I recently met up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. We’ve known each other since we were teenagers and have seen each other through many milestones – our first lychee martini, shot, Long Island Iced Tea, Flaming Lamborghini; our first night at Zouk (and our first times puking outside of it) … As we grew older (and became more discerning), we navigated the burgeoning craft cocktail/beer/wine scene together.
Then as friends do sometimes, we both got busy and we drifted apart. Or so I thought.
That night when we met up, I asked her why we stopped hanging out. That’s when she made a shocking confession.
“I stopped drinking and you stopped hanging out with me.”
It took me a while to process what she had said but it suddenly made complete sense.
We hadn’t drifted apart. I had socially exiled her when she gave up drinking.
I recalled all the times I heckled/teased/cajoled her when she first started refusing another drink. I remembered asking her (in all seriousness) if she was pregnant when she gave up drinking totally. I remembered how our friends would assume she’s the designated driver of the night every time we went out. And over time, how we stopped asking her out because we assumed she wouldn’t have fun going out with us.
I had been a bully. And as a result, a long friendship had suffered.
I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. In a society where drinking is a well-accepted social lubricant, non-drinkers are usually seen to be social pariahs, buzzkills, anti-fun.
This article by Andre Picard makes a few astute points. There are heaps of reasons why people don’t drink – religion, allergies to sulphites in wine, a difference in lifestyle choices (people might be trying to lose weight or live healthily), or simply that they don’t like the way alcohol tastes.
But the best part of this article is how Picard points out that regardless of the reason, it really isn’t any of our business. We have no business judging their choices or worse, to think it’s OK to ask them to justify their position with questions like “Are you pregnant?”, “But how do you have fun without booze?” or “Don’t you feel like you’re missing out?”
The thing is, in most other parts of our lives, we know better than to question other people’s lifestyle choices.
We would never ask a pregnant woman to explain why she chose to “miss out” on a carefree life. We would never make a yoga-fanatic feel like she was less fun because she actually cared about her fitness. In general, we know better than to make people feel like there’s something wrong with them because of the choices they make.
But for some reason, some of us don’t think twice doing it to non-drinkers. When I told my friend I felt terrible for being such a bully, she pointed out that “bully” was the right word because she constantly feels bullied by drinkers.
Whenever she reveals she doesn’t drink, everyone makes a big deal of it, and she needs to explain herself. Some even see it as a personal challenge to get her to take a sip of alcohol.
It came to a point where she would arm herself with a beer in hand at office functions or weddings just so people would get off her back, and she could avoid having the awkward conversation entirely.
“It’s so perverse that I have to justify to people why I don’t drink. I don’t question why people choose to do something that obviously isn’t good for their health and makes them feel like shit the morning after but for some reason, people think it’s completely OK to question my drinking habits.”
So why do we find the idea of people who don’t drink so hard to swallow? Maybe it’s because non-drinkers force us to confront the fact that we use booze as a crutch to deal with anything from stress to insecurity and anxiety. Maybe we choose to exile non-drinkers from our social circles because we’re scared to test the strength of our relationships when alcohol can no longer be a social lubricant. Maybe all this while, we thought we were the fun ones when it was really just the booze doing the trick.
Well, this episode with my friend has been sobering. And while I don’t have any intentions of quitting drinking, I am definitely going to shut up the next time someone opts for a mocktail.