Brow Beat

People Shouldn’t Ask Why I’m Not Drinking—but They Do. Here’s How I Respond.

A gin and tonic, or a club soda? You’ll never know.

Photo by Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

This is one in an occasional series of posts about Drynuary, the practice of not drinking alcohol in January.

The conventional wisdom in social situations is that you shouldn’t ask people why they aren’t drinking. For one thing, it’s not any of your business. For another, there are a host of record-skippingly awkward answers to that question that you probably don’t want to hear. Do you really need to know that someone is in recovery, or taking scary drugs that have dangerous interactions, or very early in their first trimester—or to put someone in the position of making up a cover story for one of these conditions? Sure, they may simply be on antibiotics or the designated driver that night, but you really don’t need to risk it. The rule of thumb is that you just don’t ask.

Despite the very good reasons for this rule of thumb, lots of people do ask. During Drynuary, I’m often fascinated by the reaction people have to my ordering a post-hockey cranberry-and-club-soda at a bar with my teammates. Everyone who knows me well already understands that I do this Drynuary madness every year—I’m not shy about it, after all—so their immediate reaction is usually an eye-rolling “Again?!” as they pathetically try to peer-pressure me into doing a shot with them. (It never works.)

The reactions get more interesting during business functions. In my line of work, business events and travel naturally involve expense accounts and the social lubricant of alcohol. There’s an entirely different etiquette minefield associated with meeting a business client for the first time and turning down a drink. Some people handle it deftly—a barely perceptible sideways glance—while others tactlessly ask if I’m too hung over or something. It’s in these situations, more than any other, that I find myself explaining Drynuary. Those explanations subsequently invite the predictable responses that arise when people discover Drynuary for the first time, ranging from “Wow, I could never do that” to “Doesn’t it mean you have a problem if you have to take a month off?” (What’s the etiquette for casually accusing someone of having a drinking problem when you first meet?)

Bartenders are generally understanding. When I go to restaurants, I love eating at the bar. It may seem like an odd choice for someone ordering ginger ale with a meal, staring directly at taps promising great beer in front of a mirror-backed top shelf, but I’m not altering my routine just because it’s Drynuary. I always feel like I detect a slight pause from a bartender when I order something innocuous, but any bartender worth their salt is professional and cool about it. I’m sure they’ve seen it all, and know better than to ask anyway. Worst case, they think I’m a square. I try to dispel this impression by tipping as if I’m drinking the high octane stuff.

Sometimes, I just want to avoid the possibility of the question to begin with. A surreptitious club soda with lime is a great stand-in for a gin and tonic. My wife, and other pregnant friends, have used certain sleight-of-hand tricks early in a pregnancy before they were ready to reveal that they were expecting. She would order the same drink as I would—say, a glass of red wine with dinner—and wait until mine was almost drained. Subtly, we’d switch glasses when no one was looking, and viola! It looked like she was pounding hers, and I was playing catch up. After a few rounds of this, the unfortunate byproduct was a very drunk husband. If you’re doing Drynuary and have an understanding buddy who’s drinking, this could be a useful diversion.

Sometimes, I feel like I need to offer an explanation right after Drynuary ends—for instance, apologizing to the waitress for giggling like a kid at the prom after having a bloody mary and half a glass of wine at lunch my first day after Drynuary. My local wine shop is used to not seeing my face for a month, so while they welcome me and my wallet back in February, everyone else just assumes I’m back from battling some sort of grave disease. But, thankfully, etiquette usually prevents them from asking exactly what disease.

Why I’ve Given Up Alcohol Every January for the Last Eight Years
What a Psychologist Specializing in Addiction Treatment Thinks About Drynuary
Actually, Not Drinking in January Is a Great Idea