Barbecue Laws

An interesting excerpt from the (excellent) book Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney:

In nineteenth-century America […] there was a social convention called the “barbecue law,” which meant that all the men who gathered for a barbecue were expected to drink until they were soused. To refuse a drink entailed a serious insult to the host and the rest of the party.

Now, if you have been following my writings on TFA for a while, you know already that I’m not exactly an opponent to the occasional drink. More precisely, I used to be a rum collector when I still had an apartment and a good spirit can normally be found somewhere in my luggage, ready to celebrate with friends whenever I meet (or make) them.

(Time for a tangent: I already told you about the German proverb which says that you should celebrate the feasts as they come. I’m a huge believer in this. Really great parties are rarely planned and much more often simply turn up “like that”. This makes me think that the old pagan gods of wine and merriness probably do exist.

I remember once, when I was in Rome, a friend of mine and I went to an ice cream parlor near Fontana di Trevi in search for a restroom. The owners weren’t eager to lend their facilities to non-customers, so we ordered two beers and off we ran to the bathroom.

When we came back we started to joke with them about the location of their business and the funny experiences they had made with tourists over the years. When they found out that we were Germans, they immediately started to ask us about the Love Parade. (This episode happened back in the late 90s, so Love Parade was still existent and en vogue at the time.)

As it turns out, the guys were huge techno fans – and my friend was a semi-professional DJ who also happened to carry a couple of DJ sets from that year’s “Abschlusskundgebung,” the Love Parade’s great finale. Memories are blurry, but it didn’t take the owners more than five minutes to close the parlor down, open the bar and get that tape playing. We spent several hours there, drinking, repeatedly listening to the sets, talking a hodgepodge of German, English and Italian, dancing and joking around. When we finally left, daylight was already approaching at the Eastern skies.

Now, before I totally lose my tangent, let’s sum it up: While I didn’t travel with booze back then and the real clou of this story was without doubt the Love Parade tape my friend brought along, making new friends and celebrating whenever we get the chance to definitely is a good thing to do. End of tangent.)

Now, back to the main topic: “Barbecue Laws.”

I probably lost all my credibility somewhere between the words “rum collector” and “I spent several hours drinking in an Italian ice cream parlor”.


Starting to drink just because of some social convention is something I have done at several points in my life. At barbecues and at other places. But: It’s also something I’m happy to do less now than I did in the past. Why that? Well, probably because drinking just to follow some social convention strikes me as extraordinarily silly.

Consequently, breaking this “barbecue law” sounds like a good idea.

But then, of course, there’s another notion to it that I cannot ignore here on TFA. Because socially enforced drinking isn’t the only social convention that’s extraordinarily silly, is it?

Actually, I worry there are many, many other “barbecue laws” nowadays.

And I personally prefer to break at least some of them.

Like the law to buy tons of useless stuff to give away for Christmas. (Another tangent, but let’s make this shorter: If I don’t stumble on something that seems like a great fit for a loved person, I’ll simply buy food. And, ahem, drinks. Everybody likes good food and good drinks, they don’t occupy storage space in your apartment (at least not for a long time), and if you don’t like them you can easily give them away without anybody noticing. A perfect gift, as far as I am concerned.)

Or the law to overeat during holiday season only to go on a diet later on. (Really, isn’t this weird? I mean, the dark winters in the Northern hemisphere certainly suck, but is binge-eating the best answer to that? Better get a flight to the Tropics!)

Or how about the “barbecuest1 law” of all: The law to get up at 7am, board a loud and stinking car by 8, drive to an ugly glass-and-concrete building and sit down at some desk by 9, only to do senseless busywork until the clock hits 5pm.

Really, let’s find a loophole for these laws! Let’s start accepting the invitations to the barbecue (if we’re fine with them), but let’s keep the booze out of the game if we don’t feel like drinking. Or the hollow Christmas gifts. The binge-eating. The busywork.

“Barbecue laws” are both legally and morally superfluous.
Let’s break them and replace them with something better.

  1. Grammar police will shoot me. Barbecue, barbecuer, barbecuest. []


  1. Barbecue laws are for fat conformists! hehe :) … I think they also might be designed for ‘religious’ abstainers who out of fear of offending the hosting party, are forced to drink alcohol and thus loosened up a little.

    Honestly though, I still think if I were at a person’s house and it was understood that you drink alcohol according to custom, I would do it… wouldn’t you? Most definitely I would do it if in a foreign country. I mean, if you were invited to a feast as a guest and you didn’t eat, it would be a similar thing.

    Now, if it were my home country among a culture I had grown up in, I definitely might spite the barbecue rule, because everyone is following along mindlessly. Barbecue laws require savvy action within different contexts.

    1. Good point, Ryan. I had a good amount of “barbecue drinks” in Latin America, for example. But after a while, you also learn how to be polite and still defend your standpoint.

      So it’s probably not so much about “home versus elsewhere”, but about how well you know the behavior patterns of a place. So I’m definitely on your side with your conclusion: “Savvy action within different contexts” – well said! :)

      Edit: On second thought, even “politeness” probably would be the wrong criterium in this context. Doing things you don’t want to do (and that aren’t good for your health) just because of some social norm isn’t the right context to be polite, I think. Of course there might be exceptions for practical reasons, but maybe it would be helpful to not *expect* this kind of politeness from others, in the first place.

      1. Hmm… Are you advocating individual self-origination of all actions? I mean, practically what does that look like if you don’t ever do the things you don’t want to do… Example: Girl comes in to eat at a social gathering, wearing a bikini. Everyone else is fully dressed. She doesn’t want to put on more clothes, though obviously it would be appropriate. There’s not really a practical consideration, just one of social context… Do you still advocate that she not do what she doesn’t want to do in that context? …Or what if she’s topless?? ;)

        It’s conceivable there are ‘fundamentalist nudists’ who might never want to put on clothes. God save us all! lol

        1. Well, I for one wouldn’t have a problem with more topless people girls around social gatherings! ;)

          As I wrote, there are exceptions for practical reasons, of course. And there are probably many examples for this, also much more serious examples. But the one you provide is also worth thinking about further: What is our problem with human skin? I’m not a nudist, but here in Europe many people are… and why not? The porn industry is booming but people are scared to see each other naked… Weird. Maybe it would help to get rid of the beauty ideals shown in advertising and movies all the time! (And no, I’m not advocating that everybody now goes naked to their dinner parties. Here, it’s just an intellectual game! ;)

  2. Fabian, I would like to run with this a little:

    Have you noticed that in any system, the most flexible one controls the entire system. “Really great parties are rarely planned and much more often simply turn up…” Why is this? My assertion is because of the plasticity inherent in the system. We all have participated in unplanned parties that just materialized out of the ether. These parties have no agendas, no time to arrive to be fashionably late, no time to dress, no time, just be.

    On the other side is need, which is completely inflexible. I need you to drink at my BBQ, rigid system.

    Freedom can be ascertained by how flexible you are in any system. And this I think Fabian qualifies as something better.

    1. Interesting thought, Jonathan. But wouldn’t unlimited flexibility also be hard and unfulfilling? I have to think about it further, but my intuition tells me that this could probably be a virtue of the middle (in the Aristotelean sense): Being neither too flexible nor too rigid.

      As for control, there is probably a change taking place. Old, rigid powers seem to get attacked more and more by smaller, more flexible contenders. It will definitely be interesting to see where this leads us, but it’s shaping our world as we speak!

      1. I would like to ask all the TFA readers if life is predictable. More specifically if living is predictable? If it is predictable then are you really living? When the machine tells you to buy do you? Is cyber Monday celebrated with such glee that you come away even more comatose, in debt. Debt is inflexible, but you know that don’t you.

        Flexible – Unpredictable – Living

        Fabian, I follow that the inflexible systems are not adapting to the flexible nature inherent in living. We are evolving, growing, and the powers that be want to maintain their structures. They cannot.

        Flexibility is bending without breaking. It is putting a voice to the echo that stirs in those of us that are alive. The flexible free people advance and lead the inflexible asleep masses.

        1. I agree with your definition of flexibility, Jonathan: Bending without breaking. Similar to the old Zen wisdom, “be like water”.

          Living a predictable life, on the other hand, is currently not possible and, at least in my opinion, certainly not desirable. It’s exactly the tension the unpredictability entails that makes life what it is!

  3. Fabian,
    Hot Dang…you’ve completely nailed it with this one. I’ve embraced these BBQ laws for years, but have never been able to put them into words quite so brilliantly. My New Year’s Resolution this year will be to continue to break the BBQ laws…life (and barbeque) tastes so much more delicious when a bit of anarchy is thrown in.

    Kee Kee

    1. Hehe, good to hear that Kee Kee. Christmas can be a wonderful time for this, inviting others (with a friendly wink) to do the same! :)

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