How Former Drinkers Navigate Social Events

Former problem drinkers take a wide variety of approaches to determine how and whether to tell others in social situations that they don’t drink, according to a small, qualitative study published in the journal Health Communication.

These approaches tend to differ according to personality, the situation at hand, and how long a person has been sober. Many former drinkers chose strategies that were more subtle, such as saying “no thank you” to drinks without saying why or simply holding an alcoholic drink without ever taking a sip.

If asked directly, however, some blamed health problems or medication or avoided the question with humor. Those who were direct and open about their past drinking problems were typically those who had been successfully sober for a long period of time.

“The findings tell us that former problem drinkers can find it tricky to navigate social situations where alcohol is involved, and makes clear it’s important to support those who aren’t drinking and not push non-drinkers to disclose their reasons for not having a drink,” says Lynsey Romo, lead author of a paper on the work and an assistant professor of communication at North Carolina State University.

The study involved interviews with 11 former problem drinkers who had been sober for between one and 19 years. The work was part of a larger study on how all non-drinkers — not just recovering problem drinkers — navigate social events where alcohol is being served.

“We found that former problem drinkers still want to be social, of course, but that they had to find ways to determine whether to disclose their non-drinking status to others,” Romo says.

“Study participants said they felt the need to weigh how much they should tell other people. Essentially, they assessed the risk of being socially stigmatized if they were open about not drinking or about being in recovery.”

Many study participants reported trying to avoid the issue altogether, either by “passing” as a drinker (holding a cup but not drinking) or by simply turning down offers a drink without saying why.

If asked directly, some would try to use humor to change the subject. Others would make excuses for not drinking — citing health problems or being on medication that didn’t allow them to drink alcohol.

However, most participants noted that they make a point to stress that it was okay for others to drink around them.

A few participants — in particular, those who had been sober for a longer period of time — reported being open about their history with alcohol, especially if they thought it would defuse a situation that threatened their sobriety or if they thought it would help others who might be struggling with problem drinking.

Source: North Carolina State University