AUSTRALIA, they've been saying lately, has a binge-drinking culture, but it's hardly fair that we're all damned by the excesses of the younger generation.
Mature Australians, as you know, drink alcohol responsibly and for social purposes only. What other purpose could a responsible, civilised person have for tossing alcohol down the hatch?
And so my question at the weekend to an old friend who's lived in Italy for 30 years and is visiting Newcastle: did he meet his mates in Rome at local bars?
My friend and I have had many a beer in a local pub in Newcastle, and on Saturday night he and his Italian wife were having dinner at my place.
We'd had beers before dinner, beer and wine during dinner, and I was planning beer and wine after dinner.
Oh no, he said, Italians in Italy drank alcohol only when they were eating. People didn't drink wine or beer simply because they were getting together, they drank beer or wine with a meal.
Always beer with pizza, by the way, and women were no less likely to drink beer.
Young people were now drinking at discotheques, but in general anybody who opened beers or a bottle of wine when not eating, even to greet friends, would be regarded with puzzlement.
So when friends met it wasn't over a drink of any sort? Coffee?
Occasionally coffee, but in general friends meeting without eating would simply meet and talk, no drinks. Apart from young people going to discotheques, Italians socialised over a meal at either a home or a restaurant.
And there was much less segregation of the sexes in Italy. Men didn't, for example, meet male friends, or mates as we'd refer to them - a man and probably his wife or partner would meet friends who were likely to be both men and women.
How different it is here! Mates are men, and a woman with mates drinking is a guest reliant on the tolerance of all males present.
And I wonder if this segregation might not be a factor in our drinking culture, where to drink beer with other men is manly and therefore a good thing to do.
The differences between Australians' typical use of alcohol and that of Italians could not be more opposed.
We drink when we're not eating and we don't drink when we do eat, unless, of course, it's a special meal.
Indeed, people who drink during an ordinary meal would be regarded with mild suspicion.
Australian men meeting other men do so almost always over alcohol, and that's at the pub or at home.
The meeting doesn't qualify as a meeting of mates unless alcohol is at the very least offered, and without the mutual drinking of alcohol the meeting will be seen as of little consequence in a bonding sense.
We have all manner of traditions and practices wrapped around our drinking, and all of them are about drinking more.
I wonder, for example, if men are loath to include women in their mutual drinking because the presence of women inhibits the drinking. It certainly does mine, especially when one of the women is my wife.
I don't know whether it is a purpose or a consequence, but our great drinking tradition, the shout, encourages men to drink more.
Men have to have another round to finish the shout and other men have to have another round because they're owed a shout. Then reciprocity means that just one more is seldom one more.
Perhaps, too, the shout gets around the discomfort of drinking in public alone.
Other traditions include getting primed before a social event, one that usually includes heavy drinking itself.
Session drinking occurs on certain occasions or days of the week, as in Fridays after work; binge drinking on such occasions as a milestone birthday, a holiday, the Melbourne Cup, a grand final; competition drinking, and remember Bob Hawke made the Guinness Book of Records for downing a yard glass of beer in 11 seconds; and, increasingly, drunkenness as a stamp of social success.
Maybe Italy has other excesses – we had Bob Hawke, Italy had Silvio Berlusconi – but it does seem that Australia is a problem drinker.
This column was originally published on August 23, 2011. Jeff Corbett is on leave and will return next week.
Australian men meeting other men do so almost always over alcohol, and that's at the pub or at home. The meeting doesn't qualify as a meeting of mates unless alcohol is at the very least offered, and without the mutual drinking of alcohol the meeting will be seen as of little consequence in a bonding sense. We have all manner of traditions and practices wrapped around our drinking, and all of them are about drinking more.