Drinking Culture in American and German Universities

Joe Hlavaty majored in History and German as an undergraduate at Illinois State University and spent a semester during his studies as an exchange student at the University of Paderborn, where he learned first-hand about the differences between German and American higher education. He is now studying International Relations at the University of Siegen. In today's piece, he discusses the differences between the student drinking cultures in Germany and the United States. 

By the time I graduate from the University of Siegen with my Master’s degree, I will have spent as much time at European universities as at American university. Of my time in Europe, five out of the six semesters will have been spent in Germany. In that time, the vast majority of binge drinkers I have met (and enjoyed a beer with) were international students, and most of those were Americans.

Obviously, I cannot lump all Americans and Germans into all-encompassing categories, but there is a considerable difference between how alcohol is treated in the US and Germany among college students. 

In general, Europe has a different attitude towards drinking than America. Hannah Loewenthell points this out in a wonderful piece called, “Can You Guess Where in the World People are Binge Drinking the Most?” 

“In the U.S., the nation with one of the highest binge drinking rates worldwide, people tend to abuse alcohol. In Europe, by contrast, more people enjoy drinking alcohol without binge drinking because leisurely drinking is an important part of social interaction.”

The major difference between college drinking in Germany and in the US is why we drink. Having a beer with colleagues, classmates, or even professors is a cultural norm, especially considering that wine and beer can be consumed legally by the age of 16. In the US, however, students typically drink to get drunk. Social drinking and binge drinking are very different concepts. What’s funny, which Loewenthell points out, is that the French until very recently didn’t even have a word for binge drinking!

Now, keep in mind that we are talking about the habits of college-aged students. When I ask my German friends for their perspective on this issue, the most common answer I get is that they used to drink like American freshmen…when they were 14, or 15. By the time they hit university, they were simply tuckered out by the whole scene, similar to many college graduates (me included).

Interestingly, this squares with the idea that binge drinking is related to underage consumption. A German at 15 has the same restrictions placed on them as a 20-year-old in America. So in a way, it makes sense.

So when you find yourself at a party in Deutschland, and you see the Americans raging while the Germans stand on the other side of the room quietly watching on, you’ll now know why! They aren't party-poopers; they’ve just been there and done that already.