As a British Muslim woman that doesn’t drink, growing up in a country that has a dominant drinking culture has made me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome around work and friendship circles. From university through to my career, I’ve had to navigate comments that have made me feel belittled about my choices and values.
“Why not?” – Is that any of your business?
“You haven’t lived until you’ve had a drink!” – I’m living just fine thank you.
“I wish I could do that, I’ve got a lot of respect for you.’”- A comment that sounds like they’re admiring my choice, but is actually patronizing and insincere.
And I’ve saved the best one till last…
“Go on, just try one!” – Yes, there are still people that think forcing someone to drink is like committing a good deed. They expect I’ll magically become a “fun” person to hang out with once I become tipsy or drunk.
To stop people from expecting me to explain myself, feeling ‘sorry’ for me or forcing me to drink, I would come up with different ways to evade any awkward interactions. I’d avoid going to socials where I knew it would involve going to a pub or bar (or leave early if I’m ‘encouraged’ to go), I’d only spend time with people that I trust won’t ask these irritating questions or I’d suggest other places to go to.
I started to feel drinking peer pressure when I attended university. During first-year whilst living in university halls, my flatmates would regularly arrange pre-drinks at our flat before going out partying and drinking even more. I had no issue with my flatmates drinking – it’s their life and it’s each to their own – but I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the drinking culture I wasn’t partaking in. The majority of people entering university were able to build close friendships with others based on their shared enjoyment of alcohol. I felt judged by my peers and definitely had FOMO, but I wasn’t going to succumb to peer pressure.
I quickly came to realize who my real friends were at university – they respected and didn’t want to change me. They like me for who I am and they didn’t make a big deal about me not drinking.
Though I felt the peer pressure dissipate at university, it reappeared when I entered the working world. It was only when I started my career that I realized how intrinsic the drinking culture is in the UK. There are after-work drinks, socials that involve drinking, birthday drinks, successful project drinks, leaving drinks. There always seems to be an excuse to drink.
I had one manager that felt it was perfectly fine to say multiple comments to me about my choices. “Aww, I feel so sorry for you!” was one condescending remark she felt was acceptable to say every so often to me. Am I living life the wrong way? Am I dull, boring, not worth other people’s time when it comes to socializing? Well according to my then-manager, I am.
I would fume. I could feel my heart rate racing when she made those comments. All I could do was take a deep breath and smile through gritted teeth. How could I stand up against my manager if she could make work more difficult for me? I learned not to respond and let her continue talking about her drunken antics instead. It felt more manageable than snapping back.
As I’m older and (I’d like to think) wiser, I’ve come to realize that the people making these comments are likely to feel judged and uncomfortable around me because of their personal drinking choices. For some people, they may have given in to peer pressure so they don’t feel left out of friendship circles. For others, they know drinking is bad for their health and it’s costly, but having a drink helps them to wind down, relax and socialize with ease. I am not the kind of person to judge. I’m not against drinking culture, I will happily go to a pub or bar with a group of friends whilst they drink alcohol and I have a fancy mocktail.
When people ask non-drinkers to explain themselves instead of respecting their choices, that’s when it gets infuriating. When I do get asked these questions now, I’ll tell them it’s my choice, just like it’s their choice to drink. I don’t judge you, so you shouldn’t judge me either.
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