Not Drinking, the Unspoken Taboo?

When I go to parties, clubs, dive bars, open bars, or really anywhere there is alcohol available, my answer to, “What do you want?” never ceases to raise eyebrows. My response of “water” (and occasionally “a Coke”) is generally followed up with “Do you not drink?” and “Why?” For some reason, my reasons, not liking the taste of alcohol, having a desire to spend money on other things, answer the questions, but leave people unsatisfied. What is it that makes the decision to not drink as strange as people make it out to be?

I wasn’t pressured into not drinking. My parents both indulge every now and then, and there was much merriment to be had at my cousin’s wedding in India a couple of months ago. Nor do I claim to have never drunk in my life. There was that one night at home when I decided to figure out exactly how much alcohol it would take me to get drunk (sorry, not sorry Mom and Dad), the caipirinha and chincha de jora in Ecuador, and that 21st birthday shot with a friend in NYC last summer. Tiramisu is one of my favorite desserts, and I often love foods that have been cooked with wine. And yet when it comes to drinking the stuff straight, I have no taste for it at all.

My not drinking has never really had an effect on my social life, mainly because once people get to know me in person, they tend to like me for some reason. I’ve traveled, have fun stories, like to go on adventures, and converse about science, politics, morality, current events, gender norms, and sports with equal enthusiasm. I just happen to do all of these things sober. I don’t care if others drink, I just choose not to. This was never an issue until delving into the world of online dating…

My experiences (or lack thereof) with online dating are probably worthy of another blog post entirely, (which I’m sure now people will eagerly await but this article sums it up well for now), but what brought my current ponderings about was my lack of responses to the messages I send out. There are plenty of reasons for people to not be interested in me: I’m young, relatively short, not classically attractive, and I have way too many personality quirks to list (I promise, I have endearing traits as well, but those aren’t nearly as fun to mope about, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or so I’m told). Even though Indian guys have the lowest response rate of any ethnicity-gender combination, my response rate was way lower than could be expected from those stats (less than 1% for those of you keeping track at home). Barring location, which I can’t change at the moment, I wondered if my response to drinking was a deal breaker for so many of the messages that I’ve sent out. Being the science-driven data nerd that I am, I posed the question to the internet.

The responses were surprisingly honest (hooray internet anonymity!), and could really fall two distinct categories. For some, drinking is an important part of their socializing and they are self-conscious if not everyone is drinking. Fair or unfair, that is just the way some people socialize and that is their prerogative. The other category is the assumptions associated that are associated with people who don’t drink include: you are a prude and can’t have any fun, you are overly religious, you are a recovering alcoholic, or you are too poor to buy alcohol. For the record, I don’t fit into any of those preconceived notions, and I’d be willing to bet that a large chunk of the 25% of the population that refrains from drinking doesn’t either.

The last impact that not drinking can have an effect is in the business world. Business over drinks is a fairly common practice. Friends and co-workers tell me stories about drinking socially actually builds relationships, both business and personal ones. My friends that recently just came back from SXSW said that some of the best moments they had there were the parties, not the keynotes. And I haven’t gotten there yet, but as people grow older, taste in alcohol and wine is a sign of maturity. I’m young enough that it isn’t much of an issue (yet), but I do wonder if it will hurt me in the long run.

Regardless, the point of this post was to pose a question or a topic rather, and I welcome responses. What is it about drinking that makes it such a societally accepted norm? What is it about not drinking that makes it such a taboo?

P.S. Special thanks to my good friend at The Red Angel for helping me get my writing up to snuff. Any grammatical errors are definitely my own.


18 thoughts on “Not Drinking, the Unspoken Taboo?

  1. You listed several reasons, and I’ll add my own, that some people do not drink; finances, health, taste, religion, not enjoying barfing, etc.

    Here’s a few reasons I have heard for why people do drink:

    1. Some people like the taste.
    2. Some people enjoy being ‘buzzed’
    3. Some people enjoy the community
    4. The rich traditions associate with drinking

    Drinking is part of mainstream culture. The negativity associated with not drinking is inherent in any act that is not culturally normative.Any time a person acts contrary to the dominant social norm, there is some negative backlash. Imagine telling people: “I never eat desert” or “I never eat meat” or “I never eat animal products” or “I don’t own a TV.”

    The people I interact with who are not phased by by me not drinking are the ones that have thought about their own habits and motivations. The people who do not think they could ‘have fun’ with me often have never posed the question, “Why do I drink?” We live in a society where critically examining our actions and motives is not done.

  2. In the early days at my previous company, my boss and I would head to a pub after work for a beer or two. Many MANY business decisions were made during those post-work ‘meetings.’ Then, one year I started training to run a marathon and gave up drinking. My boss and I went for a post-work meeting at the pub and instead of beer, I ordered a water. He immediately gave me grief about it. 10 minutes later he ordered me a beer and said “I don’t care if you drink it or not.” So it would seem that he wasn’t worried about drinking while I wasn’t, he was more worried about 3rd party perception of us sitting there with him drinking and me not drinking. THAT was a weird one.

    Over the past 3 years I’ve attended upwards of 75 conferences. At the after-parties I’ve met dozens of people who don’t drink. I will often ask them why not. I’m not asking because I think they are weird or strange or anything like that. But, I’m asking because sometimes there’s an interesting story that goes along with it. I’m asking because I’m interested and just making conversation. I don’t think it’s any different than asking why somebody uses an Android over an iPhone.

    • Your story of your boss is really interesting. I think that is another reason people don’t deal well with non-drinkers. It makes them more self conscious. I agree, it shouldn’t make a difference, it is just a matter of choice. But by and large, most people don’t treat it that way.

  3. I think while there are many people who can’t imagine social occasions without alcohol, many can. Grad school often seems like a life of insobriety, but I’ve been trying to arrange more sober fun nights (such as my belated St. Pat’s party where we will watch the Wind that Shakes the Barley after a night of poetry readings and song). Most people can’t understand the not drinking, but then again most people are rather intolerable and we don’t want to spend time with them anyway.

    I often go to bars and order a coke. And we all know I quite enjoy the tipple. Weird looks abound, but those make things quite fun. I think the larger issue is the fact that online dating, as much as it is about finding a soulmate, forces people to make snap decisions on very superficial traits. It’s fascinating “not drinking” would be one of those people steer away from.

    As always, thanks for your thoughtful contributions.

  4. I have kind of pondered this question more along the lines that our culture, specifically, treats over-drinking as drinking. I think there is just some need to connect with others that can’t be achieved until barriers are unnaturally low, like say being drunk. But that only works if both parties are at that stage of vulnerability – hence people not drinking tends to slow others? No idea though. We need to champion the cause of integrating non-drinkers without badgering the same way that vegetarians figured it out.

    • Your point about connecting is actually a reason for not drinking. How many times do you make that kind of connection from vulnerability of being drunk, and then not remember what you actually revealed? Being vulnerable is damn hard while sober, but I think a lot more rewarding.

      I agree that we should integrate it, but I don’t know if it will be as easy. Not drinking for some reason is perceived to be a lot more judgmental.

  5. Pingback: Weekly Review 3/17 | Ovik Banerjee

  6. I drank even before of legal age. I learned how much was too much by age 18 and could manage it well after that. I continued to drink into my mid 20s. But gradually, I lost interest. It just wasn’t fun for me. In fact, it seemed like my body was not very good at metabolising alcohol – by my later 20s, I began to feel hangover symptoms as soon as the “buzz” started, headache, dry mouth, generally unpleasant feelings in my body overall.

    I don’t do online dating since I’m happily married. But I have definitely encountered the same reactions. The tactful seem to assume I’m a recovering alcoholic. Some think I’m a prude and that I don’t want them to enjoy their drinks. There does appear to be an attitude that I am silently condemning them for drinking, which isn’t the case at all. (The U.S. does have a complicated history with alcohol, temperance movements and Prohibition, so perhaps that is understandable.) I just explain that “alcohol and I just don’t get along” but that they should please drink and enjoy it.

  7. Like Ovik, I’ve never been much of a drinker. I understand that some people do like the taste and I believe it’s possible to include alcohol in communal settings, but I don’t think that’s what at issue here. Ovik’s concern, as expressed, strikes me as being more about the elevated status that alcohol enjoys in many settings. The subtext of his description of being asked why he wants water or Coke instead of something alcoholic strikes me as, “Why would you bother coming to this place if you’re not going to drink?” As though it’s the alcohol that creates the community, as opposed to the community being potentially enhanced by alcohol. It’s not universal, of course, but it is predominant.

    I’m in my 40s and this attitude largely prevails in settings in which I occasionally find myself. Perhaps it’s a bit easier to provide a possible answer to the alcohol question for 20-somethings by examining the phenomenon in 40- and 50-somethings. I think we largely fail to realize how badly we want others’ approval. I see my contemporaries seeking approval from peers in much the same way that we did when we were teenagers–the non-drinker making excuses for NOT drinking; or drinkers poking fun at non-drinkers for not drinking; or drinkers assuming that alcoholism is what keeps a non-drinker from drinking. In other words, an equitable assumption–for example, about such things as the way it tastes or its inability to improve the social experience–is rarely made by those who operate on the assumption that drinking is the norm.

    We’re understandably more patient with teenagers who test their limits by defying death or hangover…or death BY hangover. The wisdom that should come with age, or should come with age, isn’t a normal part of the typical teen-drinker’s perspective. Experimenting with alcohol is like playing with fire, for teenagers. Those who make the choice to drink (responsibly, meaning not crossing the double-yellows when I’m in the other lane) throughout adulthood should do so with the wisdom that helps us understand that we can both responsibly enjoy the imbibing of toxins into our system AND do so without myopically assuming that socializing can’t happen without alcohol.

    I’ve also not partaken of the online dating scene, but I don’t think that precludes me from offering an opinion, not about online dating, but about the people who reject the idea of dating someone for NOT drinking. When I was playin’ the dating game, I drew the line at dating anyone who smoked cigarettes. It was just a deal-breaker for me. I saw it as a choice that that person had made for herself, which would ultimately doom any potential relationship we might have otherwise had. Smoking was HER decision, therefore HER problem. Not mine. Choosing not to drink is not Ovik’s problem. I know Ovik–he has LOTS of other problems, but being a non-drinker is not one of them! I’d recommend viewing this issue as being a collective delusion, shared by those who are convinced of the social powers of alcohol, not a problem of those of us who’ve resolved that the reasons for overcoming the horrid taste of most of the stuff isn’t worth the effort. And if drinker considers not drinking to be a failing of the non-drinker in the dating world, it’s the drinker who has the real problem. I can get away with saying such things because, well, I’m much better looking than Ovik(!)…. Actually, superficialities like height and looks and one’s country of origin strike me as largely irrelevant, at least in comparison to the apparent demands that the alcohol-deluded many impose on the not-so-small minority of non-drinkers.

    • I know John, and I can say without a doubt that he is an asshole (I say that with the utmost respect for the man). And his age must be getting to him if he really believes that he’s better looking than me.

      That being said, I think he did hit the crux of the matter. What is it about alcohol that gives it an elevated status, where non-drinkers are reproached for making others uncomfortable?

  8. Try ordering water in a martini glass with lime. I swear there is a name for something like this that acts as a prop drink. Should be cheap, tip well, and it can quickly become your “usual” to help cut out suspicion.

    • Then it just feels like I’m hiding it? I’m not trying to make people uncomfortable by not drinking, but I don’t want to be hiding my choice simply to make them more comfortable.

  9. Drinking is as ritualized as a handshake. Handshakes showed that you were unarmed. Drinking shows that you are willing to let down your guard too. Not drinking infers a holier than thou attitude akin to refusal to shake hands.

    But you can survive without drinking. Get water and lime. Buy one and hold on tight. Hell, just don’t drink and come up with a good story about why ur not. Cause even though I think the majority of people will be automatically on guard, some of them just simply use it as a good conversation. “What’s your poison?” “Oh, a craft beer. Have u ever tried brewing your own…” Blah blah blah, wham bam thank you ma’am. So if u had an awesome story about what you’re recovering from, they will think you’ve let down your guard too and will stop sniffing your butt and get to the fornication of ideas.

    Re: why you have to show vulnerability while drinking… vulnerability IS communication. I’m sure I read it somewhere, but showing vulnerability is a way to heighten charisma during a conversation. You’re revealing something about yourself. When you drink, you’re saying “I’m not 100% on my game, but I trust you not to post pictures on FB”.

    And drinking is a good tool. 1. It can help you be creative. 2. It get rid of stupid inhibition on unimportant things. 3. It gives you something to do with your hands and in between conversations. But again, the most important thing is it helps relax everybody else.

    Who would you rather have around? A jester or a chess grandmaster? Sure, the grand master is calculating, devious, and so wise… with pieces of wood defined by set rules. The funny thing is its the jester who knows where all the balls are when they fall.

    • Where does that holier than thou attitude come from though? What is it about alcohol that makes it a decision worth questioning? People don’t really do the same thing about smoking, eating meat, etc. at this point.

      For clarification, my question about vulnerability is wouldn’t vulnerability while being sober be more valuable?

  10. I always like to take questions like this back to how humans have lived for the last 50,000 years. For our survival, we all want to belong to the tribe. You want to belong without drinking. Drinkers perceive your act of not drinking as not wanting to belong. And that is threatening to the tribe. Further, the act of drinking is about letting down your guard and taking risks. You and I learned all about the need for risk-takers and the risk-averse in ‘Quiet’. I think the same goes for smoking, riding motorcycles, taking drugs, etc.. As for the lack of luck in dating, I think it all ties in. I read an article the other day that said that the number one attractive quality for men and women was the ability to be playful. (I include a link below) Alcohol lowers inhibitions and allows for that playfulness. But there are many other ways to be playful. Know that the following suggestions are from a fellow introvert who has made conscious decisions in the past to find some solutions to this very question of yours. I concur with your friends’ recommendations to be a “fake extrovert” with a mock drink. Susan Cain also recommended faking it, right? Maybe buy an O’douls and make your own label for it, like ‘Social Lubricant’, then own it! Take the risk! A great conversation starter. More honestly, learn a handful of jokes and have them at the ready. I have several I like to share, and it makes people so happy! And they love to laugh at my bad Irish accent that I use for my Sean McGregor jokes. 🙂 Also have a list of questions to ask. Extroverts (the majority) enjoy talking about themselves, and introverts are generally good listeners. I find it easy to ask questions to further a conversation topic I enjoy. An extroverted friend of mine suggested the acronym FROG for having some conversation topics at the ready – Family, Recreation, Occupation, and Goals. Note that Occupation is third! I have noticed that people really appreciate if I start out with what hobbies they have or what they do on their days off, which shows how they have FUN. Don’t define them by their work, which is usually the last thing that people want to discuss, unless they really love their job. In the theater business, the smoking area is where many decisions are made. So I make it a point to go hang out for a “second hand smoke” with them, and never judge them for that decision or even talk about it. I just try to stay upwind! Believe me, I can be just as serious and contemplative as the next introvert, and my wife lets me know it when I am going overboard. And she also appreciates it when I make an effort to be playful. I believe that my years in the theater have really developed my sense of ‘play’. Simply, find other ways to take risks and be playful besides alcohol. Showing interest in others’ need to belong goes a long way toward your own belonging. And if you find other ways along your path, hey, I’m all ears! Good luck out there!

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