If you want to be inclusive, stop centering your bonding time around alcohol
I’ve never considered myself an anti-social person. In fact, at many points in my life I’ve been labeled a “social butterfly,” and told that my ability to talk to strangers is something to marvel at.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve shifted around my social comfortabilities. After long spans of binge drinking in college, my mother’s losing battle with addiction, and enormous amounts of therapy, I’ve started to settle into a new rhythm. I crave deep connection and a sense of belonging (like all of us do) and I will harness vulnerability to achieve it. Sometimes it happens, sometimes I flub, and sometimes I stay home and take bubble baths instead.
When I decided to take the plunge into a huge career transition over a year ago, I did so in a decidedly sober mindset. I also knew that in order to make the most meaningful leap, I had to connect with real people. I had to show up to events, engage in dialogue, lend a helping hand, and build a new community for myself. This also meant that a large majority of these events would be alcohol-centric, and I would need to find a way to make myself okay with and at peace with that reality.
I feel extremely fortunate to tell you that I don’t currently suffer from substance abuse or addiction. It isn’t something that actively disempowers me the way it used to, and the way I know it does to so many. I would be lying if I said it was easy, however — I know people who can cheerily express that “It just doesn’t make me feel good, so I don’t do it,” and it seems like heaven to have that self-efficacy and lack of fear surrounding your own behaviors. I would also be lying if I said I was 100% positive that I’ll never struggle with it again. When your deepest traumas are associated with things you come into casual contact with every single day, it’s difficult to know that you’ll always be strong enough to face it.
During this career transition, however, I realized that this is my biggest barrier to entry in the professional bonding.
I don’t want to drink, I don’t want to be around alcohol, and I don’t want to lose social status because I choose to not engage in these things.
Yet, it’s everywhere around me. Professional meetups, organizer meetings, “Thirsty Thursdays,” “Ladies Get Drinks,” “Women in Tech Cocktail Hour,” Fridays after 4 in the office fridge. Everywhere I turn, I’m faced with the cognitive leap to remember I am worthy even if I don’t engage; to remember that I’m still expected to build relationships if I want to actively contribute to my community and my team — alcohol’s contribution to the relationship or not. What’s even worse — the fact that my decisions for my own health actively make others uncomfortable about their own decisions, and that I have to answer to my choices with people I don’t consent to sharing my story with. So I end up brushing it off and feeling internally ashamed and unworthy.
We talk a lot of about inclusivity in the workplace and beyond — about building a world where people can show up as who they truly are, be seen for that and be made to feel that who they are is welcome. To engineer “radical belonging” and “radical inclusion” in every place we can (which, honestly, feels like a privileged slogan to tout, given that you can’t force people to feel included or as if they belong). We also talk a lot about systematic structures that make this utopian ideal near-impossible to achieve (at least, some people are making themselves uncomfortable enough to have these conversations).
I challenge the assumption, however, that inclusivity is just about race, gender, faith, ability, or age. If we can agree that each person living in a marginalized community has experienced trauma because of their disempowered status, then can we widen our lenses?
What if instead of world where we claimed that everyone was welcome, we actively worked to create an environment that was less triggering for those trying to enter that world? As someone who wants to be seen and heard and to participate in the professional social world, I have yet to see anyone challenge the assumption that this *must* include drinks; that everyone *should* be okay with going to a bar; that it isn’t off-putting or ill-mannered to ask people why they don’t want to come hang out with you and a bottle of wine. How can we create sobriety-friendly connection that doesn’t elicit feelings of AA meetings and weak people trying to get by, but that empowers people in their choices?
I hold no anger at the people — we are all just products of the world (and advertising) we’ve been given. Some of us simply have different stories, or different ideas about how we use and fuel our bodies. If that makes me a buzzkill, I’ll take it. Now what will you do?