The Assertive, Friendly Way to Refuse a Drink and Keep Your Personal Power

It can be very hard to resist the pressure to drink, and to deal with the suggestion which is sometimes implied that your refusal means that you are boring, or weird, or a killjoy, or that you are being judgemental about other people.

What could be more social than a bar or a pub, right? It could be your local pub-grub watering hole, or a sophisticated cocktail lounge (get you), or an old-school tavern with a darts board and other trad cons, or the kind of party at someone’s house that turns it into a bar of sorts for the evening.

These and similar situations have two things in common — they encourage fun and sociability, and they share an assumption that having a few or more alcoholic drinks is the way to a good time.

Which is great — unless you don’t want to drink alcohol.

It can be very hard to resist the pressure to drink, and to deal with the suggestion which is sometimes implied that your refusal means that you are boring, or weird, or a killjoy, or that you are being judgmental about other people.

Preliminary headwork

To help you handle these awkward situations in way which maintains your self-respect and a friendly atmosphere, remind yourself of two things:

  • You don’t need to explain yourself.

Why you don’t drink is your business. It could be for religious or cultural reasons. You could be a recovering alcoholic. You could be forbidden alcohol for medical reasons. Perhaps you are driving. Maybe you just don’t like the taste. Maybe you just don’t like the effect it has on you. Perhaps it doesn’t chime with your pursuit of a healthy lifestyle.

Whatever your reason, it is your reason, and you needn’t feel obliged to share it with anyone else.

  • When people put pressure on you, it’s about them, not you.

It is not your job to make other people comfortable with your choice. Those who put pressure on you to drink, or express surprise or ridicule when you don’t want to, are revealing their own discomfort. They may see your decisions as being implicitly critical of theirs. You may be seen as bucking the cultural norms of your group or tribe.

How to say no

Choose a phrase

It is often a good idea to say an unequivocal ‘no’ when you’re rejecting something. Sometimes, however, a short, sharp answer isn’t a good fit for the context. You can keep things mellow and still assert your choice by using other words.

  • ‘Yours is a beer/red wine/whatever, right?’
  • Instead of ‘No, I don’t drink’ (or similar)
  • Try ‘I’d like a (whatever), thanks.’

Keep it brief. Beginning with ‘Actually’ or ‘You know what’ draws attention to your choice and invites a response.

Be specific

Make up your mind exactly what you will ask for. Make it quite precise, to avoid discussion and to make it clear that this a considered choice.

  • Instead of, ‘Oh, something soft/non-alcoholic.’
  • Try ‘I’d like a …….. with some ice, thanks.’

Don’t give an excuse

You could decide to use some of the suggestions for how to refuse a drink, many of which work very well. You could present a story about being the designated driver, or being on alcohol-unfriendly meds, or about having reached your limit already. You could pretend to have a chronic condition (liver-related, possibly) which sadly prevents you from drinking. On the whole, these excuses will be accepted without further discussion.

However, there are two main disadvantages to this strategy:

a: The reason you give may be seen as a challenge.

  • ‘You think alcohol’s not good for your health? Well, research has shown…’
  • ‘Don’t worry about that, so-and-so is happy to drive tonight.’
  • ‘Do you follow every dictate of your religious upbringing?’

Of course you can reply to these objections, but hey, you didn’t come out to spend the evening debating and justifying your lifestyle choices.

b: You’re allowing other people to push you into giving an explanation. You are assuming that their desire for answers trumps your right not to give them.

On one level it doesn’t matter, as it’s common practice to give reasons for our choices and decisions. At the same time, feeling that you are obliged to give a reason for not drinking, whether it’s true or made-up, funny or serious, implies that you are complicit with other people’s assumed right to ask you to account for your tastes. Your acquiescence indicates that you agree that you are outside the norm, and that it is legitimate to question your behaviour.

How to deal with people’s reactions

If you don’t want to get into a discussion about the issue, try not to respond directly to a question or a comment. Don’t defend yourself; don’t get indignant. Don’t even listen too closely to the point that is being made. Whatever is said, smile and say:

  • ‘It’s just a preference.’

Describing your practice as a preference rather than a choice softens the edges. It is more difficult to judge people for a preference than a choice.

If you are pushed, say something like:

  • ‘Really, it’s not worth talking about.’

And repeat if necessary:

  • ‘It’s what I prefer, that’s all.’

You could of course fire back an attack on their own practices, which might make you feel better for a moment, but won’t do any good in the long run. Just add more ice to whatever you’re drinking, and maybe a slice of lemon. Or lime. Or orange. Whatever you prefer.

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