How to Argue With Anyone, a guide to getting what you want without making enemies, is part of our series The Way Back to School.
Prior to the pandemic, when bars were the easiest place to meet up with people rather than the easiest place to become the vector for a deadly virus, I developed a bad habit. Whenever someone would gesture to my glass to ask what I was drinking, I'd tell them my seltzer with lime was "fuck-up juice."
That's a terrible joke for a host of reasons, chief among them is that I don't believe being an alcoholic, which I am, makes me or anyone else a fuck-up, and seltzer is a beverage enjoyed by many fuck-ups and non-fuck-ups alike. I've been sober just shy of two years now, but I've already hit my lifetime quota of people being defensive, disrespectful, or just kinda weird about my alcohol abstinence; I've found that if I can transfer the other party's discomfort from my not-drinking over to my bad joke, they won't ask any follow-up questions or insist I join them for a gimlet or whatever. That "fuck-up juice" joke also has a zero percent success rate in getting my interlocutor to laugh, but a 100 percent success rate in eliciting raised eyebrows and concern-grimaces, which is, of course, the point.
It's not the most elegant way to encourage someone to change the subject, but I developed the habit because it worked. This small spike in tension was preferable to the long, uncomfortable slog of turning down a drink over and over and over again, which is the unfortunate scenario we're gathered here today to discuss.
In many instances, it goes like this: You say you're not drinking and the other person says, "Come on, just one drink!" and you say "no" again, and they say, "Come on!" again, and it goes on and on like two Alexas activating and talking past one another in a loop until someone shuts down. And they will, eventually, allow themselves to be shut down; if not out of respect for you, the drink-foister will tire themselves out because even the least self-aware among us start to realize, after being told "no" for the nine hundredth time, that they're being fucking annoying.
The more difficult alcohol-evangelizing to deal with—and the one I can perhaps help you with—is the cross-examination. You will turn down a drink, or say you're just having seltzer or a coke or some kind of elaborate shrub-based mocktail, and the other person will ask you why you're not having a drink. (The reason, whether you're in recovery or pregnant or just don't feel like drinking that night, is obviously none of their business.)
I've found myself on the receiving end of this intrusive-ass question dozens of times, and I'm never quite sure what the other person wants me to say. "I guess I never really thought about why I'm not drinking, thank you for liberating me from my thought-prison, let's get a round?" I can't imagine another person really wants me to tell them, "I'm in recovery," which is my mood-killing response about half of the time, but my other go-to response, the less tension-generating, "I don't feel like it," only brings on deeper cross-examination.
However you respond to the "why" question, it won't be enough. They'll want to know why you quit drinking, or why you never tried it, or if you're just not feeling well tonight—because if it’s just a little sniffle, you could always have a hot toddy or something. Any response will only bring about more questions. This kind of coercion is uncomfortable and extraordinarily manipulative, even if your inquisitor acts like they're just being friendly or getting to know you by interrogating you about your relationship to alcohol. They aren't being friendly! They're being a pain in the ass!
Which is why—if an initial, cheerful-as-you-can-muster "I'd rather not get into it!" doesn't get them to stop bothering you—you have my permission to offer any excuse here, whether or not it’s technically “true.” Tell them whatever you want—that you're on antibiotics for some unspecified illness and can't mix them with alcohol, or you have to wake up early the next day for an unmissable responsibility, or you have a blood test coming up, or you're fatally allergic to both brown and clear liquors and beer and wine and also absinthe, whichever category that one falls into. (Ed. note: “I had too much to drink last night/I’m still hungover!” has a 100-percent win rate with the type of people who insist on asking this question.)
Sure, in most cases, lying is more trouble than it's worth. But the same way many women have deployed the phony "I have a boyfriend" line to convince a man to leave them alone, spinning some bullshit to get someone out of your face is harm reduction, inasmuch as it prevents you from drinking when you don't want to, feeling put on the spot, or telling your opponent to go play in traffic. We have amply and emphatically told the “why aren’t you drinking?” askers that this question is bad manners, and still they insist on asking; until this piece of etiquette firms up in the pantheon of “things that simply aren't done,” we all need to get through the day somehow.
The believability of your excuse may vary depending on the power dynamics at hand—if you feel unsafe, or you're in some kind of professional setting, you probably want to stick to realism. If you just want to deflect the discomfort you're probably feeling back on the other person, then sure, tell them gin makes you really tiny like in Alice In Wonderland, and you're afraid of being trampled the same way this person is attempting to trample your boundaries.
Whatever you choose: The goal is to get them to back off on this one, however you see fit in the moment. Remember that they're being rude, and you can respond to that accordingly if you want! And: Once they finally leave you alone, order yourself a congratulatory fuck-up juice in peace. I recommend extra lime.
Follow Calvin Kasulke on Twitter.