There are any number of reasons someone might decide not to drink alcohol. Perhaps they’re giving Dry January a go. Maybe they’re taking a new medication or attempting a restrictive diet. They might be in recovery from alcohol use disorder or they’re concerned about their relationship with the substance and trying to limit intake. It could be for religious reasons, they could be pregnant or maybe they just need a break.
Because drinking together is such a pervasive and socially acceptable American pastime, we tend to assume something’s wrong when an acquaintance or loved one abstains from alcohol. This prompts many to respond by asking prying questions or expressing shock and discomfort around someone’s decision to be sober.
While the rise of the “sober-curious” lifestyle trend has somewhat challenged the status quo, many still view alcohol consumption as black and white: either you can “handle it” and drink socially, or you need to enroll in a 12-step program and never crack a beer again. In actuality, alcohol use issues fall on a spectrum and are different for every person.
“There are stigmas on both sides: being overly indulgent or abstaining [from drinking],” said Stephanie Rozen, an alcohol and substance use counselor in New York. “There is a giant space in the middle of that continuum that is unexplored, uncharted territory. All of that is harm reduction.”
Understanding this continuum is the first step to taking a compassionate, thoughtful approach toward nondrinkers, versus one that’s critical, overly reactive and personally invasive. HuffPost spoke with therapists and folks who are alcohol-sober about the most insensitive or just plain annoying things people say to nondrinkers. Here’s what not to do and what a more supportive approach looks like:
1. ‘Why aren’t you drinking?’
If someone tells you they aren’t drinking, don’t demand a reason. You also shouldn’t blurt out guesses (“OMG are you pregnant?” “Are you in AA?”). You don’t want to put someone on the spot. You simply don’t know their reasons and it’s not your place to probe.
“It’s important to remember that asking ‘why’ or applying any pressure is a boundary violation,” said Hannah Wertz, a licensed psychologist in New York. “In general, an attitude of acceptance and non-judgment is the most important thing. If someone says no to a drink, try to refrain from dwelling on this decision or asking a second or third time.”
You actually don’t have to weigh in at all. “I would rather people say nothing,” said Sarah, 32, who is four years sober from alcohol and asked to withhold her last name for privacy. “Hoping for a non-comment in any social situation is ridiculous, I know, but it’s just like not commenting on someone’s appearance: Don’t comment on someone’s appearance.”
Instead, take into consideration that not every person is drinking in any given social environment ― for a range of reasons ― and create an environment that’s accepting of that.
2. ‘Can’t you have just one?’
Again, you don’t know someone’s relationship with alcohol. “No matter whether it’s an abstinence or a moderation approach, they’re looking to reduce harm, which means harm has been caused,” Rozen said.
Putting pressure on someone to drink when you don’t know the context of why they stopped can be hurtful.
“The act of continually pressuring someone who doesn’t drink in a ‘just this once’ way shows a lack of respect for a choice someone has made for themselves for what are likely personal and sometimes delicate or painful reasons,” said Kelly Murphy, 32, who is four years sober from alcohol. “Would you trip someone who was running a marathon?”
3. ‘I guess we can’t hang out then!’
“Someone who’s in recovery is already fearful about what to do with their friends,” said Rachel Schwartz, a New York-based alcohol and substance abuse counselor. They don’t want to feel like they’ve been shut out or abandoned.
Instead of making assumptions about how this newly sober person wants to approach different scenarios, ask them what they’re comfortable with. Are they OK being in social settings that involve drinking?
Schwartz suggested continuing to make the invitation, but “giving a heads-up so they know what they’re getting into and they can prepare their coping skills.” Or offer alternatives, like doing something separately one-on-one. Find ways to let them know you still value the friendship without relying on alcohol to facilitate it.
4. ‘We used to have so much fun together when we drank.’
People who give up alcohol might worry how the relationship dynamics will shift once you’ve removed that bonding element. In general, it can bring up anxiety about connecting with others without that social lubricant.
Hearing that sobriety makes you “not fun” confirms and exacerbates these fears while also undermining the difficult choice that person has made.
“I think the primary reason this comment is hurtful is because there’s an implication that what made you fun when you drank was the alcohol, not your personality,” Murphy said. “It implies that your value as a person has been diminished somehow now that you don’t drink.”
It’s worth considering, “if someone you care about makes a shift in their drinking patterns and it feels at all upsetting or threatening, you might also benefit from similar practices,” Rozen said.
5. ‘Oh cool, yeah, I did Dry January once.’
Sober-ish culture has made not drinking somewhat more socially acceptable. But on the flipside, approaching sobriety as a wellness trend without acknowledging what the struggle of recovery might look like for others may sound insensitive and dismissive.
“I think if you want to try a dry month, go for it. That’s a great goal,” said Megan Johnson, 36, who is nine years sober from alcohol and drugs. “But when you’re trying to live a sober life on a daily basis because the alternative could kill you, the stakes are a little bit higher.”
Recognize that the decision not to drink is different for everyone.
6. ‘I had no idea!’
With this, it’s not just what you say but the way you say it. Your tone of voice matters.
“Don’t act surprised: ‘Oh shit, you’re sober?’” Schwartz said. “Think about how you can be kind in how you speak to someone. You don’t want them to feel like they’re on the spot, or like an animal on display, or a spokesperson.”
And while you might have the best intentions in telling someone that they don’t “seem” like they have a problem, you’re actually adding to the stigma of addiction by putting them in a box of what society says an addict looks like. In reality, there’s a spectrum of substance use disorders and they can affect anyone.
7. Going silent.
It also matters what you don’t say. If someone tells you they’ve quit drinking and your response is to stop talking to them or stop inviting them to things, that can be as hurtful as openly expressing judgment.
Sure, it might come from a sense of awkwardness over how to handle the situation, but that kind of distancing response is “just as loud to the individual,” according to Rozen.
“Someone in recovery or making a conscious shift about a relationship with a substance — if they share that with you, it’s really a kind of coming out experience for them every time they do it,” Rozen said. “The level of support they receive in that moment is memorable and important.”
If you’re at a loss as to how to respond, don’t be afraid to straight up ask someone how you can best support them. Schwartz recommended open-ended questions instead of yes-no questions. For example: “How’s it going?” “Do you want to talk about it?”
Bottom line, the most important sentiment you can convey is that you care and you’re here for them, even if you might fumble your words along the way.