Making Friends When You're Sober Is Basically Impossible — But This Social Trick Worked

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Making Friends When You Don't Drink Is Basically Impossible

Trying to make friends when you’re a grown-up sucks. When you’re a kid, you don’t realize it, but you have all of these social structures and institutions that make interacting with other kids so easy — school, camps, sports teams, you name it.

However, when you’re an adult, you have to figure everything out on your own. Your mom isn’t going to set up a playdate, you’re not going to spend all day every day in a classroom full of people just like you. You actually have to go out into the world and somehow, impossibly, try to find your own best friends forever or, at the very least, someone who actually enjoys spending a little bit of time with you.

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It’s a pain.

Fortunately, grown-ups figured out a way to make these social interactions way less awkward. They found a way to make friends easier. It’s called alcohol.

Unfortunately (for me), I don’t drink.

And, yes, that makes developing grown-up friendships a whole lot harder.

Maybe there are perfectly sober people out there who have no problem at all mingling at a party or going out to the bar after a PTA meeting. Good for them. And by “good for them,” I, of course, mean, “I hate them.”

Being social does not come easy to me and, over the years, I can’t help but notice how my decision to not drink has made socializing even harder.

Because here’s what I’ve found — people don’t like it if you won’t share a drink with them.

No one will come flat-out and say it. I’m sure they’re worried that, if they openly challenge why I’m not drinking, I might hit them back with some sad revelation that I’m a recovering alcoholic or that my family was killed by a drunk driver. (Neither of those is true, BTW.)

But, when they see you’re the only person not drinking or you wave off their offer to buy you a drink, very quickly, you can see people starting to get uncomfortable.

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They feel judged (“Why won’t he drink with me?”). They feel self-conscious (“I don’t want this sober guy watching me get drunk all night.”). And they feel rejected (“I guess he didn’t want to join us in letting our hair down.”).

They call alcohol a “social lubricant” and that’s the perfect term for it. Drinking does make socializing easier.

It gives you an easy thing to talk about, it gives you a format and a structure for the night, and it gives you a destination. You’re going out knowing that there’s an implied social contract that says EVERYONE in the group will be letting their guard down a little tonight, that they’ll be more vulnerable and open than they usually are.

And then there’s me sitting at the end of the bar on my third Diet Pepsi of the night. Even I’ll admit, that’s a total buzzkill.

People who drink inherently don’t trust people who don’t.

And, while that’s sometimes hard for me to accept — I can be a nice, fun person — I get the logic behind it.

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Drinking is a participation sport, so, when you choose to sit out, of course, you’re not going to bond with the team as much as the people who are actually playing the game.

Does that suck for me? A little bit. Does it make me want to drink? Not at all.

To quote Johnny Cash, “It ain’t me, babe.” While I find the idea of less awkward social situations and easier friend-making extremely appealing, the idea of drinking to accomplish that feels like a total non-starter. It feels like telling myself that I’d be so much happier if I could just breathe water or cry uranium. It’s just completely incompatible with who I am.

Because of the way I’m wired, I don’t get to take the drinking shortcut to making cool grown-up friends.

I’m not going to be invited to wine tastings or to check out the new microbrewery. If a guy I know has a hard day, he’s not going to invite me over to have a beer to help him wind down and talk things out.

Not drinking closes the door on so many adult social situations, which places an even greater onus on me to work to find other situations where I can find some like-minded friends. I chose being comfortable in my own skin over making things easy for myself. It’s a selfish act, and I have to own that responsibility. 

Am I envious of people who drink? Sometimes.

Mostly because it looks like it makes everything so simple. It gives you something to do with your hands, it starts conversations, and it (chemically) makes you more comfortable than you were before.

So, let me lament all of the drinking buddies I’ll never have. It looks like a fun way to spend a night, guys.

Meanwhile, I’ll be over here, the guy who was the designated driver at his own bachelor party (true story).

I’ll be valuing the heck out of the friends I have because I know they were hard-won. I might not be the easiest grown-up in the world to hang out with, but, when my middle-aged butt finds someone I enjoy spending time with (and they don’t seem to mind me too much), I appreciate it more than they’ll ever know. (Just not enough to share a drink with them.)

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Tom Burns has served as a contributing editor for 8BitDad and The Good Men Project, and his writing has been featured on Babble, Brightly,, Time Magazine, and various other sites.