There are certain personal conversations that inevitably (and sometimes awkwardly) make their way into the workplace.
For example, you might have to tell your boss that you’re vegan when they schedule a business lunch at your local steakhouse. Or, maybe you need to mention that you’re color blind and have trouble parsing charts that are red and green (true story, my brother had to do this).
Or you might have to reveal during your company happy hour that you don’t drink. This can be an especially tricky situation, as alcohol is a pretty common part of socializing with co-workers, mingling at networking events, or meeting with potential clients.
There are plenty of reasons why you may choose not to drink—religious reasons, personal reasons, health reasons, or a history of addiction, or maybe you just don’t like the taste. Whatever the rationale, here’s how to navigate it at work:
Take the Pressure Off Yourself
Ian Foster, an entrepreneur based in Alaska, hasn’t drank since he was a teenager. When he travels for work, specifically when attending booking conferences for music tours with his business partner, he’s constantly turning down offers for drinks.
“These are people I want to impress and I want to like me. They’re people that it’s important to socialize [with], because they’re not just looking at the power of my craft, they’re looking at the way I get along with other people,” he says. And his first concern when he mentions he doesn’t drink is that people will think he’s not fun.
Kate Campion, blogger and founder of My Sweet Home Life, felt similarly after she stopped drinking: “It was actually harder for me when I first stopped drinking and had to go from being the party girl at my workplace to the one who was getting sober. I really had no option at the beginning than just to say ‘no’ to all things until I was comfortable handling situations involving alcohol.”
Having to bring up something as personal as choosing not to drink in front of your colleagues can be incredibly daunting. There’s a fear, as Foster described to me, that you bring less to the table. Or, that people will hold your past against you or coerce you to participate, as was the case with Campion.
However, many of the people I spoke with emphasized that while peer pressure isn’t uncommon, it’s usually a lot less present than you’d think.
“I think a lot of people go into these situations thinking you have to drink in order to become part of the ‘in’ crowd,” says Foster. “That’s such a lie—because I’ve had so many people who give me a hard time in the moment...but they’ve all come back and said, ‘I respect that.’”
Foster goes on to mention that not only do people respect his decision, but they're also more inclined to trust his character and judgement: “They know I’m always going to be sober and I’m always going to be clear—if something needs to happen they can trust my intellect to handle it.”
The point? You’re probably putting more pressure on yourself to participate than others are putting on you. So stick to your guns and go in confident that in the end nobody really cares whether or not you drink.
Practice What You’ll Say
Of course, pressure still exists, and being able to handle it is important—for your health and for your work relationships.
“I think it’s so individual,” says Kelifern Pomeranz, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist based in Silicon Valley who both specializes in addiction and is a non-drinker herself. A lot of how much you share depends on your company culture, she says. Do you normally share personal details with your manager or co-workers? And, do you feel comfortable doing so?
Often Pomeranz will role play with her clients to practice how they’ll tell their stories and how they should handle various responses. Doing this can take the pressure off in the moment and help you stand your ground when someone broaches the subject. And you don’t have to give all the details, she adds. It can be as simple as saying “I don’t drink” or politely declining their offer.
Foster usually picks this strategy when meeting with business contacts: “I’m not trying to sell out or make it sound like a negotiation, so it’s important to be firm with it.”
When someone offers him a drink—in one instance he described, a woman basically shoved it under his nose—he declines. But “I smile and I thank them, and I thank them sincerely,” he adds. Drinks are expensive, he explains, and so he understands the person is making a nice gesture and that’s worth acknowledging. “And then I quickly move on to something else. Like, ‘How about this karaoke, isn’t this crazy?’”
No matter your situation, says Pomeranz, you have the right to choose whether you tell your story. Having a line in your back pocket such as “I used to drink and I choose not to now” or “I don’t like the taste of alcohol” or “I have to drive home” may be all you need to get people to change the topic.
You can even inject some humor to keep the conversation light, as Rob Lewis—who works in sales at an equipment rental company and decided to stop drinking altogether shortly after a work mishap several years ago—suggests. “My usual response is something goofy like, ‘The world can’t handle me sober, so imagine if I was drunk.’”
In short, you don’t owe people anything—so don’t be afraid to turn them away. “People that are really in your face about it aren’t respectful of you and your choices,” says Campion.
Have an Alternative Plan in Place
Sometimes, it may not make sense to explain yourself—or, it does but the explanation still isn’t convincing the person to leave you alone.
Many of the people I spoke with agreed that when this happens, it’s best to have some kind of backup plan in place. Maybe that means ordering yourself a seltzer or water so people see something in your hand and are less likely to bring it up. Or, you can offer to be the designated driver so it’s understood why you’re not drinking.
“[I]f I was in some awkward situation where not accepting a drink would raise flags, I would consider taking it but leaving it on the table,” says Campion.
Some people are perfectly comfortable being around co-workers who drink or going to events at bars. But others may not be.
“If you feel triggered by others drinking alcohol, do what you need to do to take care of yourself,” says Pomeranz. “You can take frequent breaks from the situation if needed, spend your time around other co-workers who don’t drink or minimally drink, and leave the event early if you absolutely cannot tolerate it.” And, of course, you can always choose not to go to an event altogether as long as it’s not mandatory.
Find Activities and Places That Don’t Require Drinking
Take advantage of those moments during the day when drinking is definitely not involved to get to know your co-workers in a more comfortable setting. Go on meeting walks, or grab coffee or lunch with individual colleagues.
Outside the office, there are plenty of other options for team bonding.
When attending conferences, he encourages his colleagues “to go and do something fun like go-karting or something that takes us out of that bar environment,” says Lewis. Or, he’ll simply suggest hanging out at a restaurant, where food is equally the focus—and “where more or less [your colleagues] feel embarrassed if they get drunk there.”
Many companies also provide sports leagues and clubs for employees to join to get to know each other. But if there’s nothing in place, “make it happen—start your own thing,” says Foster. Get a small group together that loves to read and create a book club. Or, take your team to an escape room challenge. Or, as we do at The Muse, gather a few folks together on a Friday night to play board games in the office.
The key is to find something that feels like a safe space for everyone, says Campion: “Sure people might be drinking at some of these, but it’s not the focus.”
Pay it Forward
As someone who knows what it’s like to be a non-drinker at work, you have the power to change your company’s culture to be more inclusive.
“People’s reasons for not drinking are very personal. So I always give people the same respect that I’m hoping to get myself,” says Foster. This means that just as he doesn’t like people prying into his reasons, he doesn’t dig too deep into others’.
Many companies also don’t think to organize activities around those who don’t drink, so if you’re part of your company’s social committee or know people who are, “you can help bring in some more activity-based functions that don’t revolve around drinking,” says Campion.
You may feel alone in your situation, but you might be surprised to find that others are in a similar boat. If anything, some colleagues might appreciate the opportunity to get to know their teammates sans alcohol.
The truth is—and you know this—just because you don’t drink doesn’t mean you can’t still socialize and bond with your co-workers.
If input from these employees isn’t enough to convince you otherwise, just remember that 100% of your time together in the office is alcohol-free (I’d hope), and that time can be just as valuable as any happy hour.
Mainly, be yourself and do what makes you most comfortable—people will ultimately respect and admire you for it.