7 ways to help yourself and others navigate the drinking scene

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Not everyone likes to drink in college. For those who do, there are plenty of times when you may not feel like it (e.g., you’ve got exams to study for, an 8 a.m. lecture, an intramural soccer match coming up). So when someone hands you a drink, why can it sometimes feel super awkward to say, “No thanks”?

Social pressures are often unspoken

In our survey, 83 percent of college students said they’re confident turning down a drink they don’t want—and that’s great. But peer pressure more often occurs indirectly. Simply being in the presence of someone else drinking, for example, can make you more likely to join in.

That peer influence isn’t inherently bad, says Dr. Mitch Prinstein, distinguished professor and director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We learn from our peers all the time, and they help us make lots of great decisions,” he explains. “The key is to know when peers have too much influence.”

Part of the pressure to follow the crowd is due to your basic biology. “At puberty, our brains develop in specific ways that make us care about our social standing more than ever before. We always feel the pressure to fit in, but before the age of 25, we have a hard time overcoming that pressure because the region of our brains that promotes inhibition is not fully developed,” says Dr Prinstein. In other words, in college, we have a supercharged drive to want to fit in—but our mental brakes haven’t fully developed. While your ability to handle social pressure gets better as you age, there’s still a drive to cave to social pressure to drink in your 20s, 30s, and beyond, says Dr. Prinstein. “That brain development affects us for the rest of our lives.”

So if you don’t want to drink, how do you resist without busting your social scene?

It’s all about confidence

“Being able to resist the pressure depends on the student’s power and ability to feel content with themselves,” says Patricia Saltzman, licensed social worker and substance abuse counselor in Manchester, Connecticut. “Low self-esteem makes it a lot harder for [students] to stand up for themselves.”

The best way to feel good? Respecting your own boundaries. Being up front and honest is sometimes more respected than accepting a drink you don’t want. “Stand firm in your own values,” Dr. Prinstein says. “When we have high self-esteem, we have sources of self-assurance that come from places other than peer feedback,” such as your group of friends, your family, or the career you’re building. “It’s good for college students and adults to know that it’s totally natural to want to feel liked and included,” he says. But that doesn’t mean someone’s opinion of you at a party defines your sense of acceptance or self-worth.

Of course it’s not always easy to flick a switch and suddenly emit confidence. Insecurity can impair your choices, making it a lot harder to stand up for yourself. It’s perfectly fine to want to be liked, but the people who truly care about you will want what’s best for you.

If you find yourself in a situation where friends ask you to do things you’re uncomfortable with, take a couple steps back and reevaluate your friendship. Do these people truly care about your well-being? Listen to your instincts, and think about spending more time with friends who will respect your boundaries and desires.

“People might make us feel crummy sometimes, but one thing you can do is ask yourself: ‘Is this person important [to me]? By how much?’ and ‘Who are the people I care about and who care about me?’ Taking a step back and getting some perspective really helps.”
—Tiffany K., fifth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Here are 7 effective ways to tell someone you don’t want a drink—and the best way to respond, if you’re on the other side

friends laughing

1.

“Explain why you can’t drink: work the next day, studying, running a race, etc.”

—Alexa P., third-year graduate student, Georgia State University

How to say it

“I’d love to, but I’m running a half marathon next week and I’m trying to set a new personal record.”

How to hear it

“Oh, that’s awesome! I respect your willpower. How often do you train?”

2.

“Hold a drink, but don’t drink it.”

—Courtney K., second-year graduate student, Marquette University, Wisconsin

How to say it

“Thanks, but I’ve already got one.”

(Note: You can also respond by getting a drink yourself and making it without any alcohol.)

How to hear it

“Enjoy!”

Student tip

“Keep it lighthearted, and they’ll move on to something else. The more you sit there and explain your choice, the more attention you draw to the fact the you’re not drinking and the more awkward it makes the situation. I also like the idea of getting your own drink and holding it. Maybe you’re not drinking alcohol, but you can still connect with the group.”
—Delaina E., first-year student, Boise State University, Idaho

3.

“It’s completely OK to turn down a drink. You may not feel comfortable drinking, or you’ve already had too much and reached your limit.”

—Lauren B., fourth-year undergraduate student, Kutztown University, Pennsylvania

How to say it

“Nah, I’m in a good zone right now, thanks.”

How to hear it

“Good call—maybe I shouldn’t get another one either. I’m really trying to not be hungover tomorrow.”

Student tip

“I’ve had really positive experiences with just saying, ‘No thanks, I don’t drink,’ which is awesome. Everyone was really supportive and told me, ‘Don’t ever change.’”
—Tiffany K., fifth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

4.

“Say, ‘Thanks, but I have to drive.’”

—Dyana C., fifth-year undergraduate student, California State University Northridge

How to say it

“I’d love to, but I’m driving tonight.”

How to hear it

“Oh, gotcha—didn’t realize! Can I get you something else?” 

5.

“Say that you can’t for health reasons.”

—Sam V., second-year undergraduate student, University of Wyoming

How to say it

“I’m trying to be healthier, so I’m cutting back on alcohol this month—it ruins my workouts.”

How to hear it

“That’s cool. What other changes have you been making?”

6.

“Say you don’t want it. Act confident in your decision, and others won’t bother you about it.”

—Haley M., third-year undergraduate student, Clemson University, South Carolina

How to say it

“No thanks, I’m all set for the night.”

How to hear it

“Sweet.”

Expert tip

“The thing seen as most cool by people is when someone makes their own decision confidently and stands by it. That kind of confidence is hard to fake.”
—Dr. Mitch Prinstein, distinguished professor and director of clinical psychology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Student tip

“Your confident attitude will be contagious. Others who may not have the strength to say no may find it just [by] watching you. Be a leader!”
Jeani K., first-year online student, Shasta College, California

7.

“Say you’d love a drink but would prefer starting off with something nonalcoholic.”

Lindsay M., second-year graduate student, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada

How to say it

“I really haven’t hydrated enough today. Would you have something without alcohol in it to start me off?”

How to hear it

“Absolutely! Water?”

How to respect others’ drinking decisions

Maybe you feel weird being the only one drinking, so you recruit your buddies to join in. Or perhaps you’re worried they’ll miss out on the fun if they don’t throw back a few. Whatever the reason, if you’re the one handing red solo cups to everyone, take a moment to check in with yourself.

Keep these tips in mind:

  • Show support by letting up on your own drinking.
  • Let your friends know that not drinking won’t affect your relationship.
  • Apologize if you made your friend feel uncomfortable.
  • Suggest a different activity that doesn’t involve alcohol.
  • Remember that going out is an opportunity to spend time with friends.
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Article sources

Jann Gumbiner, PhD, licensed psychologist and clinical professor at the University of California, Irvine College of Medicine, Irvine, California.

Mitch Prinstein, PhD, ABPP, John Van Seters distinguished professor and director of clinical psychology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Patricia Saltzman, licensed clinical social worker and substance abuse counselor, Child Guidance Community Clinic, Manchester, Connecticut.

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