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The Abstract

Unhappy Hour: Non-Drinkers Devise Strategies to Navigate Booze-Centered Work Events

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From holiday parties to happy hours, social events with co-workers and clients often revolve around alcohol, which can put non-drinkers in an awkward position: they don’t want to drink, but they do want to take part in events they feel are important to networking and career advancement (without making drinkers feel bad). That perceived tension leads non-drinkers to develop techniques to fit in socially without taking a drink.

“Drinking can be a big part of workplace culture, and being viewed as an outsider for any reason can hurt you professionally,” says Lynsey Romo, a communication researcher at NC State who led a recent study on the issue.

“In our study, we interviewed successful professionals who don’t drink,” Romo says. “We found professionals felt that being a non-drinker was a form of deviance.  Because they did not want to miss out on the career opportunities that come from networking and socializing, or because attending such functions was a job requirement, non-drinkers developed a variety of strategies to attend social events without making themselves, their co-workers, or their clients feel uncomfortable.”

Photo credit: Katarzyna Bienias, via
Photo credit: Katarzyna Bienias, via

The researchers found that most non-drinkers didn’t volunteer the fact that they were non-drinkers because they did not want to draw attention to themselves. And while some would answer honestly if asked, many declined a drink in ways that made their non-drinking ambiguous. For example, instead of saying “I don’t drink,” study participants often said things like “I’m not drinking tonight” or “I’ve got an early morning” to avoid having a drink.

In fact, some of the non-drinkers interviewed for the study would buy an alcoholic drink (but not drink it) in order to pass as a drinker and fit in with their colleagues. Non-drinkers did not want to be viewed as being judgmental or “holier-than-thou.”

If it became clear that they weren’t drinking, some non-drinkers found ways to show they didn’t have a problem with drinking by buying a round of drinks for co-workers or volunteering to be a designated driver. Others used humor to defuse any social tension.

Other non-drinkers would use socially acceptable “excuses” for not drinking to avoid being seen as judgmental. Many of these excuses were health related. For example, one professional who didn’t drink because he wanted to set a good example for his kids told co-workers that he didn’t drink because he was trying to lose weight.

Similarly, another professional, who didn’t drink because she was taking prescription drugs to deal with a mental-health issue, told co-workers that alcohol gave her migraines.

While non-drinkers used a variety of techniques to navigate these social situations, all of the techniques stem from the same perceived pressure to conform to social norms in the workplace. And that may be a problem.

“This work highlights a challenge facing many non-drinking adults,” Romo adds. “It’s something that organizations and HR departments may want to take into consideration. Historically, HR departments have been worried about problem drinkers, but they should also turn their attention to the needs of the non-drinkers in their ranks. HR departments should make sure non-alcoholic beverages are available at happy hours or host social activities that don’t center on drinking.

“If employers want their employees to achieve their full potential, they need to foster an environment that encourages their employees to be themselves,” Romo says.

A paper on the study, “An Examination of How Professionals Who Abstain From Alcohol Communicatively Negotiate Their Non-Drinking Identity,” was published online Nov. 24 in the Journal of Applied Communication Research. The paper was co-authored by Tara Connolly and Christine Davis of NC State and Dana Dinsmore of Texas State University.

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  1. As I approach as 28, I recall my struggles to fit in or have fun. I would love to go to parties or other gatherings and socialize, but drinking mad me feel like the whole night went by in 20 minutes. I just could not enjoy myself. I would look around and think, “wow, that was four hours. It felt like a few minutes.” I wanted to enjoy the time more, but alcohol was getting in the way. Counterproductive. Just doesn’t appeal to me.

    And I recall the very first time I drank. The taste was so horrible that for the next few months, I would have a reflex to gag or “mock vomit” whenever I thought about drinking, if that makes any sense. I honestly tried to become a drinker, but I just can’t.

    As a result, I only drank a few times my entire life, and I have not done so in years. My circle of friends will get together, drink, and go out to clubs and bars. I think most females see me without a drink in my hand and conclude that I’m cheap. I am rather happy and don’t need liquor to get where others are. But it’s still hard to meet females. I mean, the go-to activity in our society, and perhaps most, is to take a female out for drinks. Or meet them while drinking.

    But as I have become more religious in recent years, I really can’t go out to clubs and bars even if I do not drink. Hanging around all that sinning. On the Day of Judgement, they can say that I never warned them. I don’t want to go on a long rant about God and how I’m certain God exists. You should go on that journey for yourself.

    But for people who are certain God exists, it really becomes embarrassing. There are three types of religious people: (1) people who hear about how horrible hell is, so they do what God wants to avoid it; (2) people who hear how great heaven is, so they do what God says to get in; (3) people who see these other two as the worship of a whipped slave and waving candy to a little kid… and they do what God wants simply because this is the creator of the universe, all powerful, asking me to do something, and it’s disrespectful to say no. It’s like if your neighbor gives you a really nice gift. And one day asks you to please stop parking in a certain way. Will you argue and be defiant?
    The price of doing “what’s right” is not being as well-connected. Well, giving up something for God. God, the Most Merciful, will pay you back many times over.