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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!