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Beer and Startups: The Alcohol Culture of the Tech World

I don't drink.  I mean, I consume liquid, but all of those liquids are non-alcoholic.  

I'm not Mormon.

Nor am I an alcoholic.

I have no real moral issue with reasonable amounts of drinking--and actually quite envy wine enthusiasts.  It seems like a neat and interesting hobby.  I just really don't like the taste.  Otherwise, I probably would drink wine.  The taste of alcohol, to me, is akin to what kids think of cough syrup.  

On top of that, there are lots of aspects of my life that reinforce the not drinking thing.  I'm a bike commuter, so I'm essentially always driving, and I wouldn't trade one drink for one half second of taxi door reaction time.  

I do, however, spend lots of time in situations where alcohol is consumed.  I play lots of team sports and go to a lot of tech networking events.  In fact, I do a lot of networking in general.  

When I was in my 20's, it was a little bit more of an awkward issue, maybe even more so than in college.  In college, you could be out at a bar and everyone was too drunk to notice whether you were drinking or not.  In your 20's, you're in slightly smaller groups, and so it's more obvious.  Dating presented an issue... because if I wasn't having a glass of wine, was I being judgy?  Was I an alcoholic?  

Over the years, I've come up with a ton of little ways to duck the issue.  People will ask me if I want to have a drink for professional purposes, and I'm always turning it into breakfast or lunch.  Someone will come up to me at an event and put a beer in my hand.  I'll thank them and then eventually regift it to someone else.  It's never really been a big deal.

What is interesting to me, though, is that in the conversation around gender and tech, that alcohol doesn't come up more often.  It's a huge factor in problematic situations, but we tend to look at alcohol as some kind of sacred cow--where seriously discussing whether or not it should be part of our environment isn't really ever on the table.  

That's why I found Jeff Atwood's "What Can Men Do?" so interesting.  This is the first time I've really seen such a bold stance taken on it:

 

"I think it is very, very unwise for companies to have a culture associated with drinking and the lowered inhibitions that come with drinking. I've heard some terrifyingly awful stories that I don't even want to link to here. Men, plus women, plus alcohol is a great recipe for college. That's about all I remember from college, in fact. But as a safe work environment for women? Not so much.
If you want to drink, be my guest. Drink. You're a grown up. I'm not the boss of you. But don't drink in a situation or event that is officially connected with work in any way. That should absolutely be your personal and company policy – no exceptions."

It's really hard to argue against his logic with anything other than the lack of alcohol making things "less fun".  It does, however, highly correlate with bad decisions.  I know of a partner at a VC firm who literally needed to sit a founder down and have a discussion about the reputation they were building around their "epic" happy hours.  While it may have made that founder seem fun to their summer interns, it certainly wasn't scoring any points with potential experienced talent that might want to work for the company.

Even if it's not that extreme, perhaps alcohol just isn't so fun for everyone.  I recently spoke to someone who was the first hire over thirty at a startup.  He told me that one of the things he was told was that on Friday afternoons, they play drinking games.  He told me the last time he played a drinking game was probably ten years ago and he'd rather forget that experience, but not partaking made him feel like he didn't fit into the company's "culture".  

It's true.  If you don't want to drink, you aren't exactly made to feel like you fit in.  I can't tell you how many bottles of wine I've been handed as a judge or speaker for things--which is weird to me in itself, because I feel like that's part of my job.  If you knew I was an alcoholic, would you still send me one?  I'm not, but I could be if you don't ask whether or not I drink.  The assumption is just made.  It's fine for me.  I just regift, but it's all part of the death by a thousand cuts.

A lot of people think that unless you have a big sign on the front door that says "No women!" or "No one over 30!" or "No black people!" that means your environment is welcoming--especially if you say it is.  However, they never stop to examine all of the subtle little ways in which people are made to feel like they aren't part of the norm.

For companies, I think if you're serious about building a welcoming, diverse environment, you need to think seriously about what the presense of alcohol means and its effects on a situation.  Should companies outright ban alcohol in the office or at work events?  If it's not at least on the table for you to consider, then you're not taking this stuff seriously enough.  

For individuals, I suggest that whatever decisions you make about how you spend your time and what activities you partake in, you should be very conscious and deliberate about your choices.  Don't just drink because everyone else is having one--and keep in mind the increased potential for bad decisions, things that shouldn't have been said, or awkward/uncomfortable situations around your personal life.  From what I've experienced, if you're confident in yourself and you own your actions, good things can happen.  It's not an accident that my circle of tech friends tends to be more health conscious, sporty, and the type of folks who generally don't regret or forget the night before--and instead can be found cycling at 7am on a weekend.

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