“A bunch of us are going out to a bar tonight,” a friend informed me, smirking like he just said something naughty. It was that time of the week again, apparently, during which the majority of people gather at bars to shout the details of their week at each other and perspire.
I thought, “I’d rather floss with barbed wire,” but what came out of my mouth was, “Sure,” because explaining the reasons why, at the significant age of 21, I’m not a big drinker is an exhausting task.
Inside, it was dark and mean-looking. Groups of people were huddled in arbitrary clusters on both sides of the bar, like plaque along an arterial wall. Bluish iPhone light filled the faces of both men and women as they stuffed their social media accounts full of the experiences happening right in front of them. My friends ordered their drinks one by one, and then all of the sudden a sweaty bartender looked at me with a sense of urgency. It was my turn to order, but I didn’t want anything. I gave him the universal signal for “Nothing-for-me-good-sir,” and my friends looked at me like I’d just murdered a puppy with another puppy.
“You’re not drinking?”
Statistically, other people don’t like it when I don’t drink alcohol with them. Most of the time I’m met with crooked looks and disappointed faces. The follow up question to, “You’re not drinking?” is always, without fail, “Are you driving?” It’s as if people can’t fathom coming all the way to a bar without reaching for a drink. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that people demand an explanation of you for refusing an alcoholic beverage.
“I don’t want anything,” I said.
After a few minutes of feeling like I was on display at the zoo, we all went on with our lives. Those who would drink, drank. Let’s face it, drinking makes everything easier. Social responsibility is soluble in that vodka tonic. The pressures we apply to ourselves tend to subside if you toss a couple back, and you might even be a little more adventurous in social situations. Drinking culture seems to be irrevocably tethered to the social aspects of modern life. So much so, that there are plenty of songs telling you to get drunk and movie plots about hangovers and TV commercials with men in fancy suits these days that make it seem like drinking is what we should all be doing.
I realize that a night of beer drinking isn’t everybody’s idea of a perfect weekend, and, just to be clear, if you’re someone who drinks for sport I’m not calling for a second prohibition—but the assumption that it’s all there is to do is problematic. College is literally famous for this—the quality of the drinking scene is a huge influencer in college decisions. It is a time to experiment and let loose: the Amish have rumspringa, and college students have frat parties. It’s natural. The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter if you’re in college, if you’re 13, or if you’re 45—there is palpable societal pressure to consume alcohol, and if you don’t want to, you feel weird because of it. You feel like there has to be something wrong with you to not want what seemingly everyone else wants. You start to consider doing things just to make other people happy. You feel like it’s harder and harder to be yourself. It seems harmless and small, but making broad assumptions about age groups or individuals isn’t doing anybody any good. It excludes people who are different and makes them feel really bad about it.
So, maybe it doesn’t have to be so shocking that a 21-year-old declines a drink at a bar? Maybe individual behavior doesn’t have to be shocking at all? Maybe we could live in a world where people just go around doing shit without even having to contend with the opinions of others? Whether you drink or not, you are capable of being loved, liked, befriended, heard, valued, and appreciated by the people around you, just for being you. There are other people who think just like you do. Find them. Hug them. There are also people who don’t think like you do. And you know what? Hug them too.