Getting plastered is an intrinsic part of the Danish culture. The legal drinking age is 16; people learn to handle their alcohol, or at least to recognize when they’re drunk, long before they’re given anything dangerous like a car. They serve alcohol at school parties. Some parents, when their kids turn sixteen, take them out to get drunk. Not out drinking: out getting drunk.
You can choose to be shocked and disgusted, or you can shrug and accept it. I still find it repugnant when people look so . . . so pasty and awful, as if their faces were made of wax and it was melting a bit. There’s this boy in my class who’s kind of cute – I wasn’t interested in anyone, but I thought if I did get interested, it might well have been in him. Then I saw him like that at a party. It was so nasty. Completely put me off him.
Sometimes people throw up – sometimes just right there on the ground. Sometimes they have a sudden nervous breakdown, dissolve into tears and shriek whenever anyone gets close. More often, though, they just go way too wild and do stuff they normally wouldn’t. Sometimes they start making out with someone they just met. Sometimes it goes further than that. Sometimes they just lie down in a corner and sleep for an hour.
However, exactly because it’s a part of the culture, most people can hold their liquor pretty well. Even when they’re going totally crazy, many of them know full well just how drunk they are. They still have limits and standards and all that jazz; their standards are just different. They have ‘alcohol standards’.
Danes drink to get drunk so they’ll have an excuse. So they can say, “I’d never do that, I only did it because I was wasted.” That’s the sad part of this whole business, really. They need an excuse to act crazy. They can’t just go wild at parties and admit that that’s part of who they are, too. Plenty of Danes will placidly agree that this is a problem; they just don’t seem inclined to do anything about it. Then, of course, there are those who will tell you that no, they don’t drink because they have to but because they want to, and they’re perfectly capable of going nuts without alcohol, thank you very much.
This is more true of some than of others. It would be silly to say it wasn’t true at all, though, because – as far as I can tell – inebriation doesn’t usually make people act unlike themselves. They do things that their shyness or common sense would normally advise against, but they don’t act against their natures. So all it takes is not letting your shyness get the better of you in day-to-day situations. Furthermore, because Danes learn to drink heavily from an early age, they (usually) learn to maintain a certain amount of control even while under the influence of alcohol. A violent person learns to curb their anger, for example, and a clumsy person learns to get help when walking down stairs (or just walking). People learn to recognize how drunk they are, and to know whether they need help getting home. For once, peer pressure comes in handy: it’s understood that throwing up and such is a difficult-to-avoid side effect of alcohol, but it’s not cool. Falling down stairs and otherwise injuring yourself (and especially others) is even less so. Getting into fights is unacceptable. Your friends will still stand by you, of course, but they’ll be spitting mad at you for being so stupid.
“Peer pressure?” I hear you cry. “But isn’t there a terrible pressure to get totally sloshed?”
Not quite. While it’s expected that you will drink, and it’s almost equally expected that you’ll get drunk, no one insists on it. Because it’s an accepted part of the general culture and not something do to be ‘in’, you don’t have to drink to be part of the group. I mean, you have to put up with all the staggering people and the repetitive comments, and you have to be able to laugh and dance with them and generally act like you’re having fun. But the alcohol is not mandatory.
They tend to think that if you’re not loaded, you’re missing out. So they will try to coax you into drinking, but it’s out of a genuine desire to see you enjoying yourself. They don’t want to annoy or insult you; if you’re firm about saying no, they’ll back off immediately.** A few weeks ago I was sitting with some of my classmates at a friend’s birthday party and someone asked why I wasn’t drinking. “I don’t drink,” I answered with a shrug. “Not for any moral or religious reason or anything. I just don’t want to.”
“Don’t you think you should try it?” one of the boys asked with a grin. “Just once. Come on, we’d watch out for you.” I just smiled back and told him that no, I’d rather not, and of course it’s not because I don’t trust you guys, I just don’t want to drink.
“Aw, come on,” he persisted, but immediately people started jumping down his throat for pressuring me. He immediately went on the defensive – “No, no, I wasn’t pressuring her! I was just suggesting it!” I laughed and tried to say that I understood and it was really okay. I don’t need help defending my choices, but I was rather touched by how firmly they all defended my right to decide for myself.
What with all the American movies and TV shows and such going around the world, Danish teenagers are just as aware of the Evils of Peer Pressure and Exclusion as any American kid. And unlike so many American teens, they actually take the message to heart. If you show willing to be part of the group, people will make room for you. If you’re different, people will make a conscious effort to show you that that’s alright. People tend to be friends with those they resemble; but that doesn’t mean you have to put down those you don’t resemble. People here – the people I know, anyway – they understand this.
Anyway, in conclusion: Denmark may have a serious national drinking problem, but it has various positive side effects, and at least there isn’t widespread paranoia about it like in the US. There is a general societal pressure to get tipsy at parties, but no one will shun you if you refuse, particularly if you can go totally wild without a sip. Peer pressure is less of a problem when people are careful about applying it. Sometimes it even helps: it’s just as well that Danes learn to cope with alcohol while they’re still teens and thus particularly susceptible to popular opinion of themselves, as that way they learn to follow proper norms of behavior. Alcoholism is, of course, a serious problem, but drinking doesn’t always lead to it.
All that being said, a few weeks ago thousands of Danish high school kids went to Prague on vacation, and awful things happened. The kids were there pretty much exclusively to get drunk, and they succeeded. There were trashed hotel rooms, vandalism, and even knifings. Yes, actual knifings. I don’t remember if any of these knifings resulted in death, but they were pretty serious. This was not representative of the entire Danish teenage population, but it is still a problem that really ought to be adressed.
If only we had a clue how.
*Does anyone know what this really means? I found dozens of synonyms for ‘drunk’ when I wrote this (as I’m sure you can see), but this was – in my opinion – the strangest.
**Please note that all of this is based on my personal experience. I’ve been living here for about four years and have only gone to two schools (basically middle school and high school) in the same part of town. I have no way of knowing how general my experience is except what other people tell me; beyond that I have to go by reasoning and intuition, so I don’t guarantee anything.