I like beer. I wasn’t always a fan, but living in The Netherlands has converted me. And I don’t mean Dutch beer. Heineken and Amstel leave me uninspired. Give me a malty, fruity, slightly spicy ale from our neighbor to the south – Belgium – and I’m happy as a monk in a Trappist monastery. Except I prefer to drink in the company of others, preferably in an outdoor setting on a beautiful spring evening.
Why am I bringing this up, besides as a wistful image of life post-COVID? Because this week I’ve been thinking about The Beer Test, inspired by a conversation during a recent Sidecar Rally (if you don’t know what this is, ask me). One member of our group shared a story about how her school is doing a search for a new secondary school principal. The Head of School has declared that he wants someone with whom he can enjoy a beer. Several other members of our group said they, too, had been in situations where the idea of the ‘beer test’ seemed an important filter in screening candidates.
On the face of it, this might seem innocuous. Enjoying a beer with a colleague could bring to mind that image I painted above. This suggests cohesion, congeniality, community. Not much to dislike here.
Dig a bit deeper though and it becomes clear how troubling this is as a litmus test for choosing a new member of a team.
Whom does the ‘beer test’ leave out?
· Those who don’t like beer. (I still don’t get how people like beer that’s not of the Belgian variety, personally. Not that I’m snobby or judge-y….)
· Those struggling with alcoholism and other alcohol-related disabilities. Must they out themselves in order to fit in?
· Women. I know plenty of women like beer. The beer test has a connotation, though, of men drinking together at a frat, sports event, barbecue, or local watering hole. Not an inclusive visual.
· Pregnant or nursing women. Yes, such women are on leadership teams.
· Those with medical issues involving medication that doesn’t coexist well with alcohol.
· Parents (yes, including men who wish to be equal partners at home). Drinking a beer with the boss and/or colleagues is done after work (I hope), which can interfere with family life.
· Muslims who abide by religious injunctions against alcohol.
· Some Asians who lack the genetic enzyme that helps metabolize alcohol.
· Those who wish to keep work and social life separate, especially when it comes to fraternizing with the boss. This has added dimensions when it’s a male/female dynamic involving alcohol.
· I’m sure you can think of others.
I don’t want to take away from the more generous interpretation of what The Beer Test might mean. At its heart, I suspect the idea of this test is that your new colleague is someone who is friendly and approachable, who can discuss things outside the realm of her/his professional life, who can be enjoyable company, who will contribute positively to the school community. That does not require beer, or any form of alcohol.
[To be clear, I understand that being an international school leader can be isolating and lonely. Having a beer with colleagues may seem like an innocuous way to step away from the grind and relax. But it comes with risk. What about finding other communities outside your professional one where you can have a beer (or other beverage) and let your hair down?]
Could we think of another metaphor besides The Beer Test that is more inclusive and gets at the same (generous interpretation of the) idea?
Living as I do in The Netherlands, I might take inspiration from a typically Dutch practice, the “borrel.” Roughly translated, a borrel is an informal social gathering of a select group, often with a theme. Borrel could mean cocktail hour with colleagues to celebrate TGIF (be sure to include the deep fried snacks!). It could mean mid-afternoon coffee and cakes with family to commemorate a child’s birthday. It could be an outing on a boat around the canals to reconnect with old friends. The point is that it’s conceivable to borrel in many ways and circumstances that can suit varying personalities/ cultures/contexts/ drink preferences.
I challenge the international school community to replace The Beer Test with The Borrel Test. Who’s with me? Or who has another competing metaphor to offer?
Yours in appreciating the power of semantics (and of Dark Belgian Ale, in the right circumstances and company),