Strategies for Non-Drinkers to Navigate Holiday Parties

Deflecting offers of alcohol at holiday gatherings

Posted Dec 06, 2017

The holiday season is upon us, which means holiday parties. There’s a sort of compulsory or forced quality to the cheer; the holidays are supposed to be fun and you full of joy. But this is not the case for many people who find the holidays challenging. Whether with family, friends, or co-workers, holiday parties present challenges to people who do not drink. People don’t drink for all sorts of reasons (substance use disorder, health concerns, religious prohibitions, history of bad experiences with people who do drink, solidarity with others who don’t drink, etc). Navigating these parties may feel like crossing a landscape populated with monsters from your worst nightmares. Most often there will be someone who offers you a drink and in response to your polite refusal, pushes you harder and starts asking why you don’t drink. This can become quite awkward quickly. On the one hand, you may not want to answer honestly if you have a strong sense that it is nobody’s business or that you will be outing yourself with your answer somehow held against you. On the other hand, you may not want to lie because that goes against your grain.

Work parties are vexing because of all the unstated but still understood expectations for being social and a good team player. You may worry that people will interpret your not drinking as a kind of disapproval of their drinking. Or you may be charged with ruining the fun. Family parties can be vexing because of long histories and well established dynamics. You may worry about being regarded as the kill joy or even worse, as a traitor to the family.  As much as you might like to skip these parties, doing so may come at too great a cost.  Caught between a rock and a hard place, you decide to attend the gathering. The goal is to get through it with the least amount of discomfort.

It may seem strange to consider, but it is always a good idea to have a strategy when you go to a party where there will be alcohol. Work parties are an extension of the work place. Being with family is emotional and social labor; it is work. Any goal is best met with a strategy; the goal of getting through the party is no exception. These strategies combined with some ready-at-hand lines can deflect and defuse a situation. Some tried and true suggestions:

  • Time your arrival for the beginning of a party when there are fewer people who haven’t had a chance to imbibe too much. Alcohol is a disinhibitor, which means a person’s filters tend to become more porous the more they drink; they will say and do things they usually wouldn’t when sober. Reduce the likelihood of getting in the snares of the disinhibited inquisitor.
  • Have an exit plan that involves another commitment. You need not specify the commitment (and it may be a commitment to yourself not to put yourself through this particular party hell or to get home to a Netflix show) but it is a reason for your departure. Use the cover of the busy holiday party circuit; many people have commitments stacked atop one another.
  • Have a wing person who can interrupt the dynamic by asking if s/he could have a word with you or if you are ready to go etc. Or you may say, “I need to talk to ______; please excuse me.” The wing person doesn’t even have to be at the party; they could text or call you at a predetermined time.
  • Have a full fresh looking glass of club soda, fruit juice, or soda to reduce the chances of someone saying, “You need a refill.” You can respond, “I just got this,” or “I’m switching over to gingerale now.” No one needs to know you are switching from one non-alcoholic drink to another.
  • Create a job for yourself that involves moving around the party so that no one can buttonhole you. Grab a tray of appetizers and start passing those around. Or if someone asks you if you have seen _____, volunteer to go find them.
  • Be a designated driver or sober buddy (as college students are more likely to say). There is large scale disapproval of drunken driving, so positioning yourself as making sure that does not happen may make it seem as if you are forsaking your pleasure in order to keep your friends/family/co-workers safe from harming themselves and others. Remember that you designate yourself as your own driver.
  • Head off to the restroom because most people don’t ask why you are going there. Excuse yourself politely and move off.  If someone does ask why, you may simply reply, “the obvious reason.” The obvious reason for you is to extricate yourself from the interaction.

Tis the season to survive the holiday parties.