A couple of months after moving to Athens, Greece, in 2018, I had a realisation: I was always the most drunken person at any social event.
"Hahaha, you were really drunk last night," people would comment when I bumped into them having coffee on Saturday afternoon. I was astounded. I hadn’t been drunk-drunk, just normal-Friday-night-drunk – surely?
It’s true that ever since I was a teenager I’ve been an enthusiastic participant in the great British sport of binge drinking. From Jägerbombs and WKD Blues on sticky student dance floors to prosecco brunches and wine-fuelled dinner parties, my liquids of choice may have changed over the years but the aim remained the same: to get smashed with my best friends.
Back in the UK, no one considered my drinking out of the ordinary. In Greece, however, I was wondering whether I should google The Priory’s inpatient fees.
"Greeks prefer going out seven nights a week and having one drink each time, rather than going out one night and having seven drinks at once," a friend explained to me. I could see all around me that this was true. But the question that was bugging me was: Why? Where did these different drinking cultures stem from?
My friends had a host of different theories, from the idea that British people need alcohol because we are more reserved to the suggestion that colder weather makes us drink more. I decided to put the question to Thomas Thurnell-Read, a lecturer in cultural sociology at Loughborough University who has carried out extensive research into our drinking habits.
"If you want to understand British drinking culture then it’s important to see it as embedded within how our towns and cities developed," he tells me. He explains that our pub and bar sector developed during the industrial revolution, and that most drinking spots – which were concentrated around areas of work – were usually owned by the same handful of breweries. "That created a drive for profits," he continues. "There’s a long history of pubs being designed and products being marketed in a way that encourages rapid drinking."
He gives examples of how pubs reduced their seating after research showed people drink quicker while standing, and the common sight of drinks offers such as doubling your spirit for £1. "A lot of alcopops and ready-to-drink products developed in a way that allowed bars to sell quickly to customers rather than needing to mix endless rounds of Bacardi and Coke,” he adds.
In comparison, bars in Greece feel geared towards slow, steady drinking. You’re served a glass of water and a small snack with your beer or wine and, once you’ve finished, it’s perfectly acceptable to sit at your table for hours afterwards. In the UK, you feel like an intruder if you linger in the pub with an empty glass for too long.
I began to notice just how fast I drank compared to those around me. When sharing a bottle of wine I would often guzzle down my glass then sit awkwardly while everyone else slowly sipped.
Another clichéd but true cultural stereotype is that socialising in the Mediterranean revolves around food. Eating happens later and goes on for hours. It’s difficult to knock back such huge quantities of liquid when you’re munching on Greek salad and sardines at the same time.
"In the UK, the first time people drink, there’s the cliché of it being cider or alcopops with friends in the park," says Thomas. "Maybe because [in the Mediterranean] they see wine associated with sociable family occasions, it becomes less of an illicit substance. In the UK it’s still something you do if you want to be seen as fun and part of the crowd."
Thinking about my relationship with alcohol growing up, I realised it was never really about the drinking itself. It was about the social bonding that the drinking facilitated. It’s no surprise that the pub is one of the few places in the UK where it’s completely normal to strike up conversations with strangers (try doing that on the Tube). When Greeks get to know each other, they go for coffee and maybe meze. In the UK we go to the pub and buy each other drinks.
This brings me to another major difference in drinking habits: the ritual of buying rounds. In British pubs, where there’s no table service, rounds are practical as well as sociable. But we all know that once you’re in, there’s no ducking out. Buying just my own drink felt so cold and unfriendly at first, but it’s actually been the number one thing that cut down my drinking (and my hangovers).
As the months went by I learned to sip a bit slower. I also learned that once you finish your glass, you don’t have to order another one immediately. I still drink fast compared to the average Greek, but thankfully no longer three times as fast.
That is, until I returned home and headed to the pub with my British friends. As we took it in turn to get our rounds in, everyone commented on how slowly I was drinking. So I sped up because I didn’t want to be the only sober one.
Ultimately, our drinking habits are dictated by the norms around us. In the UK I got drunk because it was what everyone did. In Greece, I tried to drink less because I wanted to fit in better – not because I no longer liked getting drunk. The reasons behind different cultural drinking habits may be complex, but one thing’s for sure: they’re hard to escape.
If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s drinking, please contact Drinkline on 0300 123 1110.