Culture and Alcohol: A Comparative Analysis

“Alcohol is a cultural artifact; the form and meaning of drinking alcoholic beverages are culturally defined, as are the uses of any other major artifact” (Mandelbaum, p. 281). While alcohol is a substance that is universally known and used, the ways in which various regions of the world interact with and view it can be very different. When looking at Italy and Germany some of their drinking practices are comparable, but the overall way they look at alcohol is different. 

Simply speaking, both Italy and Germany primarily associate alcohol as an addition to a meal. This is where a large sum of the alcohol consumption in these areas take place. However, Italy strongly sticks to this practice whereas Germany diverges from this. When comparing these two cultures, there is more drinking that takes place outside of mealtimes in Germany. Heavy drinking will frequently take place on special occasions. Additionally, while there is very little issues with binge drinking or alcoholism in Italy, this is a problem that is more common in Germany. 

For both of these cultures, alcohol has roots deep into their culture and is seen as more then just enjoyable to consume. For Italians it is their wine that holds meaning, "In Italy, wine is one ingredient of the daily diet in keeping with a deep-rooted Mediterranean pattern. Also, people are able to perceive a deep connection between wine and nature, since wine is produced from the vineyard anybody can observe in the countryside and sometimes is cultivated within one's garden" (Allamani, p. 2). Similarly, Germany’s beer roots began as a cultural craft, “Beer production had been transformed from an artisanal craft into a major industry. Half the beer in Germany was now provided by big, joint-stock breweries. Advertisers successfully propagated the image of the respectable beer drinker, rooted in the alleged traditions of the old Germanic tribes” (Spode, pp. 3-4). These cultures were not just introduced to alcohol and took a liking to it, but rather they are the source of creation for their own cultural practices. 

When looking at the cultural identity of these regions and how that relates to their drinking patterns one characteristic really stands out: indulgence. This is one of Hofstede’s six dimensions of culture and Germany and Italy score relatively close in this area. Italy was given a score of 30 in indulgence and Germany was only slightly higher with a score of 40. These scores tell us that both countries have restraint and control over gratification. Due to this control, alcohol does not hold power over its consumers, but rather they are able to manage their intake and maintain its integrity as a controllable substance. This distinguishes themselves from other cultures in which alcohol is primarily viewed as an intoxicant. Those cultures typically have higher scores in indulgence and thus do not practice the restraint like Italy and Germany. 

In addition to Hofstede’s cultural insights, Hall organizes cultures by the amount of information implied by the setting of the communication: high-context versus low context. This means that countries vary in how much of the meaning of communication comes from the actual words. Italy is a viewed as a high context cultural; this means more meaning comes from the nonverbal communication and other contextual elements. In contrast, Germany is seen as more low context and are very direct with communication. 

How does this then relate to their approaches about alcohol? 

Well, it connects with how meals and food are approached in these cultures. 

Italians live to eat. Meals are a very important part of the day and the amount of time that is spent sitting down to a meal shows this. Their open and flexible view on time creates an environment that allows for conversation to be the time keeper instead of numbers on the wall. This idea is what makes them a high context culture, the space is what implies the meaning of a message. When an Italian shares a meal with someone else, this already shows the level of care they have for that individual because they are willing to take the time to be with them. Since alcohol (primarily wine) is viewed as another piece to the meal, sharing wine at a dinner also communicates a desire to be present in the conversation and to engage with the individuals they are sharing with. 

Germans eat to live. While mealtimes may still last a significant amount of time, they have other priorities and eat because it provides them with the sustenance needed to carry out their work. Since, they are a low context culture, a meal does not hold more meaning than that. It is food because their bodies need it to survive. This idea transfers to the consumption of alcohol at a meal as well. They drink it because it quenches their thirst and they enjoy it. The act of drinking does not hold more significance than that. 

In Italy as a gesture of appreciation and friendship, our host at a hotel we stayed at offered us wine at her house when we were there for dinner. While she did not explicitly say that this was her way of showing her gratitude for having us there, based on the cultural context of the situation it was implied that this gesture was a way for her to express that. This is a very typical gesture when invited into the home of someone in Italy. The high context nature of the culture made this action understandable. 

In contrast, during our time in Germany, there was a waiter at a restaurant who offered us shots at the end of our meal. The way that he approached this was coming up to our table and expressing how he enjoyed serving our table and what a fun group we were to work with. It was not until after he told us this that he then proceeded to ask if we wanted to take shot with him. This distinction shows that the meaning was applied directly to his message and the gesture of alcohol was only an addition to his verbal expression. 

The categorization of high versus low context cultures is the largest distinction in the cultural approach to alcohol for these two places. In Italy, the gesture of alcohol holds meaning in and of itself; whereas in Germany an offering of alcohol typically accompanies a deliberate message. 


Allamani, A. (2003). Italy. In J. S. Blocker, D. M. Fahey, & I. R. Tyrrell (Eds.), Alcohol and temperance in modern history: an international encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC- CLIO.

Hofstede, G. (n.d.). Country Comparison: Germany & Italy. Retrieved December 4, 2017, from,italy/

Mandelbaum, D. G., (1965). Alcohol and culture. Current Anthropology,6(3), 281-293.

Spode, H. (2003). Germany. In J. S. Blocker, D. M. Fahey, & I. R. Tyrrell (Eds.), Alcohol and temperance in modern history: an international encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC- CLIO