how to avoid alcohol at dinner interviews

A reader writes:

A friend of mine just came back from a campus visit. At dinner after the presentation, she was asked to choose the wine. She doesn’t partake for religious reasons, so she was rather stumped for a moment before explaining the situation.

I’m in a similar boat, in that I don’t drink. (Not a religious thing, but I learned in college that alcohol and I are not friends.) I’m fine with people around me drinking; I just try to avoid it myself. Is there a easy way to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m just going to have water or an iced tea. Go ahead and order what you’d prefer.” Does that seem acceptable?

Sure. It’s also fine to simply say, “Oh, no thank you, I don’t drink” and leave it at that.

Lots of people don’t drink, for religious reasons, for medical reasons, for recovery reasons, or simply because they don’t enjoy it. And lots of other people do drink but prefer to avoid it in business situations. (In that last case, you might simply say, “Oh, none for me tonight, thank you.”)

As long as you don’t make a big deal out of it and instead just treat it matter-of-factly, most other people will follow your lead. And the rare ones who won’t are waving a big red flag about themselves.

{ 81 comments… read them below }

  1. Nameless*

    At an accounting recruiting fair, I was invited to attend wine testing event—as part of recruiting. I turned it down because what else could I have drank at wine testing restaurant? Some of these interviews put you in catch 22 and you don’t want to come off as social awkward.

    1. JT*

      That’s an odd thing for recruiting.

      That said, as I understand it, the process of wine tasting doesn’t involve actually drinking it – you spit it out. So only a tiny bit of alcohol would go into the blood stream. I assume at the end of most tastings, after the tasting itself, people do actually drink wine as part of socializing. I would hope, but would not assume, there would be water available at that time.

      1. Esra*

        It’s still weird and has the potential to exclude a lot of people. Anyone who is particularly fervent about not having any alcohol at all, or even someone who was on an antibiotic like Flagyl.

        1. saro*

          Yes, even swishing the wine would conflict with my religious beliefs. I don’t care if others do (and in fact, my relatives who are the same religion as I am do drink), but it’s difficult to deal with in a business setting. What’s interesting is that when it gets out that I don’t drink, people make other assumptions about my personality.

    2. class factotum*

      I don’t care if other people drink, but I do not like the taste of most alcohol, so even spitting out the wine would be too much for me, as it would mean I would have to taste it first.

      However, if you want me to taste coffees or hot chocolate mixed with a ton of whipped cream and Bailey’s, Triple Sec, or peppermint schnapps, I’m in.

      1. Vicki*

        Similar for me. I can’t stand red wine (musty taste) and find most whites to taste sour. Beer is just… yeech. So, most co-workers are convinced that I “don’t drink alcohol”.
        However, I do like to share a strawberry daiquiri (extra strawberry please) or an Irish coffee with my spouse sometimes. I’m just not much of a drinker and don’t think it’s required at meals.

        When offered, I just say “Thanks, but I don’t enjoy wine.” OP, your suggested statement, “I’m sorry, but I’m just going to have water or an iced tea. Go ahead and order what you’d prefer.” sounds just perfect to me!

  2. Kou*

    A lot of people will feel uncomfortable drinking around someone who’s said they don’t drink, which is why it’s easiest to do the “not tonight” or “I’m driving” or something like that. It deflects the questioning/discomfort that might follow otherwise.

        1. Me*

          I’m really not trying to be defensive (or offensive) for that matter, but if I were hiring, I’d much rather have a candidate with a straight forward answer regardless of the answer then a candidate that couldn’t claim and then stand by a principle with conviction. Why should the job interview change this particular response?

          If you don’t drink, so say. If someone has trouble with that, it’s on their head, not yours.

          1. Jamie*

            I agree with this – for myself.

            But I’m currently employed. If I wasn’t and I was desperate for work I could see hedging this because you don’t want to lose an opportunity due to an irrational bias on the part of an interviewer.

            But as a person, and in theory, I agree with you. If people have a silly response because other people don’t drink that’s on them – not us.

            There is more of a people pleasing element at play when people are desperate to get hired than other times – it’s not as easy to take the “f them if they don’t like it” stance when you have bills mounting.

            1. Me*

              And I could agree with that as well–even if I personally would not make that choice and would find it disingenuous if someone did it to me. I won’t argue that this is certainly a decision some would fret over.

          2. Laura L*

            Yeah, but some people do drink but don’t always feel like drinking. Or don’t want to drink in a work-related situation.

            So, saying “not tonight” is an honest answer.

            Drinking isn’t all or nothing. People who drink don’t always drink.

    1. Jamie*

      Why? I don’t eat spicy food, but its never stopped my co-workers from ordering atomic wings when we go out.

      No one should be drinking to the point where it affects your behavior at a us invests function anyway, so I’m not sure why someone else’s habits/preference would matter if one wanted a glass of wine.

      1. moe*

        One reason could be the possibility that the non-drinker is a recovering alcoholic who might be triggered by the drinking.

        I know I find it a bit uncomfortable to drink around someone in that situation–even if they say it’s okay, I still feel weird about it.

      2. Kou*

        Like Moe said, it makes people wonder if it’s ok to drink around you at all– either because you’re a recovering alcoholic, you disapprove of it morally, whathaveyou. Right or not, that’s a pretty common reaction.

        1. Anonymous*

          Then those people are weirdos. I drink, but there are times when I don’t feel like drinking, and I’ve never had anyone get weirded out or play 20 questions with me. I guess if you have people around you who treat you poorly because you don’t drink at all/don’t want to drink when they do, you should probably stop hanging around them (this is assuming that it’s a social setting and not a business-related matter). If an interviewer or employer wants you to drink, just politely turn them down and say you don’t like to drink and drive.

          1. moe*

            I don’t think it’s treating people poorly to want to be sensitive to their religious beliefs, health problems, etc. Come on.

            1. Anonymous*

              That’s not what I was talking about whatsoever. There’s no reason for people to be weirded out by someone who isn’t drinking, nor should they grill that person to get them to reveal something they may not want to talk about, nor should they pressure them to drink anyway. Please think about what you have read before you post. Come on.

          2. Kou*

            You’re totally right, it’s a silly reaction. But you still get it a looot of the time (or at least, I do whenever I’m not drinking, and I see it happen to my friends who never drink all the time) and in this particular situation if you can just phrase it a little differently and avoid any strangeness, it’s worth it. With friends and whatnot I’ll just tell them no and they can stuff whatever their reaction is as far as I care, but I’m not gonna do that in this setting.

    2. Julie*

      Though I know it’s not terribly politically correct, the fact that someone is uncomfortable with someone ELSE not drinking is not the non-drinker’s problem. So long as the non-drinker presents his choice as a personal one and doesn’t try to get anyone else to teetotal, it really isn’t his concern whether other people now feel uncomfortable having a glass of something alcoholic.

      1. Anonymous*

        Would you say the same thing if the situation was reversed, i.e. would it be the non-drinker’s problem if they didn’t want the drinker to consume alcohol?

        1. Julie*

          Yes, it would. If the non-drinker is trying to force his own preferences on others, that becomes a problem, in the same way it would be a problem if a vegetarian tried to prevent non-vegetarians from ordering meat.

      2. books*

        In college when I would drink around non-drinkers, I would always apologize – because I assumed when I was drunk I was annoying to them. :)

    3. JT*

      I guess in a job interview situation I should care how other people feel, but generally if someone is uncomfortable that I don’t drink, that’s their problem.

      That said, I just decline alcohol by saying “No thanks, do you water/soda/whatever.” That’s all that should be necessary.

      If they persist, then I say “I don’t drink alcohol.” If that makes them uncomfortable, too bad.

      1. Kou*

        That’s how I see it. Normally I don’t care how people feel about it, but in this situation I’m going to do what I can.

      2. ARS*

        My feeling is if you say no thanks to the alcohol and they insist, they should feel uncomfortable. There’s nothing worse than not being respectful of someone’s choice if you don’t know why that choice is being made (or even if you do, but in an interview situation you definitely do not and you shouldn’t insist or ask why).

  3. KarenT*

    It’s never nice to peer pressure someone into drinking, but anyone who pressures someone to drink during a job interview needs to get their head checked.
    I’m sure it wouldn’t be a big deal if you declined.
    Interviewer: I’m having wine. Would you like a glass?
    You: thank you, but I’m just going to have some Perrier.

    Done and done!

    Call me old-fashioned but I would never, ever drinking during a job interview (and I like my wine). Loose lips sink ships and all that. In fact, I thing there was an AAM post about that previously.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      One place I worked was having a Christmas party at one of the workers homes. Everyone seemed pretty happy about it- there was a lot of talk. Finally, the discussion turned to drinks. Since some of the people were under age- I got uncomfortable. I got down right upset when I was informed that my non-drinking husband would have his drink spiked. I said “If my diabetic husband goes to the hospital in an ambulance there WILL be a police investigation!”
      And that ended that line of conversation.
      Some people have to make it unnecessarily difficult.

      1. KarenT*

        That’s appalling! Spiking drinks is never okay– so many people can’t drink for medical or religious reasons. If they spiked the drink of a pregnant woman or diabetic woman they would have been in serious trouble.

        And underage drinking? Never a good idea in business setting.

      2. Anon*

        Had something sort of similar happen at a Halloween party. It was at my boss’ house. Mixed bag of neighbors and coworkers. Shots of a vice nice jack daniels were being “strongly encouraged” on some people. One happened to be the husband of a coworker. He has struggled with alcohol in the past. I wouldn’t normally drink at something like this but at the terrified look on her face, I took his shot for him. My hubby was also there to keep me from saying anything I shouldn’t. (I’m a lightweight when it comes to alcohol.) My coworker was so thankful, she was almost in tears the next day.

  4. jesicka309*

    Last year our team leader wanted to get us some beers to have in the office the Friday before our Christmas break. One of the girls spoke up and said that she didn’t drink. So the team leaders got us beer/cider, and she got a giant box of Maltesers.
    I thought that was an awesome way to handle it (though I kind of wished I’d gotten choccie too. Luckily she shared some!).
    A good employer will be fine with your personal choices – in Australia, anyone under 22 is on probationary licences and can’t drink if they wanted to drive home. If they’re not okay with it, perhaps take it as a sign that they’re perhaps not a place you want to work.

  5. PEBCAK*

    I often have to order first at business dinners (being the only woman at the table), and I once had the lovely moment where I ordered a glasss of wine, and everyone else went with water/soda. Oops.

    1. Chocolate Teapot*

      I would always hope that comments would be made along the line of “Go ahead and have some wine if you like, but I am sticking to water/juice/pop”. Sometimes it can be awkward to ask, “Is any body else having wine?”

      1. PEBCAK*

        I considered changing my order, and then thought, eh, let’s not draw attention to it. One glass of wine at a steakhouse should not make anyone flinch.

  6. Anonymous*

    Actually, I think there’s another issue here. I don’t not drink (though my very low tolerance means I would never, ever drink in an interview). But, it sounds like the candidate was being asked to select a wine for everyone, which would make me extremely uncomfortable, since that would make me feel like I was being tested on my “foodie” cred. And since I enjoy food but am by no means a connoisseur/foodie, that’s not a test I would do well at. Choosing a drink for yourself is one thing, but having to say no to choosing for everyone seems like a slightly different issue.

    1. yen*

      I’m guessing she was asked if she wanted to pick the wine as a courtesy to her (as the guest), but it should be totally fine to pass on the choice as well as drinking. At least, I hope it was fine for her!

    2. KayDay*

      Yes, I think this is the issue. I hate choosing wine in any situation–unless it has bubbles, I’m not much of a wine person (and ordering champagne at a business dinner might seem strange). Way too much pressure at a business function. I would probably decline with, “thank you, but I will pass on the wine” or something like that.

    1. Zed*

      Or having parents who had alcoholic parents. Even a generation later, you can see the fall out.

      I don’t drink because of a combination of this and the fact that even the smell of alcohol gives me terrible migraines. I actually don’t like people drinking when they’re with me because it makes me sick, but I don’t expect them to abstain because of that. I just stand/sit as far as way as possible.

      1. Another Ellie*

        This is me. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can sit/stand next to somebody who is drinking without having to fight the urge to vomit. There was never any alcohol in my parents’ house, and the family members who did drink tucked it away when my dad came over. He wasn’t an alcoholic, but I never got to meet most of his family because they all drank themselves to death before he was in high school. My brother wasn’t as affected by this, and has chosen to drink (as far as I know he has no problems with it). But for me, alcohol is just not alluring and even a turn-off.

  7. Eve*

    Has anyone done business in China before? I have heard it is considered rude to refuse alcohol during a business dinner. How can you escape the pressure from this?

    1. JT*

      You fake it as best you can. Take the drink and pretend to drink it. Or drink a tiny amount. The point isn’t really drinking, but holding a glass and being emphatic in toasting with everyone.

      I’ve “had” to drink at banquets in China, on a hillside with community leaders in Mexico, and other places/cultures. And I don’t drink.

      Heck, if you feel under pressure in the US and really can’t escape it, take a glass and don’t really drink it – just carry it around.

    2. AHK*

      The situation in China with drinking at business dinners is sort of complicated. You can politely decline to drink, but if you accept, you are expected to keep up with the hosts through round after round of toasts.

        1. Some European*

          Yeah, I heared how someone talked about how he was in S.Korea, that they were drinking round after round although Asians are often less tolerable to alcohol. He said he pretended to, drank a bit and put the rest into some flower.

          1. JT*

            The problem with pouring it out into a flower or whatever is that your cup will keep be re-filled. I think drinking a tiny bit, or none, is better.

            1. Some European*

              I think it was cause with every refill their respect got up and the more they drank the less the chance they noticing him putting it away, but if they cought him that would have seriously backfired. I myself would not have done this.

    3. Lanya*

      It’s the same in Russia and other Slavic countries. You can get out of the many rounds of shots they will do at dinner as long as you insist from the very beginning that you cannot drink (they will usually stop pressuring you if you blame it on a bad heart or something health-oriented). But if you do one shot, you will be expected to continue for the rest of them…and there are usually many of them…and it is considered very poor form to decline to toast after it has already been underway.

  8. ew0054*

    I would think that alcohol of any kind, even a glass of wine during a dinner interview or Christmas party, is never a smart move.

    Hiring managers are analyzing every move, looking for any possible mistake that can be used to lowball the salary figure. Alcohol is right up there with politics and religious discussions – to be avoided at all costs.

    Think about it from the perspective of the hiring manager. “If this person drinks openly with a potential boss, how must this person be off the clock? Will it affect his job performance? Will he be coming in late hungover? Will he drink on the job at lunch and then get hurt on the machinery? Get into an accident to/from work and sue us?”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If those are their concerns, it’s not going to lead them to lowball the salary — it would lead them to not hire the person at all. But if the interviewer is the one to offer a drink, it’s very a unlikely that it’s a trap. (You still might choose to turn it down, of course.)

    2. JT*

      Are you suggesting offering drinks is some kind of trap?

      That applicants are downgraded not just by slip-ups if they get buzzed, but by the very act of accepting a drink at a place/time where current employees are drinking?

      1. Jamie*

        I really can’t imagine this happening with any manager that isn’t completely off the rails – and you don’t want to work for someone like that, anyway.

        Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and an offer of a drink is just an offer of a drink – to be accepted or not.

    3. fposte*

      That’s really not likely at a university unless it’s a school opposed to alcohol for religious reasons, and if you didn’t know about that before the interview, then you’re not prepared enough for the job. And even then I can’t imagine it being used to trap somebody.

  9. Hank Hill*

    All of these teetotalers make me want to institute a 5 drink minimum for the next round of interviews I do…they all sound like wet blankets.

    1. Mike C.*

      Quit being an ass. People shouldn’t be pressured to use drugs in situations in which they are uncomfortable. Drinking is great, but there’s no way I doing that with my bosses.

      1. ewo054*


        Your relationship with your boss is simple: He pays you, you work. This is optimal. Anything beyond this is asking for trouble.

    2. Anon*

      You’d lose a lot of quality candidates who may actually care about their professionalism, regardless of whether or not they drink on their own time. Frankly, any candidate who’d willingly pack five drinks in an interview is going to destroy your organization due to lack of common sense.

      1. ewo054*

        I pound drinks at the bar with my friends, I drink in my apartment alone. I have no shame in either.

        But when I am in a professional environment, one in which my present and future livlihood depend on my best behavior, I prefer to leave all that stuff out of the work environment.

    3. Rana*

      If you want to drink, have at it.

      I generally don’t, because (a) I don’t like the taste, (b) I am a lightweight who gets drunk off of one pint of beer, and (c) I feel like shit when I’m drunk.

      If that makes me a “wet blanket,” so be it.

  10. Anonymous*

    If you are allowed to go up to the bar on your own to order a drink and you feel pressured, why not get something that looks like it could be a mixed drink? Ask for some tonic water or Sprite / 7Up / Sierra Mist with a twist of lime or two cherries on a plastic sword in a highball glass. It’ll be bubbly and fancy-looking, and you can sip it slowly.

    1. ew0054*

      For those of us who are pressured to act based on our own inference of others’ perceptions, this is a good suggestion.

  11. Anonicorn*

    Wine makes me sleepy. Not a good side-effect during an interview or business setting.

    As for the OP’s friend’s situation, I would hate to be asked to decide what everyone at the table would be drinking. How awkward, even for someone who does drink!

  12. nomorerefs*

    I don’t drink either BUT I always say why and it’s because I hate the taste of alcohol. I just don’t want/need the suspicion that I’m a recovering alcoholic. I don’t normally get any hassles simply because it’s usually evident to people that I’m into fitness, so they just assume that’s at least part of the reason.

  13. nomorerefs*

    I know that law firms invite prospective lawyers to lunch or dinner to evaluate their social skills, including what they order and how much it costs, how they treat the staff.

  14. J*

    A few years ago I drove cross country with 4 other people to an interview. We were put up in a nice hotel and taken to dinner. Only 2 of us turned down the alcohol. The next day we were given a brief walkthrough of the workplace and told that was it. Checkout was at noon so we went back and packed and left. All of us were unsure what had just happened. Turns out the dinner was the real interview. Since they paid for us to drive up there, put us up in hotels, they were considering the whole trip to be us “working”. So the few that quickly jumped on the partaking of the alcohol were not offered a position. My friend and I were hired, and day 1 I asked the manager why the others weren’t offered positions given that so many positions were available, and he explained that was why. I’m not sure how legal that is or how many companies do that, but it was a lesson for me. Also to note: The two managers that had taken us to dinner did NOT order alcohol. That was mainly the que for my friend and I to not drink. The others we hardly knew and asked later they said they took it because it was free. Well a few free drinks cost them some good careers.

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