How to Handle Happy Hour Culture When You’re Not Drinking

There’s nothing better after a long, stressful work week than getting together with friends and enjoying a cocktail or two, right? Well, not always. If you’re one of the millions of people who choose not to indulge in alcoholic beverages for any number of reasons, happy hour may not be very happy for you at all.

Do you find yourself constantly skipping after work get-togethers because you don’t want to admit that you simply choose not to imbibe? The good news is that you’re certainly not alone. Plus, there are plenty of ways you can work around the happy hour culture at your office or with friends without needing to grab a drink, but first let’s talk about why you might want to stop skipping happy hour and be a part of that activity.

How to Handle Happy Hour Culture When You're Not DrinkingThe Importance of Bonding

Whether you love your work, hate it, or something in between, the reality is that bonding after hours can bring a team together and help you relate more effectively to each other — which in turn, can make projects flow more smoothly and improve your work relationships overall.

While enjoying a relaxing beverage is expected in certain organizations, most people tend to join the party so they can hash out a difficult project or problem in a low-stress environment or simply use it as an opportunity to get to know their boss better. If you’re not getting a lot of face time with a specific colleague, getting together at happy hour may be a great way to break through a stalemate and come to a mutually agreeable resolution that keeps a project moving forward. You may come away from an evening knowing your coworkers or supervisors in a new and more productive way by getting to know them on a personal level.

That said, there’s no denying that happy hour culture can sometimes have less beneficial aspects, and you personally may not have an interest in drinking alcoholic beverages. So, how do you bond with your teammates without saying “yes” to everything involved in happy hour culture?

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The Simplest Strategy: Honesty

If someone asks about your choices not to indulge in an alcoholic beverage just be honest. Let them know you’re making a decision based on your personal priorities, and that you appreciate their support in this choice. If you’ve had challenges with alcohol in the past or have a medical issue, it may make sense to share that with your coworker, but that choice should be made based on the level of friendship and support you feel you may receive from this individual.

Never feel pressured to over-share, but also don’t feel the need to hide your choice. A good friend or colleague will respect your decision and support you (and if they don’t support you, you should probably walk away). And if you look around the table, you’ll likely notice that others are also quietly choosing to not indulge in alcohol.

Whether you’re concerned about crossing the line between professionalism and personal relationships, watching your calories, or avoiding alcohol for other reasons, don’t be embarrassed. While you may feel self-conscious, it’s unlikely anyone else is even paying attention to what you order.

Okay, but maybe your office culture does mean others are paying attention, what then?

How to Handle Happy Hour Culture When You're Not Drinking

5 Strategies for Navigating Happy Hour Culture

1. Pick Your “Poison” Wisely

Want to keep the questions to a minimum? When everyone else is going around the table placing orders, step away to use the restroom. On your way back, pass by the bar and quietly order a drink. What the others will never know is that you’ve ordered a “virgin” drink with no alcohol. Great options for tasty virgin drinks include:

  • Jack and Coke, minus the Jack
  • Ginger ale and bitters
  • Virgin Mary
  • Posh tonic water
  • Non-alcoholic beer
  • Lemonade with a salt rim
  • Virgin Tom Collins
  • Virgin mojito

2. Volunteer to Be the Designated Driver

People are usually more than happy when someone is willing to give up the fun to make sure everyone else gets home safely. Truthfully, being the designated driver has additional privileges, as the drinkers will often purchase your snacks or meal as a thank you for your “sacrifice.” Plus, you’ll have the knowledge that your coworkers are not taking chances with their lives and those of others on the road.

How to Handle Happy Hour Culture When You're Not Drinking3. Find a Buddy

If you’re in a large group, there’s a good possibility of others making the same decision not to drink. Watch carefully, and approach anyone you feel comfortable speaking with by making yourself vulnerable first (don’t call them out). A whispered aside of “Skipping the liquor tonight?” can be enough to bond two souls together. That said, be careful not to be a martyr about it and mock those who’ve decided to knock back a few drinks.

4. Stay Engaged

One of the best ways to call attention to the fact you’re choosing not to drink is to sit in a corner, nursing a single beverage all night and looking glum. Why torture yourself? Just because you’ve made a decision not to drink alcohol doesn’t mean you have to be miserable. Instead, look for ways to engage others in conversation.

As long as you stay engaged in the conversation, people are much less likely to ask questions about what is in your glass. If they do ask and the timing isn’t appropriate for a longer conversation, come up with a few quick ways to gently turn the tide of the conversation elsewhere. You can always circle back later and let your coworkers know more about your choice.

How to Handle Happy Hour Culture When You're Not Drinking5. Party Selectively

If you truly don’t feel comfortable with any of these tips, find a different crowd. While it may seem like “everyone” is going out for drinks after a hard day at work, there are nearly always individuals who choose to sip a soft drink or head to dinner instead. If there are a few groups heading to the local watering hole, choose the one that is the least likely to be negative about the water-on-the-rocks in your glass. Pick a group that is headed to heat up the dance floor or play an escape game — places where your coworkers are less likely to be partaking in the less desirable aspects of the happy hour culture.

The Bottom Line on Happy Hour Culture

Regardless of how you choose to handle happy hour culture when you’re not drinking, the bottom line is you should remain confident and true to yourself. Your reasons for making this decision are your own, and real friends and good colleagues will respect that you’re an adult and can make your own decisions.

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Becca Borawski Jenkins
Becca is a bit like a cat — she’s gone through a few “lives” to get to her current one (with which she’s quite pleased). She earned her MFA in Cinema-Television Production at USC’s famed film school, and her first career was as a music editor (if you’ve watched Scrubs, you’ve likely heard her work).

Becca found her way to career number two through martial arts. She began training in BJJ and muay Thai and started working with professional MMA fighters, building websites, working on fight promotions, and producing videos.

As a competitor in BJJ herself, Becca wanted to get stronger and fitter. In 2005, she became a student at CrossFit Los Angeles where she met WLC co-founders Andy Petranek and Michael Stanwyck. In only a couple years, she became CrossFit Level III Certified, left her entertainment career, and dedicated herself full time to coaching, serving as the Program Director of CFLA and founder of the CFLA CrossFit Kids program.

After seven years as a music editor and then eight years as fitness instructor, Becca segued to her current career — full-time editor and writer. She and her husband are full-time RVers and have a first-hand comprehension of the pros and cons of remote work.