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How I navigate networking events as a person who doesn’t drink

So many events are centered around alcohol. But I’ve learned there are ways to avoid answering overly personal questions about why I’m sticking with soda.

How I navigate networking events as a person who doesn’t drink
[Source photo: Fernando Andrade/Unsplash]
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“Are you sure you just want a Diet Coke?,” a colleague says to me almost every time we’re at a networking event, motioning toward the bartender or glancing at the glass of wine in their hand. This routine is fairly common to me: Grab a water or a Diet Coke, chit-chat with someone I haven’t seen in a while, and then inevitably be asked why I’m not drinking alcohol. 

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I like to be in control in professional settings, and I don’t necessarily enjoy drinking alcohol the way some others do, but I don’t disclose this to my colleagues. Social situations are stressful enough for me because of my autism: They’re loud, crowded, and often overwhelming. They are also inaccessible at times. I’ll refuse to drink at them because I’m nervous that I might say something out of turn, violate some social norm, or accidentally say something inappropriate if my judgment and coping skills are impaired by alcohol. I also have safety concerns. I would rather be fully aware of any potential awkward or dangerous interactions. 

I would rather be fully aware of any potential awkward or dangerous interactions.

But I don’t want to tell my colleagues the way that my disability might interact with alcohol or the pressure I face to be included socially and professionally at times. Autistic people already will mask or try to pass as neurotypical in work situations; we are historically underemployed or unemployed, can sometimes be bullied or harassed at work, and naturally communicate differently. Even when I smile and say “No thanks,” still clutching my soda or water, there is almost always a silent judgment or immediate follow-up question about the nonalcoholic beverage in my hand. 

The echoes of “Come on, it’s just one drink,” or “Why don’t you have a beer or a glass of wine with us?” often follow me from conversation to conversation, as I shake hands and give out business cards. Networking is already enough of a learned skill and outside of my comfort zone, separate from the fact that I’m habitually violating this expected norm.

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People don’t drink at professional events for a variety of reasons, most related to disability. Some, like me, worry about highlighting pre-existing social deficits. Others might be taking medications to manage symptoms like chronic pain, depression, or anxiety, and these medications don’t mix well with alcohol and could cause a serious medical emergency. Explaining the medications you take or disclosing a disability can be a delicate topic depending on the person and situation, and perhaps a networking event isn’t the right place or time to mention having a chronic condition. Some may be pregnant and not ready to share the news yet. Someone might have alcohol use disorder and be in recovery. Or a person might drink for moral or religious reasons. 

Despite the fact that a third of workers would prefer not to drink in professional settings, many networking events are still stubbornly centered around alcohol. There is a distinct pressure to drink, even when you have a disability. There is a desire to fit in, to avoid the difficult questions, fit in, or impress someone who has influence in your industry. It’s especially apparent to me, as someone who often goes to events in the legal industry, where alcohol culture is prevalent.

While it would be nice for event planners to provide plenty of fun nonalcoholic options and for people to understand that their “curiosity” about someone’s relationship with alcohol is not always wise (or professional) to bring up, the onus unfortunately often falls on the person abstaining from drinking.

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The thing is, you don’t owe anyone your medical history or disability status.

Everyone has different coping mechanisms for handling judgment and curious questions. Some people are very open about sobriety journeys, their mental health, or the medications they’re taking. Some people feel fine just saying a drink can affect their mood and health in a way they’re not comfortable with. The thing is, you don’t owe anyone your medical history or disability status. 

With people I just meet, I just shrug and say I’m good, thanks. With someone I’m more comfortable with, I might be willing to share more about how I prefer to feel socially aware and better able to gauge how other people may be thinking and feeling, though I don’t want the interaction to center my autism. (I’d sometimes rather not immediately highlight the things that are difficult or less natural to me, including neurotypical social cues). Other times I’m okay with it, primarily because I mostly do neurodiversity consulting and it’s a natural segway to the conversation about my career trajectory. 

For others, a simple “I don’t drink” suffices, since they are prepared to shut down the natural inclination for a follow-up question asking why, knowing either the easy response is good enough or they don’t feel obligated to give details. Sometimes the hardest part is just being calm and collected, avoiding sounding too defensive, and swiftly transitioning the conversation to something else you’d rather be talking about. 

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If you’re shy, the classic trick of what my friends in college used to do can come in handy: Order an alcoholic drink, but just hold onto it without ever taking a sip. For my autistic self, this can be a quick pinch solution, especially if there are no other nonalcoholic options. This might be more difficult if you’re in recovery and the temptation is there, but for those with other reasons for their sobriety, this is an easy way to avoid the awkwardness and curiosity altogether. 

While I still find myself smiling and avoiding the vulnerability of talking about my autism and how it affects me when I’m in networking situations, I’ll proudly order a Diet Coke at the bar. It’s my favorite drink anyway, and I know I am honoring what is best for my brain and body while allowing myself to feel safe and confident. 


Haley Moss is an autistic attorney, author, and neurodiversity advocate.

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