I Don't Want To Drink — Why Does That Bother You?

Photo: Cultura RM Exclusive/ Liam Norris/ Getty Images.
Who doesn't love happy hour? It's a time to socialize with your friends and coworkers, get out of the office on time, and relax. But if you don't drink, happy hours may not be so relaxing — though it's not because of your lack of a buzz.

The last time my team at Refinery29 had a happy hour, I scanned the bar's menu online beforehand. I knew everyone else was getting watermelon margaritas, so I noted the price before scanning the food menu. I decided that while everyone else ordered the margarita, I'd get a kale salad. (Since our director had budgeted a certain amount of money for the drinks, I figured it wouldn't hurt to redirect my margarita funds toward food.) When they went for a second round, I had an iced coffee.

There I was, eating a full meal, while everyone else nursed alcoholic watermelon slush. To most people, that might sound even more awkward than just drinking water, and I credit the fact that it wasn't to R29's nonjudgmental atmosphere. (It also helped that another member of our team doesn't drink, either, though she didn't order anything at all and had to leave early.)

It also wasn't a big deal because I've always been the person who doesn't drink at a happy hour, or at restaurants in general. It's not that I don't drink at all — that's a totally different (and tremendous) challenge, as Kristi Coulter outlined in a beautiful essay for Medium. I'll gladly enjoy, say, a cider at home or at a dive bar. But personally, I don't value spending money on alcohol. If I'm out with friends, I'd much rather buy an appetizer than a round of drinks.

You'd think that would be a personal decision — but when it comes to alcohol, other people get involved. Personally, I've been subject to both strange looks and judgy reactions ("Are you really not drinking?") over the years. I can't name another time when my actions have been so irritating to other people. I'm already there, spending time with you — doesn't that matter more than what I've chosen to imbibe (or not)?

It's not just me, either: Coworkers who don't drink have relayed experiences of people asking absurdly intrusive questions — including speculation about pregnancy — that no one would find it appropriate to ask outside of a happy hour setting.

To me, it's hard to understand why my behavior bothers other people so much. My not drinking shouldn't impact your ability to have an enjoyable night out. It doesn't bother me to be the only sober person out with a group of friends — what bothers me is when people dwell on it, or insist on pushing drinks toward me. Again, I'm lucky that's not the culture at my workplace, but it's happened in plenty of other settings. Somehow, drinking-related events mean it's fine to disregard people's personal choices.

When I asked etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore about how to avoid the awkwardness, she recommended ordering club soda or ginger ale at a bar, so other people won't know you're not drinking. She noted that adding a lime wedge really sells the look. If that helps you feel more comfortable, it's a great tip. But you also shouldn't feel like you have to hide your order, or explain yourself. There's no need to share details about your situation — especially if you are pregnant or in recovery and don't want to talk about it — but you don't need to go overboard with deception, either.

When all else fails, Whitmore recommends turning the questions back toward the people asking them. If someone won't stop asking why you're not drinking, you can reply, "Why do you ask?" It might make things awkward, but they'll probably stop asking.

And if you're out with your friends and notice someone's not partaking, do them a favor and don't ask why. They'll definitely appreciate it, which will make their happy hour (and yours) even happier.
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