sober questioning

‘How Can I Make Connections at Work Without Raging at Office Happy Hour?’

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Dear Ana:

I don’t drink for religious reasons. In high school and college, staying sober never hampered my ability to have fun. I was able to party and hang out with friends without anyone raising an eyebrow. Now, I work at a small organization in a very bro-y industry.

In my office, going to happy hours on Friday almost feels mandatory. I usually enjoy myself up to a point, but I feel uncomfortable staying out late at night with drunk co-workers and bosses. Sometimes, I feel like my co-workers are a little suspicious of me because I’m not drinking. I also feel like they are better friends with each other because the activity bonds them. I am also frustrated because I have always done well at my job, but feel I have been passed up for a couple of opportunities because bosses are closer with colleagues they have gotten drunk with.

I’m not comfortable sharing too much about my religious upbringing but I also don’t want to make up a dramatic story about why I’m not drinking. What can I do to make sure I don’t lose out on these work opportunities or alienate my colleagues?


Dear No-Bro,

There’s a word for the problem you’re dealing with, though it’s not the first thing most people think of when it comes to drinking: patriarchy.

You even asking this is a sign that we are slowly returning to the “normal” rhythms of life. It is also a reminder that our old “normal” often sucked.

Your letter doesn’t indicate how you personally identify, but in this case, it doesn’t really matter: Professional cultures generally reward conforming to cishet masculine norms, and deviating from those norms means missing out on opportunities for advancement. Sure, women drink together after work and some of the same issues you describe may emerge, but “after-work drinks” as an extension of work is a holdover from the decades during which men could count on their wives to tend to domestic duties without them.

You don’t mention this specifically, but one of the things I am mad about on your behalf here is how your employer has allowed work to colonize your off-hours! It wouldn’t have to be after-work drinks to be wrong. Dinging people who don’t play weekend fantasy football with the bros would be just as infuriating.

But it is drinking, and so the structural gender inequity is even starker: Women don’t metabolize alcohol as men do. It affects us more quickly in the moment and it does more damage to our bodies over time. We are at short-term risk as well when we are in the company of men who’ve had too much to drink; it’s not like you need a study to know this, but there are, in fact, studies that show an increase in the likelihood of women experiencing workplace sexual harassment the more male co-workers drink.

So even if you did drink, making happy hour an unofficial part of how your performance is evaluated is rigging the game.

The cultural context is important because to a certain extent, I can’t help you. I desperately wish I could. Situations like yours can’t be life-hacked completely away. (Though, as usual, I have some hacks in mind. Read on.) The problem is systemic, and so solutions are as well: true gender parity! Respect for work-life boundaries! Divorcing adult socialization from alcohol consumption!

But until any of us get to see any of those fantasies become reality, we have to invent alternate paths and resist, when we can, reinscribing the ones that exist.

First of all, doing what you’re doing — going and then excusing yourself when things get icky — is probably more effective than you realize. As I have written before, nondrinkers tend to greatly overestimate how much drinkers care about people not drinking. Also, not everyone who stays beyond happy hour into plastered hour is bonding in a beneficial way. One of the things that brings people together when they drink is mutual embarrassment. So just showing up and being friendly and leaving with your dignity intact probably counts for more than you realize.

However, you shouldn’t have to show up. What’s more, participating in something gives it power. Every person who doesn’t show up to one of those “mandatory” happy hours is striking a blow for making them irrelevant. You could start a trend.

But I know you’re not imagining things when you say you notice that relationships are closer among the booze crew. The intimacy we feel under the influence isn’t very durable, but it’s real. Now the question is, how do you foster healthy professional ties without tying one on?

When I got sober, I fully believed I might have to give up political journalism as a career. How could I get people to open up to me without getting them buzzed? Would sources trust me if I wasn’t buzzed right along with them? What about the cocktail parties? WHAT ABOUT THE WASHINGTON COCKTAIL PARTIES?

My approach shifted in two major ways: I made one-on-one interactions my priority, and I tried to be intentional in what I wanted out of them. That sounds mercenary, but all I mean is that I really thought about who it was I wanted to spend my time with and why that was. I sought out colleagues whose background was different from mine and those who had expertise in areas that I didn’t. I thought about what I wanted to talk about before we met up.

Sure, I also tried to steer those meetings away from any context that involved booze. What’s more, having a reason to talk beyond generic socializing made what we ingested while together less important and kept our interactions pretty clearly on the work side of the work-life boundary. While some of the get-togethers might have intruded on time that was usually personal, at least we were both making a choice to clock in for a while. Try asking a co-worker you feel less connected to coffee, or turn your next brainstorm into a walk around the block. Breakfast meetings are underrated!

I believe you can transfer this approach to just about any professional context. You’re not replicating the after-work drinks experience, you’re doing something that fosters even deeper connections. At minimum, you’ll both remember everything you said! There might be specific ideas and action items to follow up on. Even if you don’t get a promotion, you’re going to get more out of work. Fair warning: You might also develop real friendships where you gladly spend time outside of work together. It’s happened to me.

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