You Don’t Drink? What’s Wrong With You?

I don’t like to drink. I don’t like the taste of alcohol. And, outside of a handful of memorable, drinking stories that my friends and I repeatedly share with each other, I don’t get drunk and I don’t like to get drunk. I also don’t like the loss of time that comes with a hangover and the loss of control that comes with drinking.

And it’s not because I have a drinking problem. I never have. I just don’t like drinking alcohol, it’s simply not part of my life.

Even though I am in my early thirties, I still face this incredible pressure–peer pressure–to drink. I am talking about the kind of pressure we’re reminded of when we think of teenagers, college students, or those in their early twenties, and how our friends, during this phase of our lives, were pushing us to drink.

Although we often think peer pressure in drinking is tied to a younger more footloose group, to twenty-somethings who are still finding themselves, I’ve discovered through my own experience and through learning about the experiences of my readers, that age and professional status really plays no role in whether someone will pressure or be pressured. Men and women in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s are doing the pressuring.

It seems to me that social pressure to drink is more a cultural issue than an age issue.

I even have friends who claim they could never be in relationship with a person who doesn’t drink. Because that’s what every solid relationship is built on: consumption of alcohol.

In (Western) adult social culture, alcohol is a primary and important component of being part of a group, where people who are not interested in alcohol or dislike the taste, are subject to pressure to drink. They, in turn, are forced to find or create, what are deemed “legitimate reasons” for not joining in with the drinking. Failure to drink creates a barrier between the drinkers and those people, who, for various reasons, choose not to drink alcohol.

Why are we judging and pressuring people who don’t drink and why do we make them justify or explain their reasons for refusing alcohol?

Alcohol (and drinking) is a part of the wide range of social pressures in our culture and it’s part of the fabric of many people’s lives. However, it’s not an insignificant thing to ask and pressure someone else to drink.

I get that alcohol helps people loosen up in social settings, but it creates a barrier between people who choose to drink and people who don’t. And this barrier sets the tone for who talks to and who hangs out with whom. It’s as if alcohol is the social glue that keeps us together and if we don’t have it and are faced with some people who drink and some people who don’t, things seem to get off-balance and uncomfortable.

The idea of someone who doesn’t drink is so foreign to some people that we sometimes falsely assume that the person who is not drinking has a past of alcohol abuse or we force these non-drinkers to constantly explain themselves.

Mindy, a reader from Chicago in her early 30’s, often deals with new friends or colleagues who assume she was an alcoholic or member of A.A., because she chooses not to drink.

So when it comes to socializing, do we only have two categories for people: sober alcoholic or drinker? There are so many people that fall in between these two categories, they’re not really sober, but they’re also not active drinkers.

A friend of mine who works in corporate advertising commented on the pressure she feels when ordering a glass of water or lemonade at a restaurant with colleagues and everyone else is ordering wine or a cocktail, “I’m made to feel like I’m not an adult.”

Susie, a 38 year-old paralegal found herself being excluded from activities at work, because she barely drank.

“You won’t want to come out tonight because you don’t drink,” she would hear from her co-workers in an almost sympathetic tone (she would always be included in activities that didn’t include heavy drinking).

“I can still have a good time without drinking. It’s not like I’m standing there with my arms crossed at a bar, frowning. I just wonder if they feel judged if I am not doing shots with them and that’s why I’m not being included.”

For Susie and other people in her situation, the social interaction between colleagues, the same interaction that often aides people in their careers, is something that is stripped from her. Unless she’s willing to drink to intoxication, people just don’t feel comfortable having her around and so, Susie misses out on one part of professional networking.

My friend Erin, who is in her late 30’s, found her second pregnancy to be the saving grace, in terms of alleviating the pressure that comes with drinking, “I find it a relief now that I’m visibly six months pregnant, because I can point to my belly and say, ‘Sorry, I can’t!’”

“It will be a drag when I have to go back to explaining to people, ‘No really, I just don’t like it.’”

Having an excuse, whether it’s an illness or pregnancy, seems to offer a reprieve to those who don’t want to drink. But it still doesn’t doesn’t make sense to me. I understand (but don’t accept) the social pressure to drink during high school and college-age years, but why are adults so obsessed with their friends, family, and colleagues drinking?

And why do there seem to be real, social consequences for people who don’t care to learn the difference between a Chardonnay and a Cabernet?

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14 Responses to “You Don’t Drink? What’s Wrong With You?”

  1. Avatar of LorraineM9
    LorraineM9 December 23, 2011 at 2:33 pm #

    As a member of the Baha’i Faith, I don’t drink alcohol either. When I first became a Baha’i, this was a big problem, because all my friends new that I used to drink and could not understand the change of behaviour. Now, I’m so firm about it that people don’t tend to insist. Perhaps I’m lucky. Then again, I don’t really go to bars and places where there is lots of alcohol either.
    The funny thing I noticed between my drinking and non-drinking days is that drinkers tended to only loosen up when drinking. We would all be ‘serious’ during the week and just be waiting for the week end to be able to “let go”, be silly and crazy and enjoy ourselves. Now that I never drink, I no longer need to wait for the week end. I can be silly, crazy anytime I wish, and the best part of it is, I don’t need a drink to do so.
    I also knew some people who needed to take a few drinks before giving a public speech because they were nervous otherwise. Well, I was really nervous too, but since I don’t drink, I had to face my fears and get up and do the public speaking without any aid. In so doing, I think I grew and learned. Now I’m able to speak in front of large audiences. But for the person who always relies on the few drinks before being able to get up there and speak, they never get better at it.
    So in many ways, though society never talks about it in these terms, alcohol is a handicap.

  2. Avatar of Kris
    Kris December 5, 2011 at 8:17 am #

    “…Because that’s what every solid relationship is built on: consumption of alcohol…” That’s so funny! God, it’s so true too how some people think this way.

  3. Avatar of scdg1983
    scdg1983 November 30, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

    I don’t drink because I am Muslim and choose to abide by religion’s restriction not to. Other people don’t drink just because they don’t want to and have no religious reasoning for doing it. I don’t judge anyone who chooses to drink no matter what their faith is. I just don’t like when people make me feel bad about not drinking. Everyone has a choice what to put in their bodies. My friends understand for the most part. I won’t feel bad about not drinking and I think it’s kinda sad that a lot of people cannot socialize comfortably if there is no alcohol. What happened to just enjoying peoples company and making good conversation? We should all as human beings respect someones choice not to put a harmful substance in their bodies. Like I said, I don’t care if people drink or not but making someone feel isolated or bad about no drinking is purely ridiculous.

  4. Avatar of nhlandpirate
    nhlandpirate November 29, 2011 at 8:15 pm #

    I decided to quit drinking a few months ago. I began drinking less and less as time went on and hangovers just were not worth it. Society does not get the expression, “In college, its partying, after college its alcoholism”. Society is not encourage to be sober and if they are the assume your an alcoholic just like the article says. When I first drank I thought people who didn’t drink were snobs that just liked to watch the drunk idiots and silently judge them. Then as I grew up I began to admire these types of people who could be around drunks, not cave to peer pressure and still mange to have fun. I don;t see nearly as many friends as I used to and I think they purposely don’t invite me anywhere knowing I don;t drink. I don;t think its because they are afraid of me being uncomfortable, I think they are uncomfortable with themselves. Sometimes I wish I had never said anything to them, they probably wouldn’t have noticed anyways.

  5. Avatar of smibbo
    smibbo November 29, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

    I really think its all about how you present it. I have never been partial to marijuana. I don’t like how it makes me feel. I’ve had very interesting discussions with people who love it. All because I simply said “oh no thank you, it doesn’t agree with me but please go ahead”

    The same with alcohol. I’ve never had a “drinking problem”. I like to get tipsy occasionally. But somewhere around my mid-30s I realized I was just “over” the whole “lets get stinking drunk” thing (well okay outside of DragonCon)
    Worse yet, I’ve always disliked the taste of beer and wine. If I’m going to get inebriated, I’ll slam a few shots to get it done.

    Yet I’ve never ever had anyone give me the slightest flack about not drinking. The past five years I’ve hardly touched the stuff because I’m usually the Designated Driver. Sure I could use that as an excuse (although that’s actually pretty stupid, you can have a drink or two and still be sober enough to drive a few hours later) but I don’t have to. I say “no thanks, it doesn’t agree with me but please feel free to have fun” and no one, NO ONE seems to have any issue with this. Then again, my friends and acquaintances know quite well that if i held some kind of negative judgment against them, I’d tell them up-front.

    Considering that you write an insightful blog that revolves around sociology and social justice issues, I wonder if the people you are dealing with have a very real vibe of judgment coming off you when you refuse alcohol.

    A large part of it also may be that you aren’t just going easy on the alcohol, you’re abstaining altogether for no particular reason. Alcohol has been scientifically proven to relax people and ease social interaction. When you refuse that which is known to oil the wheels of polite society, people figure you either have some kind of personal issue with alcohol or you are so uptight that you can’t stand the idea of loosening up. That’s what people are most likely thinking.

    Also, its an issue of gentility. Accepting ONE drink (and nursing it all night) is considered polite. When you refuse the host’s offer without good reason, then you are considered rude.

  6. Avatar of Siv-Ingvild
    Siv-Ingvild November 29, 2011 at 5:12 pm #

    I wonder why some people need everybody else to be exactly like them, period. I quit smoking last winter, last saturday i was invited to friends house and I soon relised it was because the wife needed me to tell her husband to quit smoking. How could I think it was a nice dinner-invitation!
    I had been smoking a lot since I was 13, it was not easy to quit. But it is much worse to be non-smoker. I had been worrying about this, because I had seen how smokers and non-smokers keep seperate at most social situations. But I had not expected how bad it would be. I am still the same person, and I still want everybody else to live their lives as they want. I even like to eat food that is not healthy, sometimes.
    Why can`t people acept that I made a decision for me, I don`t need to defend that and I certainly do not need to make descisions for other.
    I tell this because I think it is about the same: Everybody expects me to be some health-fanatic now. Just as many expects thoose who say no to alcohol.
    It would be so much better and easier for everyone if we could wait until someone speak, before starting making asumptions on what they think and mean!

  7. Avatar of LASabrina
    LASabrina November 29, 2011 at 3:27 pm #

    I drank as a 20-something and I drank a lot. To the point that I couldn’t and rarely ever chose to have fun without alcohol involved. I partied with other drinkers and encountered those who didn’t drink, whom I thought were odd. I have had more than one friend who didn’t drink because of what alcohol does to your body and it wasn’t something they choose to do to themselves. It was not something I understood at all, but I tried to respect it once I knew that they choose not to.

    I, unfortunately, have not had the same acceptance. Right around 30, I chose to limit my drinking. I will admit that I love the taste of most alochols (though not beer or wine) and that I can very easily put away a lot of alcohol if I chose to. But, much like the article said…I don’t like the way it makes me feel, I don’t like the lost time to hangovers or the loss of control. It’s taken me a long time to come to a decision that is all about me and to take ownership of the fact that I don’t HAVE to drink if I don’t want to.

    My current group of friends has gotten much better over the years. There’s far less pressure to drink and if I say “no thank you” they offer me water, soda or juice. It also has the benefit for them that they always have a designated driver because of my lack of desire to drink. Now, it’s not to say that I never partake, but I do so on my own terms and in quantities that I am comfortable with.

    I just wished that everyone would realize that pressuring people to drink is a negative thing and that those of who don’t drink are not actually judging those who do and we are just as capable of having fun without the alcohol.

  8. Avatar of dirpnirptik
    dirpnirptik November 29, 2011 at 1:54 pm #

    I don’t drink because I’m with someone who had a drinking problem and quit. I use the excuse that I’m ‘being supportive’, but the truth is that I wasn’t drinking before I met him. I liked going to bars, many of them were bar-and-grill’s, or local restaurants with really cool bartenders, but I ordered a sprite. “Are you still on that sprite kick?!” they’d ask.

    Yes. I’m still on that sprite kick. I’m not drinking.

    It’s frustrating when I am pressured (or judged) about drinking…I feel like I want to yell at my hosts…”No, I’m not a lush. No, I don’t like wine. No, your booze makes me ill. No, I don’t want to look or act like YOU!” It causes issues with my bf’s family because they see me as ‘not-one-of-us’…but the truth is that it was a huge *relief* to find out he was an alcoholic…FINALLY someone who DIDN’T want to meet in a bar. Someone who I could work through issues with WITHOUT having to have-a-few-drinks-and-bury-the-hatchet. Someone who didn’t use booze as the excuse to say something they would regret…or use it as the excuse to get out of trouble for saying something I’m going to make him regret.

    I don’t drink. I like not drinking. Maybe they should try it…seeing people who ARE drunk might change a few opinions about which kind of person they want to be.

  9. Avatar of DDiller222
    DDiller222 November 29, 2011 at 12:45 pm #

    When I was training for a half marathon I stopped drinking for nearly three months to get my body in tip-top shape. I dreaded going out and to bars for birthdays or seeing friends at social events, even though they all were understanding and supportive of my lifestyle alteration.

    The worst moment during that time was when I attended my good friend’s milestone 30th birthday at a bar and was laughed at by the bartender and strangers at the bar when I asked what non-alcoholic drinks they offered. I wish I had the option of lemonade like your friend did, it would have been less embarassing.

    There’s actually a story mentioned on the cover of Details Magazine in stores now about how sobriety is ‘the new cool’ so maybe social pressures are easing up . . . a tiny bit.

  10. Avatar of nolonick
    nolonick November 29, 2011 at 10:54 am #

    I didn’t drink for a long time. (You could use the word “sober” as I was recovering from a drinking problem, but I don’t really like that whole model of addiction treatment, so I don’t.) I actually didn’t find people pressuring me much to drink. Maybe it’s because my friends knew I was in recovery, but very rarely did I have to defend my choices.

    • Avatar of annvictoria
      annvictoria November 29, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

      Your response is riddled with contradiction. People didn’t pressure you BECAUSE YOU HAD A PROBLEM. Label yourself however you want it’s hardly what the author is speaking about.

      Most of the time I just don’t enjoy drinking but that doesn’t mean that maybe once a year under the right circumstances I may have a drink or up to four (my limit) but I agree with the author that if often leaves you in a place of the pariah because drinkers just can’t comprehend how you would not want to drink.


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