As someone who drinks very little alcohol, I’ve found myself at times using clever tactics to avoid the awkwardness that occurs when everyone around me has a drink in hand. I’m not in recovery, by the way. I just don’t drink much.
For example, I’ve gone to the extent of carrying around a festive cocktail of some sort and surreptitiously watering house plants with it. Lemonade looks like chardonnay if the room is dark enough, and bartenders will indeed pour out a full vodka tonic, leaving behind the melting ice for me to use as a prop.
When I decide that I’m just going to embrace my nondrinking idiosyncrasy while out with a group of people, I make a point of asking the waiter if the establishment provides free softdrinks to designated drivers. If so, I gleefully gloat about my complimentary Diet Dr. Pepper as a way to maintain my social capital.
Trust me, I’ve done all these ridiculous things and more.
Study about saving face
In February, the Journal of Applied Communication Research presented a study of nondrinkers who use similar tactics in business situations to save face in front clients, co-workers and colleagues. Authors note that in some circles, not drinking could be professionally risky because society would expect everyone to toast the end of a big project or share in a drink at a networking event. The study is certainly worth a read.
A few of those interviewed by the study authors were in recovery, but many, like me, just don’t care for drinking. What struck me about the findings was the idea that the nondrinkers felt obligated to put their drinking counterparts at ease. They felt that they needed to provide assurance that not drinking at the company picnic didn’t mean they were being judgmental of those who were drinking.
So this isn’t just about the awkwardness of doing something that doesn’t conform to expectations, it’s also about the pressure to then show acceptance of the behavior of others. Not only were the nondrinkers labeled as “oddities,” “outsiders” and “hypersensitive,” adding insult to injury, they felt they had to validate the drinkers’ choices, too.
Many people in the study used humor, white lies or health-related excuses to manage the situation and avoid being stigmatized in the business world. One subject even revealed that he would refuse a drink for himself but then buy a round for his co-workers to smooth out the situation.
And these aren’t high school students. These are grown adults with professional careers as salesmen, attorneys, engineers, etc., who admit to lying and fake-drinking because they believe it’s not acceptable to simply say, “I don’t drink.”
Our collective challenge
There’s clearly an obligation for policymakers and the addiction-treatment industry to change the business culture that encourages alcohol consumption as a corporate/social norm. Sure, we’re trying to chip away at the peer pressure in high schools and the binge drinking on college campuses, but what are we doing to make it okay to tell our best customers or our most eager constituents that we prefer to toast our success with a tall glass of ice water?