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When You Don’t Drink, Life Can Be Lonely

A culture of alcohol divides us socially.

Key points

  • A culture of alcohol can separate non-drinkers from their families and friends.
  • When one doesn't drink, one is often excluded from social gatherings or doesn't feel like they belong in certain places.
  • Being made to feel lonely and excluded doesn't necessarily make non-drinkers drink more.

The other day, a group of my friends went on a wine tasting tour. I wasn’t invited. Last weekend there was a summer gathering at a family cottage with plenty of drinking. I thought about going, but it felt strange knowing I’d be the only one there who’d be sober. A few weeks before that, I went to listen to some fabulous live music. It was awkward, though, sitting at a front row table sipping soda water with lemon while the waiter glared at me. Good tips, I guess, don’t come from people like me.

There is a trend here. When you don’t drink—or, like me, drink very little and only occasionally—you don’t get invited to social gatherings in the same way drinkers do. I’ve also noticed that when everyone is inebriated and you’re not, it can be difficult to laugh when others laugh or to enjoy slurry conversation and reckless behavior. I was drunk plenty of times in my youth so I understand the attraction, but I am finding that the less I drink, the fewer places I’m welcome.

Let’s be clear: There are plenty of problem drinkers. About 25% of us binge-drink, and the majority of us will drink to excess periodically. Those are separate problems. I’m more concerned that alcohol has become such an embedded part of our lives that when one doesn’t drink it becomes a barrier to being part of one’s community. Most of my neighbors finish their day with a beer or two, half a bottle of wine (or more), a spritzer, cider, or mixed drink. I’m not judging. I am, however, noticing that more and more often my social world is being divided into those who drink (the majority) and a few non-drinkers like myself.

Very little research has looked at the experience of the non-drinker, though I know from speaking with other non-drinkers that they too find lots of places where they don’t feel like they belong (if they get an invitation at all). That great new wine bar and tapas restaurant that opened downtown looked like a wonderful place for a chic dinner out with a colleague and his wife but if one isn’t going to drink wine, well, then, as my colleague put it, “What’s the point?” The neighborhood Christmas party sounded fun, too, but when people are expecting to drink to the point of falling off the couch, it’s not likely they are going to want a sober witness hanging around to watch the shenanigans.

Oddly, while recent research out of Fordham University shows that people who feel lonely are at risk of drinking more, people who feel lonelier than usual actually drink less. In other words, being made to feel lonely by others is unlikely to drive a non-drinker to drink. So much for any hope of me taking up drinking with a passion to try and fit in.

All of this leaves me with an odd request for my social network: Please don’t exclude me just because I’m a non-drinker. A wine-tasting tour is still a lovely day of sightseeing and friendship. Bars are still places to sit and solve the world’s problems (or ignore them altogether). And pre-game tailgate parties are exciting even if I’m not getting a few drinks in before the big game.

A culture of alcohol seems to have made every moment of our lives synonymous with a drink. It would be nice if there were still spaces (beyond religious services) where one can be entirely sober without feeling like an awkward outsider. If you are, like me, more inclined toward tea and coffee than alcohol then perhaps you too need to tell drinkers how much you want to be a part of their worlds. I’m not asking them to change; I’m just asking for an invitation. If my being there makes them feel self-conscious, then that’s something for them to reflect on, not me. And if that chic restaurant wants my business, would it be too much to ask that they offer something a little zany on the menu for us non-drinkers to enjoy?

These are changes that I, for one, would raise a glass to.


Bragard E, Giorgi S, Juneau P, Curtis BL. Loneliness and Daily Alcohol Consumption During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Alcohol Alcohol. 2022 Mar 12;57(2):198-202. doi: 10.1093/alcalc/agab056. PMID: 34414405; PMCID: PMC8499726.

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