I feel like everyone who runs a conference, including myself, has just been asked the question “why do you have alcohol at your events?” The question has been raised, and it’s a valid one: Is it exclusionary to have so much alcohol at community events?
At the end of last year I took about 3 months off from drinking. Cold turkey full stop with “the booze,” and it was great. At the time, my default was to have a drink whenever one was available, which had become most meals and many after meal times. It started to interfere with my productivity and I decided to take some time off to re-balance my relationship with alcohol. With sobriety I was more focused, I got more work done every day, and I was able to regain a feeling of control over my own decisions.
I still went to conferences, and I went out at the parties, and I had a great time. I never minded that people were drinking, I actually enjoyed my sparkling water and still had a fun time with friends and associates. This whole time I had no problem being in a social setting with geeks who were drinking while I was not drinking myself, in fact I rather enjoyed it and even more so, I enjoyed the morning after.
When I eased back into having a glass of wine with dinner, I still kept myself from drinking at social events. That was until I went to a party for some friends I was not very well acquainted with. Socializing with people who weren’t geeks and that I didn’t know very well reminded me of why I started drinking socially in the first place more than 10 years ago.
I’m known as a fairly social developer. I organize meetups and conferences and try, whenever possible, to pull my fellow community members together for dinner and drinks. It’s probably a surprise to most people that I actually experience social anxiety, and that before I started drinking I experienced it more often than not. Drinking always loosened me up, and now I can say that in most situations I no longer need it. If I’m comfortable with the people I’m with I’m fine, but in situations where I don’t know anyone I can start to panic.
This experience is not unique in the software development world. Many of my good friends have greatly impaired social skills. My experiences with social anxiety are probably nothing compared to what they go through.
We organize events for the community. The goal of the conference is to increase social and personal connections among the attendees. Having readily available social lubricant helps that, especially when the audience has a hard time loosening up without it. The point of the parties is not to keep your shirt buttoned up and be “professional,” it’s where you stop being a representative of whatever company you belong to and be yourself. It’s where you tear the buttons off that shirt and dance!
The conferences are exclusionary but not of people who don’t drink, they are exclusionary of people who don’t want to be part of the community. People who cry “professionalism” are asking for us to represent companies and career over being ourselves. These are not the people we want at our conferences, the conferences are for, and by, the community and we won’t sacrifice the positive effects we can have on that community for some misplaced notion of what professional behavior looks like.
There are plenty of people who don’t drink but still attend events, meetups, and parties where there are drinks to be had. For a short time, I was one of them, and when I was I would rather attend a party with drinks than without because of its effect of the attendees. Not having a drink at a conference is a similar experience to not having drinks at other social events like birthday parties or high school reunions. If being yourself means not drinking, you shouldn’t be drinking, and nobody is going to make you do it, but you should want to be around people who are also being themselves and having a good time even if that includes drinking.
I also don’t buy that drinking encourages “brogrammers.” I’ve been around long enough that I’ve had drinks with open source developers at conferences before the first bro ever kicked back a sugar-free Redbull and pounded out some code in his polo shirt.
The nice thing about bringing the community together is that people’s behavior is judged on a more personal rather than professional basis. The kind of negative and/or sexist behavior we associate with brogrammer culture simply isn’t tolerated by a community of individuals who value diversity. Exclusionary behavior like sexism or homophobia comes from a lack of personal connections not from a lack of professionalism.
The way we got to this point, this place where we’re all friends and don’t tolerate sexist and homophobic behavior, is in no small part thanks to booze. If we want to continue to expand this community and make the rest of the world a more tolerant place we’ll have to continue to value the personal over the professional.