Do Startups Have a Drinking Problem?
Sarah Jane Coffey

There’s a shelf like this in a lot of startups.

Surviving #StartupLife as a Teetotaler

When I read Sarah Jane Coffey’s take on not drinking in #startuplife, it took me back to the first time I met another non-drinker on the tech conference speaking circuit. His tale about a previous job stuck with me:

I joined a startup and didn’t explain that I don’t often drink. I suddenly realized a few months later that most of my coworkers had noticed, and assumed I was an alcoholic without ever asking me. So, I decided to have some fun at their expense. At the next company party, I asked a good friend (who knew my situation) to have a drink with me. We ordered shots, linked elbows, made sure the room was watching, and tipped our heads back — and from the back of the room, the office busybody came running, screaming, “No! You’ve worked so hard!” I watched her face contort in agony as I downed my shot, and then, before collapsing in laughter, I corrected her misconception.

While hilarious, this anecdote highlights a strange truth about startups. It’s so bizarre in our world for a person not to want to get drunk with coworkers that people would actually rather assume their colleague suffers from a life-threatening illness called alcoholism than accept that not everyone enjoys social drinking.

I, like my friend above, have nothing in particular against it. I drank occasionally for a couple of years, then stopped when I realized that I only really enjoyed mixed drinks that were mostly sugary syrups. I just never acquired a taste for alcohol. I’ve tried everything from boxed wine to top-notch cocktails and $60/shot whiskey, and I’d still rather have an appetizer. As it happens, I’m also not a marijuana connoisseur, despite being born and raised in Colorado.

I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me, “But if you don’t drink and you don’t get high, what do you do to have fun at a party?”

Here’s a short list:

  • Talk to people
  • Dance
  • Enjoy music
  • Eat all the calories other people are drinking
  • Play foozeball, ping-pong, jenga, Scrabble, trivia…
  • Be entertained by the people who are imbibing

I think what people really mean is, “What do you use as a cue to let your guard down and have fun?”

That’s a valid question — alcohol is an effective social lubricant, especially for people whose jobs require a level of seriousness that’s out of character for many startup leaders. I’ve seen grown men whose cars cost more than my house end a work party shoeless, shirtless, vomiting on the street. A night of heavy drinking creates a bond of shared shame/amusement (shamusement?) that can’t be broken. When you’re not a drinker, it’s easy to miss out on forming those ties.

The most effective workaround I’ve found to bond with drinkers in the startup world has been to demonstrate that I’m comfortable acting a fool while completely sober, if everyone else is in foolish mode, too. I’m an extrovert, so this is relatively easy, but I think even introverts might be able to get at least a little silly in silly company. If you want to see me dancing like a maniac on a hoverboard, hit the link below:

Another trick that works: Encourage other people to drink. If you’re egging them on, they don’t feel so judged by your non-tippling. You can’t really be a no-fun, stick in the mud if you just bought a round, right? (Obviously, not an ideal option for recovering alcoholics — but I’m not one, and many non-drinkers aren’t.)

If all else fails and I’m with people I don’t plan to get to know closely, I’ll fake a drink. Sprite or plain tonic water can be a “gin and tonic.” Alternately, it’s easy enough to go all night saying, “Oh no, I’ve had three drinks already and I brought my car.” As long as no one person has been with you from the start of the party, it’s easy to pull off.

I stopped resenting the weirdly key role alcohol plays in startup life a long time ago and started enjoying developing my party persona, somewhere in between tearing up the dance floor and acting as a safe harbor for other sober people. It’s still unreal to me that people who drink are far more bothered by my sobriety than I am by drinking, but I’m willing to go out of my way to make others feel comfortable. I shouldn’t have to do that — and I don’t have to — but it’s pretty fun to see everyone having a good time, so I choose to.

Do startups have a drinking problem? Yeah. Startups also have a diversity problem, an employee cost-of-living problem, a burnout problem, a funding crunch problem, a brilliant jerk problem, and a list of other problems longer than my arm. The extent to which I pick alcohol-as-default-activity as my battle to fight begins and ends at suggesting a lot of hiking when “What should we do outside of the office together?” comes up.

That’s not to say others shouldn’t embark on a quest to introduce more variety into startups’ social lives. After all, if we’re going to have a more diverse startup ecosystem, it needs to account for diverse social lives, too. In addition to recovering alcoholics and people with health issues, there are multiple major world religions that exclude people from tipsy fun times.

Maybe someone should start a startup to plan sober fun for startups? :)

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