Drink Tank

Turning down a drink without turning down your social life

Back in 2015, I wrote a post for Drink Tank about the research project I was embarking on as part of my PhD research, looking at the social experiences of people who stop or reduce their drinking. There are plenty of good health (and other) reasons to think about reducing your drinking. But for many of us here in Australia, drinking is engrained in our social rituals, which can make giving up drinking a challenge. You risk rejecting not only the drink, but all the social meaning that drinking can carry. As such, it’s helpful to understand how people can manage the social challenges of turning down a drink without turning down their social life.

I, along with my supervisors Dr Jaklin Eliott, Dr Shona Crabb, and Dr Scott Hanson-Easey, have recently published research based on the first study from my PhD, in which I interviewed people who had recently stopped or significantly reduced their alcohol consumption, to learn more about their experiences. They reported feeling stigmatised for turning down a drink: other drinkers would challenge them about their decision, pressing them to have a drink regardless, or demanding they justify their refusal. Some also found themselves labelled as boring or wrong, or were assumed to have a problem with alcohol. This could make social situations involving alcohol rather uncomfortable, so participants had to come up with some strategies to manage their social lives now that they had changed how they drank.

One broad approach many took was to try to fit in to drinking occasions. Some people were adept at masking the fact they weren’t drinking: for example, by volunteering to buy the drinks, and drinking non-alcoholic drinks that could pass as alcoholic ones. Others would turn down a drink, but then provide a socially acceptable reason for this – needing to drive, having a health issue, or taking part in a charity fundraiser like Dry July. These sorts of reasons subtly suggest that you would drink if you could, but that you’re under some sort of constraint. As such, they don’t present a challenge to expectations that drinking is a normal and central part of such occasions.

Fitting in to drinking situations by passing as a drinker or providing acceptable excuses helped to make these situations more comfortable for participants. However, most saw this as only a temporary measure, to be used in large groups and with casual acquaintances. This makes sense as these approaches involve some deception, which isn’t something people usually like to engage in with close friends. Instead, with these close friends, participants preferred to try to change the way they socialised. They would avoid activities where drinking was the focus, but try to replace these with other social activities, for example, catching up over breakfast or lunch, or going for a walk together. This approach worked best where the new activities still fulfilled a similar meaning or purpose. So if drinking with friends was mostly about spending time together chatting, or about having fun, or acknowledging each other’s achievements, then choosing an activity that still allowed them to do this.

So what does this mean if you’re someone who is interested in stopping or reducing your own drinking, without sacrificing your social life?

In the short term, having an excuse up your sleeve for when someone inevitably asks why you’re turning down a drink is going to be helpful. Signing up for a fundraiser like FebFast, Dry July and Ocsober could be a good way to go, providing you with a space to work through your own challenges around changing your drinking, without having to deal with all the challenges that come from others.

It is worth remembering however, that if you’re a heavy drinker or think you might be dependent on alcohol, it’s a good idea to check with your GP first. In the longer term, you might want to try replacing at least some drinking occasions with different social activities. Try to think about what meaning these occasions carry for you and your friends, and if there’s another activity that could fulfil that same meaning. That way, you’re all less likely to feel like you’re missing out on something without the alcohol. This should help you to cut back on the booze without becoming a social pariah – because our social relationships are important for our health and well-being too.

Ashlea Bartram

Ashlea Bartram is a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide’s School of Public Health, where she is investigating the social experience of cutting back or stopping alcohol consumption. Ashlea’s background is in psychology, with a particular interest in promoting behaviour change.

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