I was at a birthday party last year. While mingling, a close friend of the birthday boy’s approached me to strike up a conversation. I introduced myself and, upon hearing my name, she exclaimed, “Oh, you’re the guy who doesn’t drink!” When I had confirmed this, she leaned in. “Is it because of a personal reason? Is it because you’re a Christian?” I admit it, I laughed at that. Couldn’t help it. To make matters worse, she proceeded to roll her eyes at me and icily inform me that she was a Christian and that it was nothing to laugh about. We ended the conversation nicely, but it’s a perfect example of what happens to me in social situations.
I don’t drink at all. I never have, really. I experimented a little at the end of high school and had a perfectly typical experience. A lot of people assume that the experience must have been awful for me not to have ever returned. The truth is, I found it thoroughly mediocre (for the money). I got giggly, somewhat dizzy and then fell asleep for two hours. I had just as much fun being sober and hanging out with my friends. To this day, restaurant and pub bills are a lot cheaper and I don’t have to worry much about what time the liquor store is open. I mention these details not because I think that my experiences are all that interesting (in fact, I can think of paint drying expos that are more thrilling), but to illustrate a few observations.
Firstly, people seem pretty flummoxed by a non-religious decision to avoid alcohol. They are even more gobsmacked when they discover that neither of my parents are alcoholics and that I don’t suffer from any kind of alcohol-related medical disorder. It’s not entirely surprising, since alcohol is by no means an activity that only the fringe enjoys. With that said, the most accepting of people treat the decision (initially, anyway) as perplexing and the least accepting seem to treat it with some suspicion. A slew of questions are typical: “Do you not drink…like, at all?” “Is it a personal choice?” “Do you have a medical condition?” Obviously, your mileage may vary. A friend of mine, upon noticing me with a Coke, asked me if I would let him explain how (on average) a beer is no more or less healthy than a Coke. I replied that I might have been interested in that explanation if I had ever claimed to avoid alcohol for medical reasons. He grinned widely and said, “Good answer.”
Secondly, people who do drink seem awfully insistent on explaining, without solicitation, why they drink. This typically follows the usual line of questioning described above. Whenever I hear this unasked-for explanation, I sense defensiveness. Now, before you read any further and write me off as a judgemental, Prohibition-longing dickhead, hear me out. The defensiveness is interesting because it seems to be prompted by nothing other than hearing that I choose not to drink. It appears that there is an implicit assumption at work that drinkers need to justify themselves to non-drinkers. I can’t speak for all fellow teetotalers, but I don’t for a minute accept that assumption as anything besides ridiculous. In fact, I’d prefer not hearing why you drink and what it does for you. I really don’t care. Also, I particularly don’t care about your reasons for or against it (especially if we have just met). You enjoy drinking and I do not. That is, quite bluntly, the extent of interesting conversation on the subject.
I realize that this sounds pretty cold, and I am not at all trying to find fault with taking an interest in people. With that said, it can feel a little intrusive to be asked (often pointed) questions in a sceptical-sounding manner about something you would rather people just treat as meaninglessly as not enjoying cantaloupes. I treat my alcohol preferences as identical to my cantaloupe preferences: something that, while not my cup of tea, is not worthy of unfavourable judgement for liking. I can name about a billion things more interesting to me than why I don’t drink alcohol and why you do (including spreadsheets, old Coronation Street re-runs and the average Business Associations class).
Thirdly, perfect strangers who hear about someone’s choice to avoid alcohol are pretty quick to assert that they “respect” the decision. You might be wondering what could possibly be irksome about a statement like that. This has happened to me dozens of times and, before you worry, I never have and never get in someone’s face about it. I’m not that much of an asshole and I realize that it is usually an attempt to make me (and others) feel more comfortable. However, it’s an odd and vaguely patronizing thing to say. It often falsely assumes that I am making some kind of costly sacrifice to better myself. It also relates to my first point – people can’t really fathom a preference against alcohol that is motivated by some type of genuine desire. The reason that I (and others) do not drink is not necessarily a sacrifice to any of us. To assume so with a statement like “I respect that” is reading too much (or little) into something that you know almost nothing about. I’ll be the first to admit that intention matters when judging how your words will affect others. However, my contention is more about the use of language than it is about combating poor attitudes. “Respect” is a term that I try to use sparingly and only after I’ve really considered something or someone. Simply hearing that someone doesn’t drink and that they aren’t being coerced to avoid it does not, to me, seem to warrant respect on its face.
With regards to being patronizing, the issue is this (using the most common example of someone I have just met): I’m not really looking for and, in fact, could care less about your respect. Really. To me (whether intentional or not), it seems like you are putting yourself in a position of being capable of judging my difference from you. There are so many more interesting, valid things that you should be judging someone on besides their choice to consume or avoid alcohol. It’s a tiny, trivial detail in the grand collage of factors that make up someone’s worth. People I have ranted about this to have cautioned me to consider that someone’s intention in saying something like “I respect that” is to put me at ease and not make me uncomfortable (or to allow me to rest assured that they will not write me off for not drinking). I respect (see, I AM using the word correctly) these efforts, but they can be accomplished in much better, more down to earth ways. I’ll give you one:
Drinker: “Not drinking, tonight?”
Non-Drinker: “No. I don’t drink.”
Drinker: “Oh, really? Like, not at all?”
Non-drinker: “Nope. It’s not my thing.”
Voila. Problem solved.