I ran with a pretty tame crowd as a high schooler. We considered it a wild night if we’d wrapped a musical theater production and all piled into someone’s basement to watch the entire Star Wars trilogy on VHS and surreptitiously make out with each other. I liked it that way, and never sought out anything more raucous, so the first time anyone actually offered me a drink was in college. And when I say, “offered,” I mean, “forced me to consume through endless, irritating cajoling.” My housemates heard that I’d never been drunk and insisted that we do a shot together. It was some vile concoction called Black Haus, and knocking it back nearly made me gag. They pushed for another shot, but I stood my ground. I loved them, but I wasn’t going to guzzle a substance that tasted like blackberry-flavored cough syrup to prove it.
Several other friends and acquaintances pushed drinks at me over the years, and I sipped a few of them gamely. A hard cider here, an amaretto sour there. But in the end, I returned to my teetotaling ways for two important reasons: Addiction runs pretty strongly in my family, and alcohol tastes AWFUL to me. I have a big, stiff, girly drink on my birthday every year with my husband — who is endlessly amused by my giggly post-drink antics — and he takes a commemorative photo of me looking bleary. And that’s it. It means I’m a cheap date, it means I can always drive myself home … and it means that, on occasion, my presence makes recreational drinkers uncomfortable.
To their credit, my close friends couldn’t care less. They know I don’t drink, and they know I don’t care if they DO drink. But occasionally the issue will come up with coworkers or friends of friends, and someone will get huffy. I get sidelong glances, whining and prodding, eye-rolling, and the occasional affronted comment about being a party-pooper. Once in a while my disinterest in alcohol hits someone the wrong way, and a non-issue becomes an issue.
Now, I virtually never tell a stranger, hostess, or relatively unknown person, “Thanks, but I don’t drink. At all. Ever.” It’s much easier to just request a Coke instead of a beer. But it’s amazing how prevalent is the belief that a non-drinking adult woman must be pregnant, amazing how curious people become at my refusal to imbibe. So it comes up and it comes out, and once in a while someone decides that my choice to not-drink is some sort of general commentary on drinking. And drinkers.
I don’t play poker or skydive or participate in threesomes. I don’t care if others do, and don’t feel that my decision to abstain from those activities indicates any level of judgment. Opting out of an activity, choice, or experience certainly can be borne of disdain or discomfort, but to infer that such emotions are the sole motivators is to take a pretty big, assumptive leap. A drinker who instantly concludes that a non-drinker is a superior, judgy stick-in-the-mud may be projecting her/his fears about drinking itself onto the non-drinker, may have been or felt judged in the past, or may just dislike non-conformists. But unless that specific non-drinker has said aloud, “I don’t drink because drinking is bad and drinkers are morons,” it is unfair to assume that said non-drinker is thinking anything of the sort.
My choice to avoid drinking is a very important and deeply personal one. But it has nothing to do with anyone but myself, and I’m always perplexed when folks assume that it somehow involves them. My only guess is that this assumption of judgment may be borne of a culture in which certain opt-out groups get a bit preachy around those who opt in. As in all cases, it’s wrong to presuppose that someone who doesn’t eat meat or doesn’t drive a car feels superior to those who do, or has any desire to convert them to a meat – or car-free lifestyle. But it can’t be denied that SOME members of these groups do reach out to folks on the other side. Perhaps wine lovers and beer aficionados worry that I’m going to try to separate them from their hard-won knowledge and passion.
And perhaps it would benefit us all to remember that, in most cases, the choices that others make have no bearing on our own lives. That relatively few people walk through the world seeking lost souls to save, misguided people to convert. That a non-drinker may have dozens of reasons to opt out, and none of them have anything to do with you.
But if you’re nice, that non-drinker will probably let you have a sip of her Coke.
Sally McGraw is a Minneapolis-based blogger, freelance writer, and communications professional who writes the daily style and body image blog Already Pretty.