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 color blind and have trouble parsing charts that are red and green. 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. 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 that you bring less to the table. Or, that people will hold your past against you or coerce you to participate.
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. 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.
Of course, pressure still exists, and being able to handle it is important—for your health and for your work relationships. First, practice how you’ll tell your stories and how you 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 detail. It can be as simple as saying “I don’t drink” or politely declining their offer.
No matter your situation 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. In short, you don’t owe people anything—so don’t be afraid to turn them away. 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.
Some people are perfectly comfortable being around co-workers who drink or going to events at bars. But others may not be. 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.
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. 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, get a small group together that loves to read and create a book club. Or, take your team to an escape room challenge.
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. 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.
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.
Check out my related post: How many hours does it take to make a friend?