I can’t express how tiresome it becomes for people to constantly be asking if you are drinking or if you want a drink or why you aren’t drinking and so on.

And there are many reasons that people don’t drink: some are recovering alcoholics, some do it for religious/moral reasons, some do it for health reasons, some do it because they just don’t like it, and so on.

The exact reason doesn’t particularly matter, what matters is that this creates a significant barrier for inclusion of a diverse group of people in these activities. I cannot be the only person who notices that during the conference sessions you see a bunch people that disappear as soon as the sun sets. Of course, there are also many reasons for this, but does anyone know what percentage of people are simply not participating in social/networking events because the presence of alcohol makes the space inaccessible to them (or even just the places where alcohol is usually served likewise serves as a barrier)?

And making this useful doesn’t just mean planning some dry events where only the people abstaining attend because that really doesn’t accomplish much if (for example) all the ‘big name’ people are off somewhere else because dry events are boring. Or even if someone you had a brief talk with earlier that day and who you’d like a chance to make a more solid connection with, won’t think about attending a dry event. Most conferences occur over several days and it ought not to be too much to ask to have one night/event be dry with the understanding that people who regularly drink might actually hang out with the sober crowd.3

  1. Note for American readers, in my home province of Alberta, I was able to legally drink from 18+. 

  2. Yes, I realize that some networking and socializing happens during session breaks and morning/noon meals depending on a few factors, but this only provides you – at best – an hour to actually meet and talk with people vs. the couple hours (or more) you get if you attend one of the evening social activities. 

  3. And, heck, this might not even be necessary if people weren’t so adamant about pressuring non-drinkers to drink. Which, if you take away nothing else from this post, if you are one of the people who thinks that everyone ought to be drinking if you are, please stop. If someone refuses a drink or isn’t drinking, don’t ask why. Don’t try to cajole them into having one. Just respect their decision and leave it alone (which means don’t ask again in an hour).