I’m a 20-year-old college student and I don’t drink, nor will I likely ever drink in the future. My father is an alcoholic, and every family member on his side has some form of substance abuse problem. I know that having a drink now and again will not necessarily hurt me or lead to a drinking problem of my own, but I’ve decided to just abstain completely anyways.
Most of my peers/classmates, however, like to drink and will often talk at length about it. I’ve been asked multiple times about my beer preference or some other alcohol-related question, to which I simply reply I don’t drink. For some reason, most people can’t seem to accept this and will ask me why not, or even try to convince me how great drinking is if I say it’s because I’m not interested. I don’t have a problem with other people drinking or listening to stories about it, but I don’t know how to explain my “disinterest” to other people.
I really don’t want to be a huge bummer in front of other people and say outright, “I don’t drink because my dad is an alcoholic,” but I don’t know how to get people to stop asking questions. “I don’t drink for personal reasons,” also feels like either a bummer or might lead to people asking what those reasons are.
So, Captain is there any way I can sidestep these questions without having to divulge my personal circumstances or bringing down the mood of the group?
Thanks for any help,
Sober in South Florida (she/her)
Dear Sober in South Florida,
For close, trusted friends, consider telling the unvarnished truth at a time when you’re one-on-one with them in a calm, quiet place and not at a party or immediately heading to one: “The [party last week] [where the topic came up in a big, awkward way] wasn’t the time to talk about this, but I wanted to tell you: I don’t drink because of some serious addiction problems in my family. I’m fine if other people drink, but sometimes it’s exhausting when people try really hard to sell me on how great it is or pry into my reasons. I know for sure that it’s not for me.”
You don’t owe anyone your whole family history, but you don’t owe your family a shield of never talking about it, either, and maybe it would be helpful for people close to you to know a little bit about your reasons. If they know, they can stop pressuring you about it right now, forever. They can have your back when others do pressure you. You can ask them directly to do this, like, “Not everyone has to know about my family, but now that you do, can you help me out sometimes? Remembering that I don’t drink and not making me re-negotiate that every time we are out and about would help, a lot. When others don’t get it, helping me change the subject (i.e. ‘Dude, she told you she doesn’t drink. New topic!’) would also help and make me feel less alone about this.”
You never know: They might have their own complicated families. You are not alone.
Now, repeat after me: “Reasonable people who are cool to hang out with will accept what I say at face value. The people I generally want in my life will not pressure me, demand elaborate reasons, or make it their mission to sell me on the wonders of booze once I’ve said I’m not into it.”
Also, repeat after me: ‘The mood of the group’ is not my job.
Culture being what it is, there is no one way you can communicate that you don’t drink that will magically stop people from having feelings (or occasional annoying reactions) to that fact. However, if your perfectly reasonable life choice ‘brings down the mood of the group‘ then that’s on the group. The stuff you’re already saying, like:
- “No thank you! But you go ahead.”
- “Not interested, thanks! But your story is interesting – what happened next?”
- “I don’t drink, but I don’t mind if other people do.”
- “You do you! I don’t drink.”
- “I don’t have a favorite drink, but what’s in yours?“
…is just fine. You’re not being mysterious or unclear or judgmental or a jerk.
You could try throwing in a subject change and see if it changes the vibe. Does the other person take your cue?
- “I don’t drink, thanks. How did you hear about this band?“
- “Not for me, thanks. Where’d you find that t-shirt?“
- “It’s not my jam. What’s your favorite place to eat around here?“
When you encounter someone who just won’t let it go, remind yourself: It is NOT COOL to pressure you or interrogate you or make you feel weird or somehow “less than” because you don’t drink. You are the sole boss of what goes into your body! You told them, straight up, how things are. You don’t have to continually negotiate. In fact, it’s better not to, because negotiating & giving reasons to unreasonable people communicates that things are up for negotiation.
Random Party Person: “What’s your favorite beer? IPA? Stout? Porter?”
You: “I don’t have one. I don’t drink.”
Random Party Person: “You don’t drink. At all.”
You: “That’s what I said. So, what’s your favorite kind of beer?”
Random Party Person: “But how will you know until you try it?”
You: “I guess I’ll miss out! I hear that [Subject Change] is happening soon, what do you know about that?”
Random Party Person: “But you have to try [drink]. [Drink] will change your mind.”
You: It really won’t. So, what are your thoughts on [Subject Change]?
Random Party Person: “But my favorite drink that I love drinking is so awesome! Are you sure?”
You: “Positive. So, howabout that [Subject Change]?”
Random Party Person: “So, do you think we’re all alcoholic reprobates? Are you silently judging all of us?”
You: “Yes, absolutely. So, [Subject Change] is [Subject Change-y]. What’s your plan for [Subject Change]?”
Random Party Person: “But how can you have fun at parties in college and not drink?”
You: (Choose your own adventure, depending on your energy level and how invested you are in talking to this person after they continually ignore your wishes and talk over you)
- [AWKWARD SILENCE][LET THE AWKWARDNESS GROW][OH GOD, SO AWKWARD][REMIND YOURSELF THAT YOU ARE NOT THE ONE WHO MADE IT WEIRD]
- “Ooooooooooookay then. Bye.” (Walk away)
- “I manage to have a great time, except when I meet people who Will. Not. Let. It. Go.”
- “Was something unclear? How many times do I have to say that I don’t drink?”
- “Why are you trying so hard to sell me on this? I’ve already said ‘no thank you.’ Once should be enough.”
- “By my count I’ve tried to change the subject three times. It’s your turn for a new topic.”
- “Drinking/other people’s drinking/your drinking/Friends’ drinking mostly doesn’t bother me. Being interrogated & pressured about it really does, though, so, I’m gonna cut this short.”
- “You seem smart – you really can’t think of any reasons that a person just wouldn’t be into drinking? None?”
When you have these conversations, pay attention to the people who say “Oh, I didn’t realize. That’s cool!” and the ones who embrace the subject changes you throw out. They are communicating an important thing to you and that thing is “I can hang with who you really are. I won’t pressure you.” In other words, they are giving signals that they are good at consent.
Pay attention to the ones who shame-spiral in front of you about their own drinking habits or who admit that they don’t really like it but feel like they have to because “it’s college!” You don’t have to intervene or becoming a sounding board for or fix their issues, but sometimes saying, “It’s college, exactly, so we can do what we want,” is a good thing to hear. They’ll mark you down somewhere as a safe, cool person who won’t pressure them.
Pay attention also to the people who Will. Not. Fucking. Let. It. Go., the ones who keep trying to override your choice, the ones who hint that they will spike your drink “as a joke,” the ones who call attention to it in a way that feels belittling or coercive. Avoid them, where possible, and if they’re in your social circle, keep an eye on them. Don’t leave your friends, especially drunk friends, alone with them. Don’t leave your drink unattended with them, or drink unidentified things they hand you. Someone who meets your “no thanks!” with half an hour of manipulation and second-guessing is communicating that they are bad at consent.
You have great reasons for never drinking and there is nothing particularly strange about making choices about what you want to consume. When people want to push and question your choices, remember: They are the ones making it awkward and weird by not taking ‘no’ for an answer. College drinking culture *is* really pervasive, but the more you hold your ground the more other people around you who don’t want to drink or don’t love drinking are going to feel safe to push back against people who pressure them.
P.S. If you are a college student who is friends with someone who doesn’t drink:
- Remember that they don’t drink – don’t keep offering it to them or calling attention to it. Treat it like the non-big-deal that it is.
- Don’t bring booze to or make booze the center of every hang your group has.
- Don’t make a big deal of their reasons, disclose things they’ve told you in confidence about their reasons, or demand reasons.
- Drink or don’t drink, as you will. Don’t make the non-drinker your Drinking Confessor, Repository Of All Your Complex Feelings About Alcohol, Secret Keeper of the Order of Drunken Hookups.
- When y’all meet someone new, and that person starts to make a big deal, step in. “[Friend] doesn’t drink, it’s not a big deal. What are you having?”
- Try thinking about this in terms of coercion and consent. Is it every okay to pressure someone to do something they don’t want with their body? Who in your social circle understands that the answer to that is “nope!”? Who has poor boundaries and won’t stop pushing people? Someone who would spike your friend’s drink when they aren’t looking or who makes constant fun of someone for not drinking is telling you, “I do not actually respect other people when they say no.” Take care of each other out there.