Monthly Archives: February 2018

How to decline alcohol at an event

It’s hard for me to believe that anyone makes it difficult for anyone else to just say “no, thanks,” but I was surprised recently when someone pushed back after I declined a glass of wine.

It is really rude to do that, just so you know.  Here’s what a push-back (often from your own friends) looks like after you simply say, “no, thanks”:

“Oh, come on.”

“Oh, come on, don’t be a party pooper.”

“Oh, c’mon.  Don’t make me drink alone.”

“Just one.”

“Why aren’t you drinking?”

“Do you ever drink, or is this just tonight?”

“So why did you even come out with us tonight if you weren’t going to drink with us?”

“Can’t handle it?”

“What’s wrong?”

“So you’re an alcoholic?”

And the list goes on.

Know this:  whoever is saying whatever they are saying is not actually interested in your reasons, your life, or your evening–this behavior is driven by self-interest, and nothing you say is going to change that.  Whatever your reason, you should not be intimidated or moved by the fact that someone (anyone, even your best friend, or date, or fiancé, or spouse) has an agenda that is different from yours.

I don’t drink alcohol, but I do drink non-alcoholic beverages at parties.  It gives me something to hold, and hydrates me.  My job requires me to go to a lot of events, and over the years I’ve given lots of different answers to the offer of a trip to the bar on my behalf, the question of red or white, whether I’d like something to drink, or what I’m drinking.

My favorite recollection of being asked for my participation in an event where alcohol was important is this one:

I had just been hired into a position on a team of senior divisional executives, all men, all  about my own age, and all assertive, socially capable, and educated.  Apparently, this team had norms that involved the leader’s love of fine wine and knowledge about it, and they were in the habit of enjoying food and wine together, often.  This particular occasion was my inaugural dinner with the team, and it was at a beautiful restaurant with a long and expensive wine list.  Here came the test:

The president of the division, with what amounted to a drum roll, said, “I think we should let our newest member choose the wine this evening.” As he turned to me with a huge smile.  The other seven executives at the table turned to me, and if I’m being honest, I remember a few smirks–I’m pretty sure no one thought I was up to the task, and everyone saw a showdown coming.  If I was good at it, I was in trouble, and if I was bad at it I was in trouble.  It was the wine aficionado version of “customer golf,”  where you play to keep up, not win.

But no one was expecting my play.  I looked around the table and said, “Well, okay, if you want me to. But I think you should know before I pick something that I don’t drink.”

I thought the fellow who handed me the wine list was going to fall out of his chair.  I saw one or two of the others look at me enviously, as they (and I) now knew that I would never be subject to interminable late nights and ethanol-fueled behavior no one, let alone an HR executive, wants to be anywhere near. I estimated how long it might take for me to be promoted out of the division or cast out of the organization, because to that point no one had mentioned some of these drinking traditions.  I’d only been there a week or so.  And the truth is that I could have handled the wine list, fairly easily.  But I don’t drink.

“You don’t drink. . . at all?”

“I do not.  Is that a problem?” (Said with an even tone and an unwavering voice, tinged with amusement.)

He looked straight at me, and with all of the grace that he could gather, and with visible, unfiltered determination to win the match, he said, “Nope.  We’ve been looking for a designated driver for years.  Welcome aboard.”

And I actually never had to drive anyone anywhere.  But I got the issue completely and forever out of the way without fumbling around, and no one there ever asked me another question about alcohol.  I was reliably present (and drinking nonalcoholic beverages) at all the events that involved drinking, and I never evaluated, frowned on, or commented on anyone else’s choices (outside of my role as the HR leader, if ever called upon to do so).  Then and now, I serve(d) alcohol in my home, just not to myself.

You may someday find yourself at a social gathering that is also a test of your fit with an organization’s culture, and someday you may encounter a challenge involving your choice to decline to drink alcohol, just for that evening, or ever.  It might be that you have a one drink limit and you already had the one drink, or you just think you should ensure that all your faculties are intact.  You might have a long drive home and a hard next day ahead.  You might have an important call to make to the west coast later that night.  You might be pregnant and not want to reveal that just yet.  You might be newly sober.  You might be just not in the mood to drink.  You might be like Michelle Pfieffer’s character in the movie Blind Date, who reliably behaves atrociously when she gets a whiff of the grape.  You might have no reason at all.  You don’t actually need one.

So someone says to you, “Let me get you drink; what are you having?”  And you don’t want one.  What do you say or do?

I don’t know who the someone is, but I have an aversion to almost anyone other than my husband or the bartender supplying me with a drink.  I’ve had more than one encounter with a joker who adds a shot of rum to my diet coke to see if I will notice it.  Once, my own father’s new wife poured creme d’menthe all over my vanilla ice cream just to see what I would do.  So my answer would be, if the bar is the destination, “Thanks.  I’ll walk over there with you.”  When the bartender looks at me, I say, “Diet Coke.”  Or water, or cranberry juice, or grapefruit juice mixed with cranberry juice.

If I don’t want to walk over there, I say, “No thanks, I’m going to run over there myself in a minute.”

If it’s a table and the wait staff asks, I order what I want.  If I’m in someone’s home, I ask for water, or I bring my own beverage.  I don’t discuss that with the host in advance if I don’t want to.  If anyone challenges me, here are my choices:

“I don’t drink.”

“I’m not drinking tonight.”

“I have a big day tomorrow.”

“I have a stack of work waiting for me at home.”

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“Thanks, I’m good.”

“I’m a designated driver.”

“It’s Lent.”

“You are so kind to be concerned, I’m fine, thank you.”

I’m sure you can think of others that 1.) are one sentence, 2.) are final sentences on the subject, 3.) are not as rude as the pushback you got, but express no interest in any further discussion, 4.) haven’t got a cringy waffly apologetic sound (or look) to the delivery of the message, 5.)  do not contemplate anyone else’s opinion or belief system, 6.) do give the aggressor a branch to climb down on.

Personally, I don’t like to make others feel like they did anything that disturbed me or that gave me reason to judge them harshly.  That doesn’t mean I’m impervious to mean or bad behavior directed at me; it means I may be open to inquiry, just not right now.  I have had other women call me or ask me to help them form a strategy for not drinking in some or all situations, who feel helpless or unable to think of ways to explain themselves, or who don’t realize they can say no and still look appealing, cool, and interesting.  Thus, I’m not willing to put down someone who may have picked the wrong time or venue or method to open that conversation.

In general, since this is after all, career advice, it’s a lot easier for me to not drink at all than to try to manage myself or each situation according to a set of per-event and individual norms, conventions, rules, or people.  So my strategy is very simple–I don’t drink, and I don’t defend that.  Sometimes I don’t bother to explain it, because it isn’t, or shouldn’t be important to anyone else.

Simply:  don’t drink (or eat your stepmother’s embellished dessert) if you don’t want to. All that is required is that you decline politely, once, and then ignore further encouragement or inquisition by changing the subject.