How to survive a calling to the bar

February 23, 1996

Chris Hatton offers some useful tips on conference tippling

Conferences have their own peculiar drinking codes. Mastery of these is crucial to professional development, as work colleagues are assessing your performance in a new drinking arena. But the difficulty of learning effective conference drinking techniques should not be underestimated. There is no more tragic sight than the crushed wrecks of sunken-eyed conference novices, clutching forlorn glasses of grapefruit juice at breakfast and wondering where it all went wrong.

The most important part of surviving conference drinking is to understand your own physiology. First, you will get little sleep, since hotel bars only close when completely drained and you have to be at breakfast by 8am, schmoozing with those sober conference types who are in a position to give you a job. Consequently, you may be tempted to over-compensate by drinking huge quantities of conference coffee. But be warned: the coffee is made up of nine parts tarmac and one part Castrol GTX. While this may pick you up in the short term, by the end of the day your brain will have shrunk to the size of a kumquat.

This is where the other essential component of conference survival, alcohol, comes in. Alcohol, in sufficient doses, is effective in countering the effects of conference coffee, therefore enabling you to sleep soundly without phoning the night porter to report large tartan guinea pigs under your bed singing the collected works of Take That.

The crucial component of successful conference drinking, therefore, is to get the balance right, thereby ensuring that you can remain standing for the duration of the conference, and only lapse into coma once safely home.

With alcohol, there are two factors to consider: strength and volume. Too much strong drink too early and you will try to convince a neighbouring professor that Jung's theory of the collective unconscious is right, which is how you know they're thinking of buying the next round. Too much volume and you will develop an obvious bladder problem, not the way to ingratiate yourself professionally.

Controlling your alcohol intake in the face of extreme provocation takes practice, and mistakes will be made. Here are a couple of tips for emergencies: intersperse your alcoholic drinks with copious draughts of tap water, which you can pass off as an esoteric Peruvian liqueur distilled from cane sugar and angora wool. Also, arrive in the bar early, grab the largest leather chair and remain slumped in it for the rest of the evening. This way your gradual slide into stupor will be interpreted by your colleagues as passing a sage and silent judgement on their own drunkenness (watch any emeritus professor to see how this is done).

If you find you really cannot stand the pace, leave the bar early. Claim with an enigmatic smile that you have arranged to meet an old schoolfriend, then sneak off to your room via the laundry lift and settle down with Coronation Street.

For men, drinking pints carries certain risks. Drink pints of bitter and you are marked out as a closet morris dancer, while lager signifies a lack of seriousness and a leaning towards salami publishing. If you are caught drinking a pint the only option is to be out and proud: trying to pass it off as an ironic postmodern comment on the rhetoric of postfeminism just will not wash.

Overall, the wisest course is to stick to venerable spirits. Drinking gin and tonic will lead to mutterings about the 19th tee, which can be countered with a mention of William Hogarth and gin as the mainstay of the working classes in the 17th century. This demonstrates your renaissance qualities by combining art, history and radical chic. Whisk(e)y is of course a politically charged spirit which in particular company can lead to accusations of alcoholic imperialism. Bourbon, again depending on the company, will lead to tirades against Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich or, even worse, mass impersonations of Billy Idol singing Rebel Yell.

Brandy must only be drunk after midnight, but is tactically useful as the large glasses make it less easy to spill, important at this time of night.

There is of course, a radically different conference drinking strategy which I have seen attempted, but never sustained over an entire conference: teetotalism. There are advantages to this strategy, such as a functioning liver at the age of 60 and the ability to remember your colleagues' indiscretions of the night before. However, you will experience peer pressure at its most vicious. From delegates pointing you out to your colleagues, to your friends spiking your mineral water with cherry vodka (they are so drunk they think you will not notice), their campaign is invariably triumphant. At this point the blight on your professional career will be permanent because you have tried to show you are superior in will-power and you have been found wanting.

Successful conference drinking is an art that takes a long time to acquire, and you will make mistakes along the way. Ultimately, practice and dedication is the only route, so next time you see me, mine's a Jim Beam.

Chris Hatton is a research fellow at Manchester University. Adapted from an article in The Psychologist.

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