The importance of alcohol in community-building

On Dec. 23, Statistics Canada released its latest monthly estimates on how much business the nation’s drinking places were doing. A “drinking place”, as defined by Industry Canada, includes “bars, taverns or drinking places, primarily engaged in preparing and serving alcoholic beverages for immediate consumption”.

Out of pure curiosity, I used Statistics Canada’s CANSIM data portal to calculate each province’s per capita drinking-place receipts for the year from November 2014 through October 2015.

What I found was quite surprising: not only were Manitoba’s drinking-place sales of $24 per capita well below the national $61 average, but we were way down at the bottom of the nine provinces for which data are available. (British Columbia had the nation’s highest per-capita bar spending at $119, followed by Saskatchewan at $106 and Newfoundland and Labrador at $93.)

 

Per capita receipts reported by "Drinking Places", as defined by Industry Canada, Nov. 2014-Oct. 2015. Statistics Canada data excludes P.E.I. and the northern territories due to small sample sizes.

Per capita receipts reported by “Drinking Places”, as defined by Industry Canada, Nov. 2014-Oct. 2015. Statistics Canada data excludes P.E.I. and the northern territories due to small sample sizes.

Perhaps this should be no surprise. Manitoba started out in the 19th century as a chaotic frontier society, and over-compensated for the problems caused by drunkenness by establishing a liquor bureaucracy that even now retains rather restrictive liquor laws. Add to that a culture that still frowns upon alcohol consumption in the rural south; and the typically North American urban sprawl and car dependency, which necessarily puts limits on the ability of a group of friends to gather for a pint or two of beer on their way home — a limitation that those who can walk or take public transport home need not be so concerned with.

While all this might save Manitobans the inconvenience of loutish after-bar behaviour or of needing to step over vomit on the morning streets that go with the territory in more urban environments, it also raises the question of whether Manitoba’s weak bar and pub culture makes the province socially too closed for its own good.

This possibility goes back to a discussion I had a year or two ago with a Czech expatriate now living here who shared with me the one thing he disliked about life in Manitoba: that it was “a very lonely place”.

He had grown up and lived in a society where the local pub and pizzeria were not just places to eat or drink: they played a critical role in building and maintaining a sense of community — places where the locals gathered to share news, stay connected to old friends, and meet new ones.

Here in Winnipeg, he found that there was a huge void. The neighbourhoods had no natural gathering places, and were dull and lifeless — a collection of commuters who went straight home after work, closed and locked the door, and stayed there until the morning — with no real sense of community. “Nothing but houses,” he lamented.

As unfashionable as it might be to say this in our culture, alcohol has an important role to play in the building of a sense of community.

In her book Watching the English, British social anthropologist Kate Fox highlighted the importance of shared alcohol consumption to linking people together. The better any particular venue fared in what she referred to as “The SAS Test”, the more amenable it was to bringing people together:

“SAS stands for Sociability (by which I mean specifically the acceptability and ease of initiating conversation with strangers), Alcohol (an essential flirting aid among the inhibited English) and Shared-interest (environments in which people have interests in common, or a shared focus – settings likely to have the kinds of props and facilitators that help the English to overcome their social dis-ease).”

At the top of Fox’s list: the pubs for which British communities are famous. Though they only pass two-thirds of the SAS Test for lack of a shared interest, Fox noted that they do allow for informal introductions that make shared-interest finding possible.

Parties and nightclubs – two other areas in which alcohol consumption within moderation is encouraged – also ranked high on Fox’s list. At the bottom of the list: trains, supermarkets and galleries, which Fox described as “no-go areas” for making social connections.

In 2012, University of Pittsburgh researchers also found that moderate alcohol consumption played an important role in widening peoples’ social networks:

“[The researchers] concluded that alcohol stimulates social bonding, increases the amount of time people spend talking to one another, and reduces displays of negative emotions . . . Results showed that alcohol not only increased the frequency of ‘true’ smiles, but also enhanced the coordination of these smiles. In other words, alcohol enhanced the likelihood of ‘golden moments,’ with groups provided alcohol being more likely than those offered nonalcoholic beverages to have all three group members smile simultaneously. Participants in alcohol-drinking groups also likely reported greater social bonding than did the nonalcohol-drinking groups and were more likely to have all three members stay involved in the discussion.”

Such bridge-building between people matters. In 2010, this blog discussed the possibility that, in spite of the famous “Friendly Manitoba” slogan, our community is actually a bit hesitant to let newcomers into our existing, long-established and somewhat closed social circles. But the newcomers keep coming: in 2014, we welcomed more than 16,000 foreign newcomers to our province, and more are on the way.

This vastly increases the number of people living here who are in search of new social contacts to relieve the isolation of starting a new life in a place where, prior to arrival, they knew almost no one – or even no one at all. The constraints that restrict the number of places in Manitoba that pass “the SAS Test” serve to isolate newcomers and long-established residents alike.

In April 2016, Manitobans will venture to the polls to choose the government that will guide the province through the final years of the 2010s. In that election, further reforms to our traditionally strict liquor laws in such a way that will give our communities more places that pass “the SAS test” should be on the agenda. So too should be a discussion about the other choices that keep us atomized and prevent the development of a more meaningful sense of community by inhibiting even moderate alcohol consumption, such as the state of our semi-reliable public transit systems, the difficulties in obtaining taxis and/or shared-ride services, and the community-deadening effects of urban sprawl.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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