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I am a graduate student, and because of the department's projects, partnerships with other institutions, and conferences, I am often out of office with the senior staff (supervisor, department head, other senior researchers and management, etc.).

After the work (e.g. meetings, presentations), it is often the case to attend social events (e.g. conference dinner or reception), or simply spend the free time with my colleagues (e.g. dinner in a hotel or somewhere out). During such events, which I consider also as partially work but not that official, people drink alcoholic beverages. Since I am often the only graduate student and the youngest person in the group (and usually the difference to the next person in age is >15 years), I am worried that in my case it might not be acceptable to drink and that it may project a bad image about myself. So I am wondering whether to always abstain in such occasions.

Of course this is not about getting drunk, it is about a glass of wine or two along a meal.

This also includes flights. When flying I always have a beer or glass of wine to fall asleep easily and to mitigate my fear of flying, but sometimes I am seated close to my supervisor or colleague.

I am not sure about the customs in academia, so I am asking: is it acceptable to drink alcoholic beverages in front of senior staff? (Again, to a limited extent.)

I could have asked in the Workplace SE, but I think that academia has a different etiquette.

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Yes. It is acceptable. It doesn't matter what your age is or what is your position compared to others. I'm in Europe. –  mmh Jun 16 at 21:11
Acceptable to drink, yes... Acceptable to get anywhere near drunk, most definitely not. –  Sam Jun 16 at 22:53
This has to depend hugely on where you are. The question would be enhanced if you confirm that you are in the US - I can't imagine a Brit or Australian even asking this question. In some departments, a grad student who did not avail themselves of free drinks might be seen as a bit odd ... –  Keith Jun 17 at 3:47
@Keith I agree that it depends hugely, but disagree that the question should be revised. The question would be better if it was useful to everyone, and not just to those who happen to be in the same country as OP. I tried to write a generally applicable response in my answer. –  Superbest Jun 17 at 5:03
If you're in engineering, it is practically a requirement, and that spills over (pardon the pun) into computer science. –  Kaz Jun 18 at 0:41
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9 Answers 9

up vote 36 down vote accepted

There will be people with strong feelings about what is acceptable regarding drinking, and it is impossible to satisfy them all. (I have heard reports of senior faculty expressing disapproval of a postdocs choice to only have two beers.)

When it comes to more institutional acceptance, the situation will vary. For example, when I came to Cambridge,UK, as a PhD student, there was a Wine & Cheese event to get to know the faculty members of the college. So drinking in front of them was not merely tolerated, but actively encouraged.

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Putting ice in good whiskey is universally unacceptable, but I think the answer may depend on which country you are in. If you are 20 in the USA, then no. Otherwise, you are an adult and you decide.

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+1 for not overthinking it. –  Davidmh Jun 17 at 8:06
+1 for the truth about ice in good whiskey –  Jack Aidley Jun 18 at 8:32
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The safest rule is "do what others do." (But no more, and possibly less than, what they do.)

If everyone drinks, and you don't, that might be taken badly, as someone else pointed out. And if you drink and no one else does, that might be worse.

When I was younger, my rule was to drink if others did, but to have one or two less. If any one calls you on it, you can point to your "juniority." Otherwise, you're just "fitting in" without going overboard.

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I might be inclined to believe(maybe not rationally) that someone who won't drink is an alcoholic. –  Cruncher Jun 17 at 14:19
@Cruncher: You're partly right. One person I know who doesn't drink is a REFORMED alcoholic. As for me, I drink but "sparingly." –  Tom Au Jun 17 at 14:25
'If everyone drinks, and you don't, that might be taken badly' I doubt it. –  Jigg Jun 17 at 15:07
@Cruncher: That's a pretty serious leap. There are lots of reasons a person might choose not to drink, many of them are totally innocuous, and none of them are really anyone else's business. –  Nate Eldredge Jun 17 at 17:51
@Jigg Especially in Japan it might be considered very rude if you do not join your superiors for drinks - it is very much expected. (If you do not want to drink come by car, that is actually an acceptable reason.) –  Martin Jun 18 at 5:59
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This depends not only on where you are, but what group you are in and what people in particular you are speaking about.

I have met both "senior staff" who get so drunk that they wouldn't remember whether you were even present, and I've known those who would probably disapprove of an undergrad having a glass of wine. The majority fall somewhere in between.

At the end of the day, it is quite hard to tell. For instance, a very religious person may be against alcohol consumption. Or a person from a culture where deference from juniors is expected may consider drinking when with a senior disrespectful. On the other hand, people who grew up in a culture where drinking is a frequent pastime will have no issue with it (and may even be surprised if you don't participate).

The division is not even a matter of what country the person is from, because even within a given country there is a spectrum of attitudes which varies by what social circle a person interacts with. With the diversity of backgrounds you get in academia, any specific answer you get here is likely to be incorrect.

As Tom Au suggests, your best bet is to do what others do. Especially convenient is if there is someone else of similar status to you, then you know whatever they do is very likely not improper for you.

If you are really unsure (or if you are the only junior member, or if you are new...), you can make a mental list of all the people present who you would not wish to embarrass yourself to. Keep an eye on how much they drink, and make sure to drink slightly less than whichever of these persons drinks the least. It's quite unlikely that they will disapprove of something they themselves do. Of course, if one of them happens to not drink anything at all, that means you shouldn't also, but on the flip side, in that case it's probably safer not to drink in the first place until you have a better idea of what everyone's attitude is.

Contrary to what others said, I doubt anyone will take issue if you drink too little. As I said, it is common to have people from very different backgrounds and cultures in academia, some of which do not drink at all. It is generally considered impolite to make assumptions on such things, so few would risk seeming insensitive by encouraging someone they don't know well to drink. The exception is if you know the other people well, or if you both come from very similar backgrounds so you know with certainty what your attitudes would be. But in that case, you can probably decide better yourself what is appropriate and what is not.

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If the senior people are drinking too, there's no question that it's appropriate for you to. If you're at an event where drinks are provided, but the senior people aren't drinking then it should be fine for you to have a little to drink, unless you believe that they disapprove of drinking. And being on a plane is an event where drinks are provided, for the context of this answer. :-)

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not quite true. I've worked in companies where some facilities were implicitly for senior management only, nobody else was supposed to go there without an explicit invitation. And that included the drinks cabinet at all-staff meetings, the pool table, and any facilities on the floor housing the boardroom (despite there being no locks or signs anywhere explicitly stating so, we were not supposed to be there without very good reason)... –  jwenting Jun 20 at 6:31
@jwenting This is Academia, not The Workplace. I have never heard of anything like the situation you describe occurring in academia. There are plenty of events where only people of a certain status are invited. However, everybody who is invited to any particular event is treated equally. –  David Richerby Jun 20 at 12:23
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It is in situations like this where a shandy/rattler/spritzer comes into it's own. You're still having a drink, but it's a sociably acceptable way to water it down. It saves you from having to turn down a drink, and makes it very unlikely you'll get too drunk.

Mostly though, you seem to be feeling forced into one situation or another. I would wager that asserting your own opinion as to what is acceptable for yourself will get you more respect in the long term.

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Isn't part of the point of working in Academia to forward the thinking of the age and challenge predetermined constructs? Whilst the question relates to being judged by others would it not also be appropriate to question the regard for those who would judge, and thus the value of regard for their judgement? To determine your own opinion to be higher than that of another is in my mind not a good methodology starting point unless you have an evidence base to back it up, and therefore should be challenged as a premise. To not question this leads to a lack of development in the area of society most in charge of development, with a hierarchy system of regard no better than that of the private corporation.

And if you can say all that without slurring any of it you've managed to avoid drinking too much!

In my mind it's a case of "do what you like". If what you like is to fit in, then fit in. Just don't be surprised if some people realise that this is what you did. I would however stress against the getting very drunk, or indeed being one of the heavier/faster drinkers, unless you don't mind the labelling that comes with this.

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When people serve something and you turn it down, you make them feel bad. So unless your mood turns foul or you become aggressive when drinking beer or wine, you should join the fun. Also, Academic people get very buried in their work, and spare time and work hours blend together. If you can't relax and enjoy the good things in life with your fellows, you risk having a rocky road and face alienation from your fellows.

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I doubt I'll change anyone's mind about this, but please keep in mind that some people cannot drink (due to health reasons, religious reasons, etc.), and not everyone feels like telling their life story after they turn down a drink(!). –  Mad Jack Jun 17 at 18:43
well, those reasons for not drinking is not really the topic of this post as I see it. But english isnt my first language, so I could be wrong. –  Michael Nielsen Jun 17 at 19:05
@MichaelNielsen it is true that the reasons are not the topic, but in my academic environment, such people are very common. We have a few people who don't drink for religious reasons, people from some specific backgrounds that simply drink very little to none, and one or two people who strongly dislike the taste of alcohol. Majority of the people drink (quite a bit, I'm in France) but not drinking is common enough that even when offering, people usually ask something like "would you like some wine, or perhaps some juice?", and they are certainly not offended by not drinking. –  penelope Jun 19 at 12:40
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Look around you. Observe the 25%ile pace of drinking. Do that. If everybody is drinking the same thing, you as well. If there’s a mixture (some beer, some wine, some sherry, etc), drink something that isn’t conceptually far from the observed distribution.

You fit in, are part of the team, but not in any way inappropriate.

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Why do you advocate drinking considerably slower than the median rate? Why do you feel that somebody should drink something they might dislike just because everybody else is drinking it? Academia is, in my experience, very tolerant of insignificant personal differences: nobody will care if you drink beer while everyone else is drinking wine or vice-versa; probably nobody will care if you drink a little beer or wine while everyone else is drinking orange juice. –  David Richerby Jun 18 at 15:50
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