How much should I share?

When you quit drinking, you don’t do so in a vacuum. We interact with people day in and day out. We find ourselves in situations at work, weddings, celebrations, and more where alcohol is present – often for free and sometimes without limit. It can take a lot of patience and practice to figure out how to navigate situations like these, and to interact with other people who still drink – some of whom you may know well, others not at all. 

Let’s face it – most of us want to be liked. And that can be a challenge when you’ve decided to do something like give up alcohol or go vegan. Some people aren’t quite comfortable around sober people, or may perceive your decision to be a judgment upon their own behavior. That said, remember that you are not responsible for other people’s feelings, discomfort, or reactions if they ask why you’re not drinking and you’re compelled to respond. You are free to say as much or as little as you want about your reasons for being sober, and you can guide the conversation.

two people talking next to one another by a window
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My best advice is to avoid being self-righteous or prescriptive about your decision to steer clear of alcohol. But if you’re comfortable talking about your experience, do it with those who are interested in hearing about it. Like many things in life, I’ve found that the best way for people to become comfortable with my sobriety is to project confidence in the way I talk about it. Communicating about your sobriety openly also contributes to breaking down stigma over time. The more people talk, the more it becomes okay to discuss the ways alcohol isn’t always a magical elixir. It helps make sobriety a valid option for people who need it, highlighting in our collective consciousness that it’s an inseparable component of alcohol culture.

Though you shouldn’t have to put other people at ease, the tools in this post are intended to help you do just that, taking the focus off the fact that you’re not drinking. As a quick side note, we also have an inflated sense of the amount other people think about us. For everyone else, the world centers around their individual experience (the “spotlight effect”). They care primarily about what others think of them, and are mostly looking at you in relation to what it says about them.

two women with each other's hands over their eyes
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Whenever alcohol is directly offered to me, once I say “I’m not drinking” or “I don’t drink” (or even “no thanks”), it seems like everyone’s next question is “why?” Everyone thinks they have a right to know my reasons. Though that can be frustrating at times, it hasn’t gotten too old for me yet, so I usually answer. I communicate certain things to my best friends, other things to my family, try to get a read on strangers before determining how much I want to say, and say very little to coworkers and some other individuals. I have my own reasons and comfort levels, but I’ve also found that different people respond better to different ways of talking about my sobriety. I’ve started to develop a sense of what kind of reaction I might get based on my relationship with them and their own demeanor. I’m not always right, but it helps.

Sometimes I simply say that I gave up alcohol for physical and mental health, and leave it at that. Other times, the conversation will evolve naturally, and I’ll talk a bit more about how I wasn’t always in control and got tired of doing things I regretted. Most people know that’s a widespread experience and move on. There could be hundreds of reasons you’re not drinking – medication, illness, pregnancy… you don’t owe anyone your truth, unless you wish to share it. It may be worth spending some time reflecting on your reasons for giving up alcohol, determining how much you want to say (or not say) to different groups of people in your life.

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As social creatures, we navigate the world by asking ourselves if we are like or unlike other people. Because of this, many people turn the conversation about why I’m not drinking back onto themselves, and why they think they do or don’t have trouble controlling their alcohol intake. I usually let those people talk through their perspective without guiding the discussion, as I don’t have a way of knowing whether they have a problem or not. If anything, I’ll mention that for me, quitting was a good idea, but that not everyone needs to. I find myself saying that a lot – “not everyone needs to.” That seems to help people realize I’m not trying to project my lifestyle onto them. 

Inevitably, some people who have reservations about their own control over alcohol will take your decision to quit as a personal threat to their ability to drink, becoming defensive. In those more awkward conversations, I again frame my sobriety as a personal decision, something that was the best decision for me – not something I’m necessarily recommending to them. I usually keep it short and let the conversation move elsewhere. Most people know whether giving up alcohol is something they should consider. It’s not up to me to tell them that. Don’t trick yourself into thinking you can “save” people – most people need to decide on their own, when it’s best for them, if they are someone who needs to quit. If someone is immediately defensive, they aren’t likely to want your advice.

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Weddings and other celebrations can pose a particular challenge, especially when there’s an open bar. A large part of American culture is tremendously hedonistic, and the idea of someone choosing not to consume alcohol that’s free and unlimited is not only off-putting, but insulting in some people’s minds. Your abstaining can be seen as threatening to take away something that’s helping other people relax and deal with social anxiety. In reality, alcohol is ubiquitous – it isn’t rare or exclusive. Your decision to forego it poses no real threat to anyone else, and those in your social circle will quickly realize that. I sincerely feel that with time, as the stigma surrounding sobriety is reduced, it won’t be seen as such a big deal to stick with seltzer or soda – even in this culture.

At events like these, you may encounter friends and family you haven’t seen in a long time, and others who don’t need or deserve much detail about your reasons for abstaining. You can always simply say you’re “not drinking,” offering up a reason like being on an antibiotic or challenging yourself to a “dry month,” if you don’t want to start a conversation about your sobriety. 

wedding reception setup
Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

Situations like this may call for the trusty coozie, and for ordering selzers or sodas that no one needs to know are non-alcoholic. If you already have something in your hand, it’s less awkward to turn a drink down. Most people don’t care what you’re drinking. They just want to see that you have a drink in your hand. It helps them detect a sense of community that supports their own drinking. In my case, having some caffeine and sugar also helps me to stay energized and enthusiastic – to really enjoy being there, socializing, and dancing. It helps to come prepared with a coozie and a few non-alcoholic drinks, where possible.

To sum up, I’ve noticed three categories of response types when I mention that I’m not drinking. First, there are the tense and standoffish people who don’t ask much at all, and usually find a way out of the conversation entirely. Second, there are the folks who are “cool with it,” often people who feel in control of their own drinking behavior or who know others who have gone through this, so they’re at ease talking about it. Finally, there are the people who are well-intentioned but a little defensive, turning the conversation to themselves – but these conversations can often be redirected with a bit of practice. Very few people have been openly rude to me, and in the cases where that has happened, I bid them good riddance.

If you’ve given up drinking, I wish you the best of luck in any social encounters involving alcohol that are headed your way. I’m sure other non-drinkers have interesting perspectives and strategies for navigating these situations, as well – I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

-Dana G

two women talking in a beautiful landscape
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12 thoughts on “How much should I share?

  1. Thank you for this discussion! I especially agree that people want to see a drink in others hands to indicate a common bond of some sort. I have never thought of bringing a coozie – great idea! I often have defaulted to the “I’m the DD” comment when questioned. It seems that most often people do respect choice a bit more recently – but it might just be my older adult age group. Do you think there is a greater awareness and respect of choosing not to drink in younger people’s social scenes?

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    1. Great question! I think it depends on many things… every individual (and group of friends) is different. I have some friend groups who party more than others, but am very fortunate to be among accepting and open-minded people, overall. Not everyone has that benefit. Sometimes even family culture can make quitting and staying sober difficult.

      Age is certainly a factor. As people grow older and priorities shift, with many becoming more focused on things like their careers, health, and raising families, the partying mindset and peer culture usually starts to dwindle. Others (with some crossover) also start to recognize the toll alcohol can take on their bodies and mental health, and grow more accustomed to ways of hanging out that don’t involve alcohol – or so much of it. That is, of course, not always the case.

      I don’t think I could have done this easily five years ago. Much has changed in the way my friends interact between my mid-twenties and now. Though I believe my friends would have been accepting then, it would have been more difficult to be surrounded by the heavier drinking, and I might have felt more like an outsider than I do now. Most of my friends have started to drink far less in recent years, and recognize why someone might need to opt out of drinking entirely. Again, I am very lucky. But there are some friends I find myself hanging out with a little less because I don’t sense they are quite as comfortable around me. Maybe that’ll change, but I try not to worry about it. I focus on the enriching friendships I do have, and the new friends I’ve found in interest-based communities (thanks to meetup.com!)

      Age is one factor, but so are the dynamics and culture within different family, friend, and work groups – as well as other factors like geography, education, moral values, economic means, and I’m sure a thousand other things. I’m writing from one specific worldview – and honestly a rather privileged space. My experience certainly won’t line up with everyone else’s.

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  2. when I took a break from alcohol and wasn’t drinking, i would go out and where I live,,if you don’t drink theres something really wrong with you. When i told people im not drinking, their immediate question was why? whats wrong with you? when i said nothing, its just a personal choice, often they couldn’t just accept that. They had to know and kept on persisting and asking questions, often some of my friends would just pour me a drink and say, “dont’ be stupid, tonight your’e drinking.” I thought it very interesting how people find it so hard to accept and more so to understand. Plus 9 out 10 times, they want a drinking buddy! interesting! i enjoyed reading your blog! cheers

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    1. Hi Christina, I’m sorry to hear people were so non-receptive and blatantly pushy, and made you feel this way. That’s unfortunately the case for some groups of people that value drinking as their core connective tissue. I wonder if they took lightly your “being on a break,” too, as it implies a temporary stop. Which is totally unfair, nevertheless – you should be able to take as short or long a break from alcohol as you wish, and for that matter, anything else in your life! They may also have perceived your not drinking as a threat to their own drinking behavior. Many friends eventually adjust and get more comfortable. But sometimes, it’s just easier to spend a little less time around friends and acquaintances who are going to be rude or pushy about your sobriety. Even that’s not always possible – what if it’s your immediate family pushing you to drink, and to feel like avoiding alcohol means there’s something wrong with you? If you’re able to get some time away from these folks and find other social outlets that don’t involve alcohol, it definitely helps.

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      1. Yes, taking a step back from certain people definitely has been my preference. I often think that it threatens their own drinking behavior. But most important thing is to take care of ourselves and allow others to have their feelings. But know that they are not mine. cheers! thanks for your reply. looking forward to reading more of your stuff.

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  3. I think your perspective, your three categories, is right on. I like your line “not everyone needs to” give up booze, because it puts people at ease…still, if it’s a person that does need to, it will probably plant a seed… 😉

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    1. That’s a really good point! This reminds me of a favorite quote by the poet Frank Bidart, from the poem “Advice to the Players”: “Horrible the fate of the advice-giver in our culture: to repeat oneself in a thousand contexts until death, or irrelevance.” I realize that’s a little ironic, given this is essentially an advice blog, but it’s important to remember that advice will only be welcomed by those looking for it. We can’t push a lifestyle on folks who aren’t interested. But there are many people living on the threshold of severe discomfort with their drinking (“egodystonic” versus “egosyntonic” drinking behavior), and for them, a reminder that quitting is a possibility can’t hurt.

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  4. Great post. I have had exactly this experience with many people comparing their drinking behaviour to what mine was before I quit. Almost as if my drinking were the barometer they can measure themselves by. Now I know it’s because they are looking for reassurance that they can carry on as they are, guilt free, I just ignore it.
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