Five ways to Politely (and not so politely) Decline a Drink

Dark purple background with white text overlay reads "How To Tell Someone You Do Not Drink".

Last summer, I spent much of my quarantine time podded with my parents, sitting by a pool, and drinking 0% beer (it wasn’t terrible). One particular day, my dad was making blended drinks. Every time he came outside with a new pitcher, he brought an empty cup for me and asked if I wanted one. Each time I said no thank you. On the fifth trip, after he asked yet again, I replied: “Dad, I don’t drink.” He knew this. His response was: “Oh, right.” 

A few moments later, I relayed the situation to my mother and lamented his response. “Honey, you know he forgets,” she said. “He still thinks you are going to meet a nice man and settle down somewhere,” (I am partnered and queer). Unless I offer an explanation, my dad does forget, and it does not feel good. Granted, that was his fifth margarita. 

These days, people choose not to drink for a variety of reasons. According to the Washington Post, nearly 1 in 3 adult Americans don’t imbibe at all. This might be hard to believe considering how much drinking culture saturates advertising and other media. 

Let’s face it: declining a drink can be awkward and sometimes overwhelming. Parties, work events, book clubs, vacations, funerals, and even just plain old dinner-time frequently calls for a drink in hand. Whether you’re abstaining, moderating, or just taking the night off, through real life investigative research I’ve devised the following 5 strategies for declining a drink:

 

THE HEALTH KICK

“I’m on a health kick.”

Lace up those running shoes and take The Health Kick for a trial run. If you’ve been a heavy drinker in the past, this one may feel like a Dad Joke to say out loud. But The Health Kick is rarely a lie: whether you’re focused on physical or mental well-being, your intentions are honest, and the response you get is generally mild, polite, or even congratulatory. 

 

THE WHITE LIE

Are you totally uncomfortable disclosing anything about your current relationship to drinking? Does it feel too personal to even hint at the details? Then you might feel more at ease reaching for The White Lie-- though I caution to use this tactic sparingly. 

“I am taking medicine.” 

Yes, this answer seems benign. Who would argue with medicine?

But be sure to know your audience. Can you expect follow-up questions regarding your health? Would you feel comfortable answering them should they arise?

Pro-Tip: Toenail fungus sometimes requires medication that is toxic when combined with alcohol. Toenail fungus is also not something people want to talk about at length. 

 

THE ACTIVIST

You may have larger socio-political reasons for forgoing a drink. An international movement of nondrinkers is gaining momentum and collectively critiquing the toxic culture perpetuated by Big Alcohol.


“You still drink? Big Alcohol is a tool of the Patriarchy.”

More power to you, you little instigator! As Kristina Sperkova writes in The Temper“Alcohol advertisers are promising us everything that is impossible to gain from a substance– feeling of belonging, self-esteem, freedom, and happiness.”


“Umm, really? I don’t drink carcinogens.”

This response could open the door to a bigger conversation about the underreported health effects of drinking alcohol. Did you know that alcohol consumption is directly linked to cancer? According to the CDC, if you don’t drink now, don’t start.

 

THE SWEETHEART

On a positive note, how about instead of making the situation about what you are not doing at the moment, ask for what you really want. 


“I would love a Shirley Temple right now.” 

A true classic: It’s a taste of childhood, and the bartender definitely has the ingredients


“Thank you! I am so thirsty. Ice water would be amazing.”

Most humans need 2-3 litres of water per day! 


Aren’t you the cutest thing? No, really. Ice water? A Shirley Temple? That is just too cute. Ordering a drink can be a joy practice. Take your time looking at the menu and decide what would be delicious or refreshing. Make sure to order enthusiastically.

 

TO THE POINT

How about instead of engineering an airtight response, you just try keeping it plain and simple?

“No.” Or, even better: “No, thank you.”

“I don’t drink.”

“I am not drinking today.”

“I am sober.”

There isn’t much room for critique here. It’s direct, succinct, and polite. You’re neither being critical nor making excuses. Keeping it simple allows for a simple response. 

No matter the scenario, the truth is - there will never be a perfect way to disclose your decision to not drink, or to not have a drink. The responses will generally be unspectacular – respectful acknowledgements. With a bit of prep work, you may not even have to tell Bob from Accounting or other total strangers about your toenail fungus medication. 

Larger social functions may call for their own kind of pre-event strategizing. Happy hour with your colleagues? Carry cash. Walk into the bar. Order your nonalcoholic beverage of choice. Smile at your server and “Tip as if you were drinking booze.” (industry standard is $1 - $2 per drink). Hold your glass with confidence. The contents are for you to know. Make your rounds, and don’t be afraid to leave early. 

Outdoor social event?

Bring your own beverages! When the weather is cold, I like to carry tea bags for quick and easy comfort and variety. My go-to drinks during the warmer months are the wide range of bubbly waters on the market, or a healthy dose of caffeine like a yerba mate. Clean Cause is an awesome choice, and a conversation starter-- they give 50% of all of their profits to help fund sober living scholarships for folks in addiction recovery. No matter the season, I like to carry my own fancy insulated cup and have a variety of options to share in a small shoulder bag or cooler. As long as you have a cup in your hand, few questions will come your way.

Choosing non-alcoholic beverages at the store, restaurants, and bars allows those businesses to expand and offer more variety. Overall, your reason for not drinking belongs to you. From servers to family members, those that offer you a drink are doing so as a part of the unwritten (and often uncontested) social expectation to take a drink. No matter your reason or your response, the act of not drinking alcohol is radical, revolutionary, and, above all, a personal choice. More power to you!

Got any tried-and-true strategies of your own for passing on a drink? Share your tips with us on Instagram or our website, and get the latest on CLEAN Cause!


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4 comments
  • I love these insights …alcohol is the only drug that people ask you for a reason why you’re aren’t using it…. thank you !

    Adam on
  • This is so helpful. People shouldn’t have to disclose they are sober until they are ready. I definitely wasn’t for a long time. I still refuse to tell someone I’m sober on a first date, it’s not their business really. I used to always say “I’m a Buddhist” if someone asked, which was kinda true! Haha. Also I would always show us to my date or an event early and just make sure I always had a mocktail in my hand at all times so no one asked.

    Valentine on
  • The truth is very few people care if you drink or not. Once the question is asked and answered, it is amazing how few of your friends or associates really care about you are drinking or not. The truth is always the best: “ I’m not drinking today”. One day at a time you can simply repeat that phrase.

    Rory Ahearn on
  • It can be awkward but truth is best. “I chose not to drink today”, no necessity in explaining, it is MY choice for today. Or my favorite said with enthusiasm, “It (alcohol) and I do not go well together, I’ll have a Pellegrino water please!”

    Paul H on

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