This Is…Teetotaling in Tech

A View from the Middle Seats

“Free beer in the fridge!”

“I mean, it’s cool if we get rid of breakfast and soda and the snacks, but if we don’t have beer, there will be a riot.”

“Did we tell you that our CEO also owns the brewery next door?”

“It’s cool to have a beer, you know, that’s why we keep them in the fridge, but you know, if you find yourself having one or two with lunch, and maybe number three before you leave for the day, let’s talk about it. I’m not only your HR guy, your go-to. I’m also a substance abuse counselor.”

“What the fuck do you mean, you don’t drink?”

These are all things I’ve had said to me over the last decade and a half (plus or minus) while working in tech and not drinking. Let’s get this out of the way early: I do not drink alcohol. No, not ever. Not even wine / sangria / whatever you think has a small amount of alcohol (because, you know, it still has alcohol). I am not the teetotaling version of the vegetarian who sometimes eats fish. I’m not a recovering alcoholic, I do not have an allergy to alcohol, I don’t avoid alcohol for religious reasons, and yes, I have had a drink or two in my lifetime. I don’t really discuss it because what’s to discuss? I’ve never asked someone why they don’t like cake, or broccoli — have you?

To continue getting the basics out of the way, I am incredibly comfortable around alcohol. I go to plenty of bars, parties, nightclubs, work events and functions where alcohol has a headlining role. The prevalence of booze in tech doesn’t bother me so much as it confounds me.

Why have we come to treat it as this absolute must-have, not only at parties, but as part of our work day, marketing events, hiring events, and meet-ups? Why does it often warrant its own line item on so, so many /career pages?

There’s been a lot of press, posts and conversations about alcohol in tech, and how exclusionary it is — particularly for those in recovery. A cursory Google search results in story upon story about how challenging it can be. I consider myself lucky to not know that experience. That said, as a woman who works in tech, the role of alcohol is somewhere between Cyrano de Bergerac at best, Patrick Bateman at insidious worst. It is almost always around, it can seem to make things easy, but it can make things very intimidating and very frightening very quickly.

I think the examination of the exclusionary nature of alcohol in the tech industry has been an interesting look inward — and an important one. Can you imagine what it must be like for someone in recovery to have to not only work around it, but quite literally, work with it in their surroundings? I am not that person, I do not envy that person, and I cannot imagine that struggle. I am not the person who has a few too many at happy hour and laughs about it the next day — and swears to keep it in check next time. I’m the one in the middle — I’m the one who gets no ‘special’ consideration (as I shouldn’t), but rather, gets a different kind of treatment.

I am the non-drinking one who is not in recovery, who is not religious, and who is not pregnant or on medication. I am the one who will close the bar with the rest of the team, who will make sure everyone gets to where they need to go safely, and who will let questionable behavior roll.

I am the sober one.

I distinctly remember attending the holiday party at a clients’ venue one year. It had been an extraordinarily difficult, but productive and successful year, and everyone was happy to have survived. Our collective teams were ready to cut loose, and the party didn’t disappoint. Random hook-ups in dark corners, fistfights in the middle of 5th Avenue (between one of our clients and one of their vendors! while in formal attire!), puking behind Dumpsters were all in full swing before the night was halfway done. By the time the night was over, I’d been privy to:

One senior executive standing very, very close to me in a corner and telling me the details of his divorce while weeping and saying I can’t tell anyone any of this ever, and he can’t believe he made such mistakes and how I shouldn’t ever make such mistakes and how I can always go to him for relationship advice. He made his self-proclaimed mistakes while sober, but his confessional to me (ultimately a subordinate several layers below him) was fueled by Grey Goose martinis. A lot of them. His breath was very hot. He ended up not getting divorced.

One of my (female) clients tugging at the top of my dress and pulling it down with one hand so she could ‘see something’ while I stood as still as a statue, hoping it would stop before it became embarrassing / more horrifying. It stopped somewhere in between the “ha ha what’s she doing” and “what the fuck that’s my bra on display” lines. She, presumably, saw whatever it is she was looking for. She did not remember doing this the next day, but she laughed when I asked her what she was looking for.

Carrying an executive down the steps while in heels (both she and I) because she was so drunk, she couldn’t stand without listing side to side a bit like a tall, thin sailboat. I remember being very concerned I was going to drop her. She is several inches taller than me, and fashion-thin. We made it down the stairs. She remains one of the most brilliant and impressive people I have ever worked with.

One of my (very quiet, very meek, very religious) colleagues getting absolutely — but silently — wasted, and vomiting on the BACK of our most persnickety developer. On the 2 hour bus ride home. He didn’t notice until she fessed up. She slept the rest of the ride home, as did he, both with vomit on their clothes.

My boss, perhaps the most sensible of all of us, decided that he was too drunk to drive home. He slept in his closet-sized office, under his desk. In his tux. He was still slightly drunk during our morning stand up the next day.

We were only there for 2 hours.

And yes, this was a holiday party, a once a year extravaganza — and it had been a big year for us. But, as anyone in tech can attest to, it doesn’t take a holiday to have a celebration. Whether it’s launching a new product, going public, or welcoming a new coworker, there is always a reason to celebrate. And by “celebrate”, I mean drink.

Very early in my career, I worked with two people who were young but very influential in their high profile roles. They were celebrating signing a new person to the team — highly reputed, big name, and a big drinker. The three of them came in two hours late for their own meeting the next morning. They had kept our big boss — who already had it out for my boss, and would relish any opportunity to take him to task — waiting. And waiting.

As my boss tried to explain why they were late, I was hit with a familiar but unplaceable smell. Then it hit me. It was…my colleagues. They smelled like the floor of a nightclub at 3am. Spilled tequila, commercial cleaner and something that’s a bit biological, or possibly, hot dogs.

Very quietly, I pulled my boss aside and asked him if they were alright, if we should reschedule. He just sort of looked at me, unsure of what to say. Our other colleague, her eyes pink and puffy, said, “we HAVEN’T been drinking since before. we’re just still drunk”. I shuffled them out of the room as fast as I could. I loved my boss dearly (and still do), and I knew our big boss would have his head if given the opportunity.

I covered for them while they pulled themselves together, because as the sober person, this is my default role. I am human before I am an employee of anywhere, and I care about the well-being of those around me. But, being the sober one can put me into an awkward spot.

At the aforementioned holiday party, I had to have a stern talking-to with someone older, and very senior to me, about why he should not drive home, and how he should just let me get him a cab (this was well before Uber, and cabs were difficult in our suburban town). He argued that he was fine and continued to refuse. What was I supposed to do in this situation?

Just because I’m sober doesn’t mean I want this responsibility, and while it’s something I’ve assumed (who wouldn’t) it sure as hell isn’t fair.

In that case, the senior coworker would not take a cab, and would not give up his keys, and said he didn’t care if he made it home. He didn’t show up for work the next day. We didn’t know until two days later he had made it home safely. He didn’t remember how he got there, just that he woke up in his tux, on his couch.

I’ve heard a lot of reactions to the ‘news’ I don’t drink. No one can ever explain why it matters to them.

I remember being at a very fancy dinner with very difficult clients with my fancy and difficult then-CEO who had a few too many. I had worked for him for about a year by that point, and it was a small enough company where we were familiar with each other (far be it from friendly, but beyond civil). He made it clear I had thrown him for a loop when I had club soda with our dinner (he’s the one who remarked, ‘what the fuck do you mean you don’t drink?’), but otherwise, dinner was a success. As we were discussing ordering after-dinner sweets and drinks, the CEO threw the dessert menu across the table to me and said, “Jess, order for everyone, don’t be a fucking weirdo for once.” I don’t know if that was the alcohol talking, but I know the CEO never spoke to me like that before — or after. Maybe he was mad I made him drink an entire bottle of wine on his own. Maybe he was mad I hadn’t told him I don’t drink — but again, why would I? It’s not that it wasn’t his business, I never cared about the privacy. It was that it’s a non-issue. It would’ve been like telling him days in advance I won’t be ordering salad.

It’s not always so overt, but the ‘oh!’ factor is almost always there. Last year, I joined a colleague and prospective clients at a very, very exclusive dinner that was a tasting menu for several different, famous chefs. I was very excited to be there, and happy to chatter with prospective clients about all of the virtues of working with us. Smiles for miles. As you’d imagine, the wait staff was incredibly attentive. My water glass rarely remained anything more than half-empty, and was always refilled with my original water choice (who knew that was a thing?) When the time(s) came, I quietly, and politely, declined every. single. wine pairing that was presented to me. By the 6th one, I looked at the waiter hoping he would please, please stop asking. My colleague didn’t bat an eyelash; he and I had entertained together a million times, and we were a great team. Our prospective clients didn’t mind, but the constant interruption was palpable. I have to wonder — if I declined meat courses, or said I didn’t eat gluten — would a similar offer have been presented every time? As usual, it’s not about the alcohol, or wanting special treatment. It’s just time we level the playing field and stop treating alcohol like it’s this special, magical, precious thing. It’s literally the byproduct of rotting fruit and/or flora. That’s it. Delicious for some, not for all.

It’s clear, I’m sure, that I can be a bit self-conscious about my non-drinking. It comes back to the same thing — no special treatment. I just want to be able to fit in as much as anyone else does. Recently, I was on an international trip, spending time with my new team, in a country that’s known for drinking. Interestingly, my ‘no thanks, just water / coffee / Coke Zero’ barely raised an eyebrow from my new colleagues. It was so, so refreshing. They were more surprised that I’d drink coffee at 10pm than turn down a wine or two or three. It was only awkward once — when entry into a bar required taking a shot. Not having any idea how to say ‘no thank you’ in the local language, I threw the shot back and very quickly calculated what to do next. I should stop here and note I am sure that I could have turned it down without significant fanfare if language hadn’t been a barrier. The bar probably wouldn’t have turned us (and our expense account) away, nor would my colleagues have paid much mind. That said, what if drinking wasn’t a requirement to get in?

Imagine for a second — that shot is a cookie. Or a meatball, it doesn’t matter. So, to gain entry to a bar, you have to eat a cookie. Or a meatball. If someone says, ‘oh, no thank you,’ when offered a cookie / meatball, does anyone think twice? Does anyone even notice? No. Why should it be any different when it comes to alcohol?

As far as that shot went, I thought about swallowing it but quickly decided that wasn’t gonna work for me. I was in the middle of 10 people going down a narrow, spiral staircase of about 2 flights. It was so narrow, in fact, only one person could really fit within a 4-stair radius. I hung back for a minute, pseudo-adjusting the sleeve on my jacket, then moved down 2 stairs quickly to create a gap. I stood in the shadows, and quickly, quietly, spit (well, really, dribbled) the shot onto a dark corner of the stairs. It was a matter of seconds, no one noticed, and my only compromise was getting a bit sticky. It was fine, but again — why did it need to be this covert thing? Was it just because I was too embarrassed or shy to decline? Was it weird that no one thought it was strange that you had to drink to get in? Maybe it was just me.

I’ve worked for companies that have their happy hours at breweries, and real, actual breweries, where the options are beer, beer, beer or warm tap water. While many of my colleagues will go to the happy hour for the drinks, I’m going for the company. For some reason, this is something that we have a hard time articulating. We, the tech community, make jokes about needing a beer to get through the day, or going to happy hour for the free drinks. Is our work that hard that we need to drink to relax? Or is it just the conversational crutch we rely on to communicate, “Hey, I want to hang out with you.” Why are we so uncomfortable saying, “I’m going to go to happy hour because I like the people I work with”?

I’ve had an executive I’ve worked for purposefully, weirdly maliciously, make a big deal out of my non-drinking, adding it to team dinner invites, calling it out in Slack, and otherwise taking it upon himself to announce it to everyone should any opportunity present itself. Why? I still don’t know. It’s irrelevant, and his attempts at jocularity were uncomfortable at best. It wasn’t as though he was saying, “Let’s make sure they have drinks other than alcohol”, but rather, “END OF THE YEAR DRINKS AND A SHIRLEY TEMPLE FOR JESS”, etc. While I wouldn’t have thought it, someone we worked with mentioned that it seemed like a bit of a poorly-executed power trip. The exec was trying to humiliate me for my ‘childish’ decision to not drink. This is where I shrug my shoulders and just think CAN I LIVE? Of all of the things to hassle me about, this is what we’re choosing? Really?

These days, in a new organization in a new role, my team is wonderfully more laissez-faire about it. If anything, I’ve unintentionally given them something to think about. I’ve made a New Friend in a coworker. He drinks a bit, and then complains about it the next day literally every time. He doesn’t drink to excess, but just enough to ruin every next day. “I don’t feel well. It’s either the beers I had, or the whiskey. Or it’s the fish. It could definitely be the fish. I didn’t feel well as soon as I ate it.” When I remind him that food poisoning typically doesn’t work that way, he mentions the beer again.

“I’m going to find a ginger ale with real ginger in it. I feel sick.”

I have promised him that I will not preach to him virtues of not drinking. I love people who drink and people who don’t drink. I will talk to anyone who WANTS to know what not-drinking is like, but I wait until they broach that with me. In this case, I simply tell him to find some Mentos at the airport, drink more water, or not work out quite so hard at the gym. He repays me by continually telling me how Diet Coke is going to kill me, and how I need to sleep more. In fact, if I had a dollar for every time I was sort-of harassed for how much Diet Coke I drink — and $2 for every time it was someone with an alcoholic drink in their hand — I could probably retire early. Why is my choice of Diet Coke a thing? I’m not the one complaining about feeling shitty. As of late, New Friend has said he is considering giving up drinking to see how he feels. I’ve told him that I’ll welcome him to this side of the party whenever he’s ready, if he’s ever ready. It’s not my choice for him, nor would I want it to be. But I think it’s important that everyone know — it’s still ok not to drink.

All of this said, I think the tech industry needs check their commitments.

Yes, it is absolutely ok not to drink. It is also, absolutely, positively ok to drink. If a company has beer in the fridge, you have to trust your employees to drink it appropriately. Are there certain times of the day where they should drink? Based on what rules? Unwritten rules? Written rules?

I remember watching my kind, caring then-CEO have a public word with an employee who had made the unfortunate choice to have a beer with lunch. Caring then-CEO is one of the best human beings I’ve worked for, and unlike the other CEOs I’ve mentioned, genuinely a good person. The dressed-down employee is ALSO a good person, and at the time, they were a little new to the company (maybe 3–6 months in). They weren’t aware of the unwritten rule that while beer is kept beneath the seltzer, you reallllllly shouldn’t go for it until after 5. 4 at the earliest. 3pm if it’s been REALLY REALLY TOUGH DAY. But with lunch? Never.

And so, this very uncomfortable conversation happened in front of a number of people, and made us all feel for both parties. I wondered then, was it bad judgment for DDE to have a beer with lunch? It didn’t seem to be; she wasn’t intoxicated. She was over the legal drinking age. She wasn’t driving any time soon. She ate lunch. Had a beer. At that company — like so many other tech companies — the hours were flexible. Some developers worked from wee morning hours to early afternoon. Others chose to come in graveyard. In this case, DDE had come in very early and was nearing the end of her day at our lunchtime. How was she to know that she wasn’t supposed to, based on some unspoken and contradictory rule? Should the company have committed to their stance — beer is for any employee of legal age assuming they are responsible / don’t become intoxicated? Or should they have posted some sort of guidelines since it seems as though that’s what they wanted? The ambiguity, not DDE or even Ct-C, is at fault here.

Why has our community embraced drinking so wholeheartedly when, at best, we’re using it as though it’s some sort of Instagram filter for our own insecurities?

At the end of the day, it’s just one choice in a day / week / lifetime filled with choices. If someone wants to ask me why I don’t drink, have at it. The answer isn’t interesting. It’s many small reasons, but mostly because I don’t like it, it’s expensive and I’m cheap, and I would rather allocate those calories towards sweets.

The real question is, why have we let this “social lubricant” become an excuse for being inconsiderate, and become the thing that every event is planned around?

What would happen if a meet up advertised ‘snacks and beverages’ instead of ‘craft beers’ with all other factors being equal — including the selection at the meetup? That’s right — just a simple headline copy test.

The former is inclusive, informal, and welcoming, while the latter sets a very particular stage. For an industry that covets diversity the way we do, we continue to perpetuate the image of the ideal tech employee, and beer is a huge part of that. The sooner we realize that this isn’t doing us any good — it’s not cool anymore, it’s not unique, it’s not special — the better off we’ll be. Why can’t we be the change? Why can’t we be the ones to tell recruiters that free beer in the fridge isn’t a perk anymore (if nothing else, it’s become commonplace)? Why can’t we be the ones to say thanks, but no thanks just once in a while and it not be a thing? Why can’t the change just start now, with us?

I dare anyone who’s read this far to try a small change. Have your team building at anywhere but a bar. Have a covered dish swap alongside the beer exchange. When someone orders a club soda instead of their normal beer, the only question you should ask is ‘lime? lemon? plain?’.

I dare us to fucking commit to being the inclusive environment we all claim to want.

I dare you to be different.