Alcohol, Drugs, And Socializing

I wrote this article because while doing research for the site I'd occasionally come across references, questions, or discussions about how alcohol or various drugs affected the way people socialized. But as far as I could tell no one else had written a central article about it, so I thought I'd put up a fairly quick, basic overview of my own. I believe the topic is worth discussing. Substance use is a facet of socializing people sometimes wonder about. And I don't think drugs should be seen as a scary, taboo topic.


Most people have a sense that certain mood-altering substances can impact how well they do in social situations. The most well-known example is alcohol. It's referred to as a social lubricant and most of us have some experience with how it influences people's behavior. Other drugs have their own effects on socializing, either in a direct or indirect way, though they may not spring to mind as quickly as drinking does. I'll discuss all the ones I can think of below.

Some obvious disclaimers first:

Caffeine

I'll start this article off with one 'drug' that's relatively harmless. What do less-naturally social people often say? "If I'm with my friends for too long, I get really drained and tired." Some of them, when they get to that point, will have some caffeine. It gives them a boost of energy and they're fine to be around others for a while longer. They use this trick to help get them through mandatory dinners and parties, or to perk themselves up at a bar as the night goes on.

Caffeine doesn't always go well with anxiety. If someone's already nervous in a social setting, the stimulating effects of a coffee or coke can take their jitters to another level. Some people's anxiety is tied to whether they notice certain physical sensations, like a rapid heartbeat or an upset stomach. Caffeine can bring those on, and indirectly cause someone who was calm to become agitated.

Alcohol

Alcohol is a social lubricant in the sense that sharing some drinks is often a reason for people to get together. The term also refers to the way it loosens people up and lowers their inhibitions. People are often more open and outgoing when they've had a few drinks.

When people have been drinking they have an easier time walking across a room to introduce themselves to someone. They can speak up in a group conversation. They feel more confident and less anxious. They're quicker at cracking jokes. They aren't as worried about getting rejected. They're not as self-conscious about dancing in front of other people.

The appeal of that is pretty obvious. Regular people, who don't even consider themselves that shy, still sometimes like to have a drink or two just to kick start themselves at parties or during dinner with friends. They're not even that reserved to begin with, but just enough that they notice a slight buzz makes them feel more friendly and talkative.

Some shyer people appreciate alcohol for this reason even more. A few drinks in and they can function at a club or party, when otherwise they'd nervously hang back and not say anything. Some quieter people even get a reputation for turning into a totally different person when they've been drinking.

There are naturally downsides. To name a few: Alcohol sometimes enhances people's social performance sometimes, but the sweet spot is usually only a few drinks in, if that. Drink any more and the gains start to get replaced by more negative effects. You become sloppy. You get loud and obnoxious. You say inappropriate things, either because you weren't thinking, or because you just don't care at that moment. You piss people off without meaning to. Or you start getting tired, queasy, or lost in your head, and become even more quiet than normal.

There's also the well-known risk of becoming dependent on alcohol as a social crutch. Some socially anxious students turn into borderline alcoholics by their third year of college. It's not that they drink because it's fun, or they use it wisely to give themselves a small boost. They have to get drunk at social events or they can't do anything. Some people who are dependent like this are well aware they need to use alcohol to cope, and probably aren't happy about it. There's another category of drinkers who feel socially anxious at parties or whatnot, but they're not completely aware of it. They just get drunk a lot, but don't put two and two together and realize they're using alcohol to dull their nerves.

Another thing that can happen, again usually in college, is someone will feel awkward in most social situations, but be comfortable playing/hiding behind the 'party animal' role. Being drunk and bouncing around a crowded bar or house party and having short, shallow conversations, or getting into random antics, is comfortable for them. Naturally this doesn't do them any favors in terms of becoming over-reliant on drinking.

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Cigarettes, a.k.a. nicotine

Smoking is mainly social in the sense that it creates all these little opportunities to make conversation with people. At work smokers can chat to their co-workers during their smoke break. In most cities smoking isn't allowed in bars, so the smokers all gather in the designated outdoor areas, where it's quieter and easier to talk. There's a built-in conversation starter of being able to ask for a light or a spare cigarette. When two smokers are together sometimes they feel a bit of connection and rapport from sharing the same habit.

Nicotine has calming effects. Some smokers actually stumble into the habit in high school because they find it's a way to self-medicate the (possibly socializing-related) anxiety they're feeling at the time.

Cannabis

Weed has a reputation for producing mellowing, relaxing effects, so some people have wondered if it can help them cope in social situations the same way alcohol can. Everyone responds to pot in their own way and some people say it helps them calm down, loosen up, or become more talkative and uninhibited, but it's just as possible its effects won't help much, or even backfire:

Some people are able to experiment and find a strain that gives them the effects they want, along with a reliable supply. But not everyone has that option. And if you take a hit off some random joint that's being passed around a party, you don't know how it's going to affect you.

If you smoke weed enough, it's really just another hobby - How's it any different from being a wine enthusiast? A lot of socializing and relationships grow out of shared interests. Some people are friends because they all like baseball. Others because they like to get together to smoke up. Some people can make a new friend by inviting someone to come salsa dancing with them. Others make friends by going, "You smoke?! I'm going to back to my place to blaze right now if you want to come."

Other drugs you can make a hobby out of doing

Similar to marijuana, social circles can grow out of a shared interest in doing other types of drugs. You'll sometimes come across a group of friends who were all connoisseurs of hallucinogens. They aren't frat bro who occasionally eat some mushrooms while they're partying. No, they can go on for hours about the molecular structure of psilocybin, or the anthropological studies on the spiritual rituals peyote is used in. There are scenes around other kinds of drugs. Ecstasy and the other club drugs are the first to come to mind.

I think one trap some people fall into is they'll join one of these subcultures just because it offers them a friend group and a sense of identity - "Oh sweet, I can be the shaman guy who knows everything about acid." Of course I can't paint these people as completely innocent victims. They were already drawn toward these drugs for other reasons, but the social element may be part of the mix too.

Cocaine

One of the appeals of coke is that it makes people feel more self-confident, powerful, talkative, and energetic. The stock image is of a young lawyer or investment banker going into some trendy nightclub's bathroom with his buddies, then emerging to bounce around and have really self-assured but vapid conversations. I'll leave this section at a quick mention, because it's not a drug I'm familiar enough with to go into more detail.

Any other drug you can use to try to feel more self-confident when you're out

By far when people try to use a substance to feel less-inhibited in social situations they're most likely to turn to alcohol. I already mentioned how people will use nicotine, weed, and coke for the same reason. Sometimes people will try to achieve the that outcome by using other drugs. Like they may take ecstasy in a dance club and hope the euphoric, friendly feelings it causes will give them the social confidence and charisma to effectively mingle with people. Sometimes their plan works, but often the drug just makes them too incoherent or distractable.

Self-medication

Some people use street drugs not to try socialize more comfortably or effectively in the moment, but in an attempt to manage the symptoms related to their anxiety or insecurities longer-term. They may drink or smoke weed on their own to distract themselves from their loneliness. They might regularly microdose psychedelics to try to stabilize their mood. They may take a larger dose of a psychedelic to explore their mind and try to heal their emotional baggage. This article goes into more detail on that sub-topic:

Related: Thoughts On Self-Medicating Anxiety