Drinking after work: a social capital comparison

A recent piece in The Times bemoaned the absence in New York of the habit of a drink after work with office colleagues. Apparently this is due in part to the highly competitive nature of American offices, so colleagues don’t want to risk losing their edge; and in part to the dangers of behaving inappropriately in a highly litigious culture. A further reason is the high-octane character of American cocktails and the high alcohol level of some of their beers (10%!), not conducive to more than a single round.

James Dean is the paper’s US Business Editor, and so presumably has an accurate finger on the pulse of office cultures. His sadness is at the pleasures lost; interestingly he says nothing about the functions of the social networking that the drink-after-work supports.

Social capital – the relationships and shared values built up via social interaction – is one of the factors which explains the Paula Principle. It’s not so much the bonding type of social capital – the strengthening of links amongst equals – as the so-called ‘linking’ type that counts: the building of relationships between different levels of the hierarchy, enabling the younger or more junior members to understand how their seniors talk, to hear about job opportunities and generally to ready themselves for promotion opportunities.

It’s important to stress that there need be no nepotism about this; it’s just the natural product of social interaction. But there’s no doubt that it has its effects in the distribution of opportunity, and often this operates to disadvantage women.

The most extreme example from the people I interviewed for the book is that of Hyun-Joo. She returned to her native Korea after getting a doctorate in London, and took up a junior university post. The faculty meetings led on to sessions in a ‘dog restaurant’, ie one that serves dog meat. Hyun-Joo does not eat meat, and she’s a non-drinker.

They all wanted me to drink – hard liquor. I had to walk out. But I’m unusual – other female assistant professors are adjusting to that culture.

Hyun-Joo returned to London, where happily she now has a tenured position in a university.

Olivia worked in a branding consultancy. Her experience was somewhat different:

There was all this ‘Let’s go and have a whisky together’ – lots of male bonding going on outside work. There was one particular guy who really spearheaded this kind of thing. In my view he’s a bit of a tragic case: he’s a middle-aged guy who is desperately holding on to some kind of youth. But he’s now left to run the Sydney office, so that aspect has been minimised.

I’m not remotely suggesting that this is typical of most people who enjoy a social drink after work. God help us if organisations turned puritanical about out-of-office socialising. But there’s little doubt that it can have exclusive effects. As Paul Seabright observed, in his provocatively titled The War of the Sexes, both men and women generally prefer to network with members of their own sex:

The result is that while those professional ties that are most instrumentally useful to men are also the ones that coincide with their social ties, women tend to interact with one group of colleagues (largely female) for personal support and a different group (largely male) for professional help, advice and advancement.

I’m rather sad that networking has become so instrumentalist. At conferences it seems that you can’t just have lunch, you have to have a networking one, busily building your contact list. When I worked in organisations I enjoyed the (occasional, of course) drink after work; now that I’m post-organisation man I’ve partly recreated this with local friends. But it would be interested to know more about how it plays out in different cultures – not just nationally, but in different professions or organisations. A kind of social capital metric, with its gender angle.

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