A research question was posed that elicited a far different series of responses than was anticipated:

I have a question for those for whom alcohol is a part of your social life. This teetotaler by choice (not of necessity) really does want to understand. Is it possible to have fun, whether at a party, or dinner or sporting event or picnic…or an evening at home sans alcohol? What would it be like for you to not drink at any or all those occasions? It would be absolutely fine with me if I never imbibed again. I drank way too much in college and shortly thereafter. It is a conscious decision for me to enjoy the company of others without a substance on board.”

It was prompted by my work with those in recovery whose new lifestyles preclude drinking and who likely would need to establish revised patterns and habits, as well as social activities to address sustained sobriety. It seemed clear and straightforward as I asked the questions.

This was not the case as reactions ranged from observations that in and of itself, I was looking for a “right answer” and was therefore judging those whose responses were out of the range of what I might consider acceptable, to agreement from those either sober by choice or necessity. Polarization was apparent, with very little middle ground. I admitted that as an addictions counselor with three decades in the field, I did hold some biases.

Some of the responses included:

Just as there are a myriad of ways to feel and react without imbibing there are while imbibing. Good, bad and everything in between. Sometimes drinking is ritualistic and other times it is escapism. Moderation is good to strive toward. I do think people tend to demonize and polarize everything including drinking.”

“I almost never drink. Most people find me boring, cause I don’t. It doesn’t bother me at all!”

“I don’t drink. I enjoy talking and listening to others and I can’t do that if I’m impaired.”

“I enjoy craft beer and good white wine especially, but I don’t drink every time I go out, or most evenings at home. I like to enjoy a drink when I’m in the mood for it, and, also enjoy deep experiences in spaces where the intention is to be unaltered by substances of any kind.”

“I feel you can have fun at a party or social event as a non-drinker. I do it all the time. For me… if I don’t judge others, it’s no problem. They keep offering me drinks and I say no thank you… amid their “come on, have one” invites! Boring or not… I am gonna be me! “

“That’s a loaded question (har har). No really, the question itself and the tone implies a judgement which will, I think, turn off quite a few people from answering it, especially if they’re likely to answer in the negative.”

“Are you assuming dependence in this question or not? For those of us who have no issue with dependence, of course we can imagine doing those same activities without alcohol and when we do so, the experience is identical to yours…it’s simply an enjoyable experience without it. When alcohol is in play, the benefits are varied…sometimes it allows for faster disconnect from stress, reduces initial social anxiety, or simply heightens the pleasure of the experience (this is why many people enjoy a drink with food…taste perceptions are complicated and enhanced). In moderation, it’s just a matter of choosing between qualities of experience.”

“I was a criminal defense paralegal in the 70s and 80s and we always went out to drink after work. The legal crowd were all real drinkers back then. It was part of the bonding ritual, like the company softball games, where everyone also drank. Now I hang with a more holistic crowd and very few are drinkers. It seems more of a social ritual, like one beer or one glass of wine or share a beer at dinner. I don’t care for the taste or the buzz so I don’t drink it all. I don’t mind if a friend wants to imbibe but I cannot be abide being around drunk people.”

“I’m a party girl so I like a glass in my hand! Something about the clinking and toasting and merrymaking! But half the time it’s a glass of seltzer (that’s usually when I’m on a diet of some sort) and even if I do drink wine or some fabulous cocktail concoction, I almost never go over one or two. I think it’s a habit/image thing more than anything else. I don’t do well with restriction! “

“Drinking alcohol is not bad. I have enjoyed MANY social events with and without alcohol. I do drink when the timing permits, I don’t drink when timing does not. Drinking alcohol does not make anyone a bad person. Not drinking does not make anyone a bad person. I most certainly enjoy sharing wine and sitting with friends completely relaxed.”

“This is interesting. I think what bothers me the most about the way this was presented is the last sentence. ‘It’s a conscious decision for me to enjoy the company of others without a substance on board.’ What’s a substance? Is coffee considered a substance? Orange juice is absorbed so fast it’s like a sugar rush. It’s that a substance? Smoking cigarettes…[Is] that a substance? The very medications we take all affect our bodies in some way. This is the part of the perceived judgement that bothers me. I have a full stocked liquor cabinet. I enjoy making craft cocktails just like I enjoy making an awesome dinner. I like refining a drink to my palate just like I enjoy refining spices in my recipes. I don’t drink every day and I don’t cook every day. I’ll partake with those that would like a drink and don’t miss it with friends who choose not to drink….no different than I go to foodie-type restaurants with foodie friends and don’t go there with non-foodie friends.  If I could never drink again, would I miss it, sure, for a while, but I would adapt…. just like if someone told me I could never have garlic again… I’d miss it and adapt. If one subscribes to moderation when it comes to all kinds of aspects of life, it works out better IMNSHO.”

Here’s where the thread of conversation got tangled. It became clear quickly that it was not merely the question that was thought provoking, but the controversial nature of the perception.

Is reality fluid or fixed?

Remember the experiment from 1999 that featured people bouncing and passing basketballs and the viewer was supposed to count the number of times players in white shirts passed the ball? There was an added factor that flew under the radar for many. Harvard researchers Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris observed that half of the people in the study missed this crucial component. The same could be said for the ways in which we turn our attention. Once people saw the image, they couldn’t un-see it. Once we have a particular mindset, it may be challenging to change it.

Another way to look at it is the ladder of inference concept, which explains the ways in which the human brain processes and makes meaning of data. It was created by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris and described by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.

  • Real data and experience (what are the facts?)
  • Select data and experience (filtering out what happened)
  • Affixed meaning (is this in my best interest or a threat?)
  • Make assumptions (what do we think the other person’s intention is?)
  • Come to conclusions (we decide how it really is)
  • Form beliefs (reinforce what we think we know or create anew)
  • Take action (say or do something with what we have accrued along the way)

The fact is, I asked a question. The steps each reader took was influenced by their own interpretation, based on the experiences they have had and the resulting biases. They made assumptions about what I was asking, concluded and answered accordingly.

My intention was not to trick people into answering one way or another, but that was the way some interpreted it. The most fascinating aspect was the conversation it generated.