For the non-drinker, December’s office parties–and routine happy hours, and client dinners–can be a burden. Often, the affairs become less about revelry and more about downplaying one’s decision to teetotal.
Some resort to subterfuge: teetotalers might order an Old Fashioned but leave it untouched, or sip water cleverly disguised in a martini glass. Some just hope colleagues don’t pry or insist. (“C’mon, just one drink.”)
But more is at play than camouflage cocktails. A new study out of North Carolina State University suggests non-drinkers can struggle spectacularly at work happenings when alcohol is the centerpiece. From worry about career advancement and bonding to apprehension over uncomfortable questions, abstaining can be a professional risk.
Non-drinkers often feel abstinence violates workplace norms, says professor Lynsey Romo, the author of the study. As a result, “communication about alcohol abstinence can be difficult,” Romo writes–and if not handled deftly, both parties can leave an encounter feeling uneasy. Teetotalers fear they may come across as unwilling to fit in; and drinkers may feel they’re being looked down upon.
It’s a concern particularly felt in client-heavy industries. “People who were in the business world [and] law firm life seemed to experience more trouble,” Romo said. “[When] the clients are drinking, it was potentially awkward that the [non-drinkers] were not.”
None of Romo’s 29 interviewees said they’d skip work events serving alcohol. “They all acknowledged it’s really important to show your face,” Romo said. “They definitely thought it was important to be out socializing.”
Romo’s sources–and a series of folks interviewed by Fast Company–shared their tactics for navigating tipsy waters.
1. Fake it. Hold a beer can perfunctorily, brandish a half-empty wine glass or fill your champagne flute with ginger ale–sometimes, trickery is the best option. Romo said those at an important client dinner–hesitant to draw attention to their habits–opt for camouflage. “They didn’t want to detract from the main event,” she said.
2. “It’s health related.” Most excuses tethered to health are unimpeachable. Dianne Daniels, a style consultant from Norwich, Connecticut, blames her prescriptions. “If I’m asked, I simply [say] alcohol doesn’t agree with my medication,” she said.
Fitness, too, can provide a bulletproof alibi. “I just tell them that l have chosen to quit drinking because of the empty calories,” says Claire Celsi, a PR professional from Des Moines, Iowa.
3. Be the one pushing the drinks. One of Romo’s participants, an engineer, says he’ll buy colleagues a round of drinks to show he has no objection to others imbibing. Alternatively, Daniels carts in beverages for fellow teetotalers. “I’m more than happy to bring along whatever I am going to drink plus extra for other guests who might also want a non-alcoholic option,” she said.
4. Use humor. Romo said several of her interviewees relied on comedy–it allowed them to “skirt the truth” and make drinkers comfortable. For Dan Vuksanovich, a marketing professional in Lantana, Texas, humor is invaluable. “After my first successful snarky crack that gets a big laugh, no one really cares anymore,” he said.
5. Be straight. None of Romo’s 29 sources initiated conversations with coworkers about their sobriety. But Samantha Strom–a marketing professional from the San Francisco Bay area–says she’ll reply to queries candidly. “I answer honestly and non-defensively and lightly,” she said. “Putting other people at ease makes the questioning ease up and actually gets others to open up about what they are struggling with.”
When religion is the reason for abstaining, though, Romo didn’t find anyone who went the honest route. “[Interviewees] thought that was an extra, double stigma,” she said.
6. Remember your advantage. Few possess the perspective of Ryan Indovina, director of the Four Corners Tavern Group in Chicago. Indovina oversees nearly one dozen sports bars throughout the region–and is a lifelong non-drinker. “It’s an interesting profession for someone who’s never drank,” he said.
A witness to countless happy-hour stumbles and blunders, Indovina says the social risks that sober folks take pale before the ones unsober coworkers do.
“Some people drink, some people get drunk and some people act like fools,” he said. The latter, he says, is the true gaffe.
“People say, ‘Go ask Ryan if you want to know what happened last night,’” he said. It’s always good to be needed around the office.