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Not everyone likes to drink in college or university. And for those who do, there are plenty of times when you may not feel like it (e.g., you’ve got exams to study for, an 8 a.m. lecture, or an intramural soccer match coming up). So when someone hands you a drink, why can it sometimes feel super awkward to say, “No thanks”?

Social pressures are often unspoken

In our survey, 87 percent of college and university students across Canada said they’re confident turning down a drink they don’t want—and that’s great. But peer pressure more often occurs indirectly. Simply being in the presence of someone else drinking, for example, can make you more likely to join in.

Social relationships are healthy and important for young adults as a source of support during stressful times, says Dr. Walter Mittelstaedt, Director of Campus Wellness at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. “This is the positive influence of peers,” he says.

These, however, can sometimes come with challenges. “In developing these relationships, there may be times where values are tested,” Dr. Mittlestaedt says. “Individuals may have to make decisions about whether the relationship is important enough to venture outside familiar values and behaviour—and the pressure might be to experiment with substances as way of preserving a relationship.”

Another part of the pressure to follow the crowd is due to your basic biology. Before age 25, it’s harder to overcome that pressure because the part of our brains that helps with inhibition is still developing. In other words, in college and university, we have a supercharged drive to want to fit in. While your ability to handle social pressure gets better as you age, there’s still a drive to cave to drink in your 20s, 30s, and beyond.

So if you don’t want to drink, how do you resist without busting your social scene?

It’s all about confidence

The social acceptance of alcohol as “our favourite drug” can be so ingrained and ubiquitous that the pressure to drink might be subconscious. That’s why it’s important to be aware of how alcohol affects you and confidently make the best decision for yourself as an independent-minded person, says Dr. Gerald Thomas, Director of Alcohol, Tobacco, Cannabis, and Gambling Prevention and Policy at the British Columbia Ministry of Health. “By being self-aware and living based on your internal compass—who you are and what’s good for you—you can find yourself and bravely live your life from that place,” he says.

Dr. Thomas has two key questions to ask yourself if you’re feeling pressure to use any substance:

  1. Will this help connect me to or disconnect me from myself?
  2. Will this help connect me to or disconnect me from others?

Some alcohol use can act as a stress reliever or social lubricant, but it can also become dysfunctional and isolating. “It’s important to recognize these and do what you need for yourself regardless of what others think or expect,” Dr. Thomas says.

Of course, it’s not always easy to flick a switch and suddenly emit confidence. Insecurity can impair your choices, making it a lot harder to stand up for yourself. It’s perfectly fine to want to be liked, but the people who truly care about you will want what’s best for you.

If you find yourself in a situation where friends ask you to do things you’re uncomfortable with, take a couple steps back and reevaluate your friendship. Do these people truly care about your well-being? Listen to your instincts, and think about spending more time with friends who will respect your boundaries and desires.

“People might make us feel crummy sometimes, but one thing you can do is ask yourself: ‘Is this person important [to me]? By how much?’ and ‘Who are the people I care about and who care about me?’ Taking a step back and getting some perspective really helps.”
—Tiffany K., fifth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

Here are 7 effective ways to tell someone you don’t want a drink—and the best way to respond, if you’re on the other side

friends laughing

1.

“Explain why you can’t drink: work the next day, studying, running a race, etc.”

—Alexa P., third-year graduate student, Georgia State University, US

How to say it

“I’d love to, but I’m running a half marathon next week and I’m trying to set a new personal record.”

How to hear it

“Oh, that’s awesome! I respect your willpower. How often do you train?”

Expert tip

“Communication is key. This means being able to articulate that you’re not engaging in that behaviour, and addressing the ‘pressure’ that others are applying.”
Dr. Mittelstaedt

2.

“Hold a drink, but don’t drink it.”

—Courtney K., second-year graduate student, Marquette University, Wisconsin, US

How to say it

“Thanks, but I’ve already got one.”

(Note: You can also respond by getting a drink yourself and making it without any alcohol.)

How to hear it

“Enjoy!”

Student tip

“Put water or a soft drink in a Solo cup. People usually think you’re having a mixed drink of some kind and will leave you alone.”
—Nick N., second-year undergraduate student, University of British Columbia

3.

“It’s completely OK to turn down a drink. You may not feel comfortable drinking, or you’ve already had too much and reached your limit.”

—Lauren B., fourth-year undergraduate, Kutztown University, Pennsylvania, US

How to say it

“Nah, I’m in a good zone right now, thanks.”

How to hear it

“Good call—maybe I shouldn’t get another one either. I’m really trying to not be hungover tomorrow.”

Student tip

“I’ve had really positive experiences with just saying, ‘No thanks, I don’t drink,’ which is awesome. Everyone was really supportive and told me, ‘Don’t ever change.’”
—Tiffany K., fifth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

4.

“Say that you’re the sober driver.”

—Alison W., fifth-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick

How to say it

“I’d love to, but I’m driving tonight.”

How to hear it

“Oh, gotcha—didn’t realize! Can I get you something else?” 

Student tip

“I usually just say, ‘no thanks,’ and if they’re persistent, I typically just say that I drove and can’t drink, but thanks anyway.”
—Nick N., second-year undergraduate student, University of British Columbia

5.

“Say that you can’t for health reasons.”

—Sam V., second-year undergraduate, University of Wyoming, US

How to say it

“I’m trying to be healthier, so I’m cutting back on alcohol this month—it ruins my workouts.”

How to hear it

“That’s cool. What other changes have you been making?”

6.

“Tell them confidently you don’t drink, and thank them for their consideration.”

—Aman D., second-year graduate student, University of Ottawa, Ontario

How to say it

“No thanks, I’m all set for the night.”

How to hear it

“Sweet.”

Expert tip

“Making the decision not to participate is part of the process of consolidating your own values and identity.”
Dr. Mittelstaedt

Student tip

“Your confident attitude will be contagious. Others who may not have the strength to say no may find it just [by] watching you. Be a leader!”
Jeani K., first-year online student, Shasta College, California, US

7.

“Say you’d love a drink but would prefer starting off with something nonalcoholic.”

Lindsay M., second-year graduate student, Queen’s University, Ontario

How to say it

“I really haven’t hydrated enough today. Would you have something without alcohol in it to start me off?”

How to hear it

“Absolutely! Water?”

How to respect others’ drinking decisions

Maybe you feel weird being the only one drinking, so you recruit your buddies to join in. Or perhaps you’re worried they’ll miss out on the fun if they don’t throw back a few. Whatever the reason, if you’re the one handing red solo cups to everyone, take a moment to check in with yourself.

Keep these tips in mind:

  • Show support by letting up on your own drinking.
  • Let your friends know that not drinking won’t affect your relationship.
  • Apologize if you made your friend feel uncomfortable.
  • Suggest a different activity that doesn’t involve alcohol.
  • Remember that going out is an opportunity to spend time with friends.

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Article sources

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Gerald Thomas, PhD, Director of Alcohol, Tobacco, Cannabis and Gambling Prevention and Policy at the British Columbia Ministry of Health.

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