Listening under the influence

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Flickr/Keoni Cabral/CC by 2.0

What is the effect of drinking on listening skills?

This matters for lawyers who will be networking over a glass of wine or taking clients to dinner where alcohol is served. What appears to be a still-valid 1975 psychiatric study predicted that drinking would have a variety of effects on communication:

In a group setting, low to moderate doses of alcohol would increase the amount of verbal communication, increase disruptions in communication, and decrease the level of acknowledgment of the other speaker’s communication.

This hypothesis was indeed supported by the study, a study with a most interesting protocol.

Participating couples (married or good friends for several months, and between the ages of 21-30) showed up a testing facility for an afternoon of mild intoxication and testing, or a placebo event. They consumed a “low dose” of either “80-proof vodka in a peppermint-flavored cocktail” or “the masking cocktail without vodka.” In the low-dose experiment, women drank .83 ml per kg of weight, so (after a bit of math) about 1.4 ounces for a 110-pound woman. Men drank 1 ml per kg of weight, so 2.7 ounces for a 175-pound man. In sessions separated by about a week, they tested the other option. And some test subjects came back for another alcohol test at 1.5ml per kg of weight.

After consuming the alcohol, they did some coordination tests and then a 20-minute conversation session. The second 10 minutes of the conversation were transcribed for study. Then participants were “fed and detained” until signs of intoxication wore off, and driven home.

The study’s main finding seems fairly intuitive:

Overall, alcohol appeared to make social communication more disorganized and intoxicated subjects seemed less likely to follow conventional rules of etiquette in their speech.

The specific behavioral findings were a little more complex. The study found “an increase in the amount of interrupting or overlapping speech” that was even more pronounced with the higher dose. Essentially: the more you drink, the more you interrupt.

Separately, the study found with the low dose, participants talked more in the sense of initiating more conversations, and used more words. With the higher dose, these trends reversed. Thus the more intoxicated participants interrupted more but used fewer words and started fewer conversations. And there was a modest but noticeable effect on what the study called acknowledgment, or “the degree to which [a statement] responds, in terms of the content and intent” to the prior statement.

The study authors weren’t exactly sure how these effects happened. They could be from the “disinhibition” and “egocentricity” of drinking, or they could be from “decreased auditory discrimination” and “impaired memory” which had been proven in a similar previous experiment. 

The authors recommended further study. They also ended with a caveat on the “dyadic” setup of the study—meaning just two people speaking one-on-one to each other. The one-on-one setup may have made it relatively easier for participants to maintain the conversation. They noted prior work showing alcohol diminishes participants’ ability to hear complex auditory stimuli. Thus they suspected that intoxicated participants would show greater impairment, relative to the placebo, in a more complicated social situation with more people. Something like an attorney networking event, perhaps.

Postscript to this research: Here’s a 2004 master’s thesis on “alcohol in social context.” The study gathered 54 men (strangers) and assigned them to groups of three, then served them alcohol or a placebo while they stayed seated in their groups for 30 minutes. The study assessed their social behavior and emotional states, finding that the drinking groups did not necessarily talk more on a word count basis, but did engage in more socially coordinated communication within the group. In other words, more members of the group contributed to talk within the group as a whole. The study author reported mild surprise that study participants did not report “improved affect” or a better mood after the experiment. The author suggested that the participants may not have enjoyed the forced interaction of drinking and socializing with strangers. This brings us full circle back to networking.

What are the implications for attorneys who want to drink while still communicating effectively?

Above the Law’s Elie Mystal has some classic advice: “You have to know yourself and what constitutes ‘tipsy’ for you.” Some more excellent advice: “when it starts to feel more like a party and less like work, leave.”

He was writing in 2012 about alcohol and networking, prompted by a Greedy Associates’ post with a “Drink-by-Drink Guide for Networking Events.” Instead of “5 Tips for Networking,” that post organized itself around a sequence of five hypothetical “drinks” from the first drink (“the icebreaker”) to the fifth drink (essentially, go home and send a bunch of LinkedIn invitations). The strategy for the “third drink” was to “shut up and listen” by “resist[ing] the urge to talk about yourself the whole night.”

The Greedy Associates’ post wasn’t actually encouraging networking lawyers to consume five drinks at any networking event. And that is a good thing. One takeaway from the present post is the following: if you get to that third drink too fast, shutting up and listening is probably not going to be an easy option.

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Any article on attorneys and alcohol consumption would be incomplete without noting the study released just in the past week about substance abuse among attorneys. “The level of problem drinking and mental health problems in the legal profession appear to be higher than indicated by previous studies,” reported the ABA Journal. Self-reported problem drinking was at 20.4 percent of the profession. Behavioral questions revealed problem drinking among 36.4 percent of the profession. The ABA article ended in calls for help such as training, mentoring, and bar assistance programs. 

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