Every gathering among friends and family is about inclusion. That’s why you’re getting together in the first place. Sometimes, that means finding a way to include both people who enjoy a drink or two and people who are stone cold sober. To help you navigate the alcohol free waters, we caught up with Daniel Post Senning, an etiquette author at The Emily Post Institute and the great-great-grandson of etiquette legend Emily Post, and Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life. Here are the rules of drinking around people who don’t drink, according to the experts.
Let the Sober Person Decide What They’re Comfortable with
“Just because someone doesn’t drink doesn’t automatically mean they’re going to feel uncomfortable,” Gottsman says. “As the host, if you know someone has recently overcome a drinking issue, or is a recovering alcoholic, it’s always polite to let them know you will be inviting guests who enjoy drinking and you will understand if they want to pass.”
People abstain from alcohol for different reasons, and those reasons may or may not impact how you drink around them.
“Emily Post claimed that alcohol never crossed her lips,” Senning says. “At the same time, she was an opponent of Prohibition. Decidedly not a teetotaler. She thought that telling other people how to behave (when it comes to choosing whether to drink or not) is inappropriate. Not everyone who doesn’t drink is opposed to other people doing it, so be careful assuming.”
Don’t Force a Conversation
“Sometimes it’s a personal choice when it comes to private things we don’t talk about like health, addiction and religion,” Senning says. “You don’t ever ask the question (about why someone doesn’t drink). You don’t probe or inquire, whether or not your curiosity is peaked.”
Listen to the Reasons if They Do Want to Talk
There are “situations where a person does not drink because they have a medical condition or they are a recovering alcoholic,” Gottsman says. It’s polite to refrain if someone tells you a reason like this is why they don’t drink. But there are other, less medically serious reasons as well. “When someone tells you, ‘I am going to pass but please go ahead,’ if you are certain it’s not going to be uncomfortable for them, you may feel free to have a drink.”
Have a Drink, but Talk About Something Else
“Have your antennae out,” Senning says. You don’t want to exclude people. “If there’s something [like alcohol] that makes someone feel that they’re not participating, the conversation (can make them feel excluded) as much as the act itself. It might be entirely fine to have a glass with your entree, but if the only thing you talk about is how good it is or the pairing, then that added emphasis on the conversation could start to be exclusionary.”
Follow the Host’s Lead if You’re a Guest
“If I'm the guest, I'm going to look for the host to set the tone for behavior and follow the host’s cues,” Senning says. “If I've been invited to someone’s home or I’m a guest for a special occasion, I'm going to look to them for the standard of conduct (at the event).” Senning also adds, “It’s a host-guest dance. The more formal the event, the more I'm going to hold myself accountable to a higher standard of formality and hew closer to the role of the guest who does not expect or demand.”
Part of feeling out the atmosphere is distinguishing between work (see Supercall’s guide to drinking with your boss if this is the case) and social occasions.
“It’s perfectly fine to order a drink at a restaurant or bar if you are out socially with someone who doesn’t drink,” Gottsman says. “If you were out with a client and they pass on a beverage, you should do the same.”
Just Be Honest
Gottsman suggests a few simple questions to know what is and isn’t OK with someone who is sober: “I know you don’t drink and I want to make sure I don’t step over the line. Would you prefer we meet at a restaurant or, is it OK to meet at a bar?”
Or, “I’m uncertain about how you feel when it comes to other people drinking around you. Would you prefer I order a nonalcoholic beverage?”
If You’re the Host, Treat Alcohol Like a Dietary Restriction
“If you’re the host, you want to make your guest feel comfortable,” Senning says. “If you have raised it ahead of time as a part of the event, you can proceed. A dietary restriction is usually mentioned ahead of time—same goes for strongly held beliefs like refraining from alcohol.
“Finally, be a gracious host,” Senning says. “Smile. Include them. Don’t let something like the fact that one person likes drinking and one doesn’t become an impediment to what that experience is all about.”