Image Credit - Dora Dziki

Sober students in sunny Glasgow

By Jessica Northridge

How we’ve created an exclusive culture around drinking

I spent my entire freshers week stone-cold sober. I didn’t feel like drinking. I wouldn’t call myself a sober student, but I’m not a big drinker. I enjoy a gin and tonic on the sofa with some friends, but you won’t catch me doing shots in a club anytime soon. I like drinking alcohol when I like the alcohol and I like the company, not just to get drunk. But this perspective has often felt like something to be ashamed of. On my first night out in freshers’ week, I went to the bar and asked for a coke. The woman at the bar looked at me for a second and said, “Just a coke?” It wasn’t said to be judgemental, but in three small words, she encapsulated the problem with our society’s drinking culture. This is exactly the kind of reaction you get if you tell people you aren’t drinking. 

It’s never meant with ill intent, but the core thread that runs through these experiences is the message that if you don’t drink, it’s outside the norm, and so you need an explanation. There are a few explanations considered acceptable, religious or medical factors, etc , but for a lot of people, “it’s just not my thing” or “I don’t like getting drunk” isn’t good enough. Naturally, this creates a sense of embarrassment around not drinking, which can lead us to feel we need to either conform to drinking culture, or hide that we don’t.

Drinking has become such a hallmark of student life, of having fun, that I worry about being judged, or called boring, just because I don’t drink a lot. Even when people are accepting of it, the odd-one-out feeling of being the only person not getting drunk during a drinking game is hard to ignore. Often, when I go out, I don’t even tell people that I’m not drinking unless they’re my friends. I disappear to the bar and reappear with a soft drink, and people assume it’s alcoholic. If someone asks what I’m drinking, I’d rather lie and tell them there’s rum in my coke, than have them go quiet and confused, or judge me as boring. In our culture, fun is attached to alcohol by a thin titanium chain.  

But, a completely sober student has a largely different experience to a semi-sober student like myself, and may not feel comfortable pretending to drink. One sober student told The Glasgow Guardian, that they feel disconnected from a huge part of student life just because they prefer not to drink. They go clubbing, but don’t go to bars with friends, and like me, just order a soft drink. 

Similarly, they are accustomed to the inquisitive look this can elicit from bar staff, and the inevitable, “Is that all?”. Most of their socializing in freshers’ week revolved around going out with friends to eat and explore, and going to society events when they felt they could. Some sober societies, like religious groups, host grub crawls (like a pub crawl but with food).

 “Overall, I did really enjoy it! …I do have really fond memories of freshers’, but the first day or two were hard,” they reflected. The difficulties for sober students continue outside of freshers’ weeks. “Sometimes I feel like drinking culture is like, you get together just to drink, rather than spending time together and also drinking.” We see this mentality in university socials which often revolve around pub crawls, drinking games and club nights. Shouldn’t the main event of a social be the socialising, rather than the alcohol? “At the end of the day you are naturally left out,” they concluded. We seem to have arranged our social calendar so completely around drinking spaces and drinking events, that there’s an impenetrable barrier keeping sober students always slightly excluded.

Another student, who also chooses to be semi-sober, recounted a story from a night at Bongo’s Bingo, where she met some friends. Towards the end of the night, it came out that she was sober. Her friends looked at her, shocked, “You’ve been sober this whole time? If I was sober right now, I would not be having fun.” When I heard this story over coffee last week, I couldn’t help but remember the character of Fun Bobby from the TV show Friends, and how he was known to be such a riot, until the friends realised he had a drinking problem and encouraged him into sobriety. As soon as they did, Fun Bobby quickly became the most boring person in the whole show. In my opinion it’s a bad symptom of our drinking culture that so many people see alcohol as the only way they have to enjoy themselves on a night out.

This narrative that we need alcohol to have or be fun is in dire need of challenging. I had a lot of fun that first night in my freshers’ week without a drop of alcohol. Being a sober student can mean feeling slightly removed from university social life, but it doesn’t have to. We have the power to change that reality for every sober student we meet. It starts with being accepting of sober students. When someone orders just a coke, don’t comment or gawk. Who knows, it might be for a personal reason they’d rather not discuss. And beyond that, we need to be embracing sober students. We need to be more willing to incorporate sober socials into our societies where we normally might not. There are some clubs which have a minimum requirement of two sober socials per semester, but perhaps there should be more like one or two per month. There’s definitely more sober students around these days, and I’m willing to bet there’s a lot more than you’d think.


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