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Advice / Job Search / Networking

Your Handy-Dandy Guide to Networking When You're Underage

There’s nothing more awkward than going to a networking event where everyone’s sipping cocktails when you’re still underage.

OK, I lied. There is something more awkward—and it happened recently to a 19-year-old friend of mine. Her entire office headed to a special event, only to find when she got there that it was a “21+ only” venue, and she was the only person in the office who couldn’t legally drink.

In a world where bonding with your co-workers and building new professional relationships often happens at booze-filled post-work events, networking when you’re under 21 isn’t easy. Luckily for you, I’ve had years of experience doing it. And I’ve found that there are ways to still put yourself out there without flashing a fake ID or pretending that your water is a large (large!) glass of vodka.

1. Read the Fine Print

Building on that example from my underage friend who accidentally went to a 21-and-over event, if your team is heading anywhere special (or you’re heading to networking events on your own), be sure to check the venue website or the invite for the fine print phrases that say things like, “21+ only.” This note will usually be at the bottom of event details, underneath all the exciting information (Appetizers! Goody bags! Awesome speakers!), so read everything carefully before you head out.

Or, if someone else invited you, ask him or her if there’s any sort of age restriction. It’s easier and less embarrassing to get details beforehand, rather than be turned away at the door.

2. Leave the Fake ID at Home

I attended an event at a prominent publication last summer where I saw an intern try to use a fake ID at the open bar—and it was confiscated in front of several prominent writers, editors, and industry buffs. Was that glass of cheap champagne worth such a cringe-worthy moment? Heck no.

Regardless of whether or not you have a fake ID for other purposes, don’t use it around co-workers, bosses, or professional contacts. To some, this may seem obvious, but I’ve heard horror story after horror story about interns trying to use fakes at work functions. Most of them don’t end well, and even if you’re successful in getting a drink, your team still knows that you’re breaking the law. Is any beverage worth making others question your ethics?

3. Drink Something

Whether it’s happy hour with your team or a larger networking function, chances are you might feel a little weird being the only person in the room not holding a cup in your hand.

My advice: Grab some water or soda. Unless you’re chugging from an oversized glass with a twisty straw, people won’t usually notice or care what you’re drinking. If you’re asked what you’re having, just say water. If someone pushes the matter, tell him or her you’re feeling really dehydrated (“Didn’t want to make this headache worse!”). It works every time.

4. Be Honest About Your Age

This scenario pops up often: What do you do if someone offers you a drink, but you don’t want to accept it?

I’ve found that the easiest thing to do is to be candid about your situation. Making light of it typically does the trick (“Ah, the fun of being under 21!”). And remember, everyone was under 21 at some point. Unless you’re posing as a CEO, no one should be shocked by your response.

But, if making a joke about it feels awkward to you, just use the trusty old “I’m not feeling great” excuse and order a glass of water.

5. Pace Yourself

There may be situations in which you do feel okay drinking (such as a small in-office happy hour where someone pours you a glass). In those cases, the most important thing is to pace yourself and drink less than everyone else. “Sloppy intern” is not a good look on anyone, but it’s especially embarrassing when you’re underage.

Not sure how much is too much? I’d recommend sticking to one drink for the entire shindig, two tops (if it’s an extra long event). Last, but not least, order the tamest drink on the menu—like beer or wine. Say no to shots or anything that resembles frat house jungle juice.

Laying off the booze does have its benefits (even for people who are over 21), like keeping your mind clear during conversation and making it easier to present your best, most polished self. Both of which are especially important for young people just starting their careers. Putting your best foot forward? I’ll drink (water) to that.

Photo of girl with juice box courtesy of Shutterstock.