Why sober shaming sucks & what to drink so you don’t give in

Despite the recent popularity of events like Go Sober for October and Dry January, the UK’s relationship with alcohol remains questionable at best. We’re frequently rated as one of the worst culprits in Europe when it comes to binge drinking and alcoholism. So, I shouldn’t really be surprised to learn that 64% of UK men have been mocked for buying non-alcoholic drinks in the past – let alone that 67% have had people buy them alcohol even after they made it clear that they weren’t drinking.

Those stats come from a poll of 1,000 UK adults by non-alcoholic spirit Celtic Soul, where results also found that 61% of UK men have secretly ordered soft drinks at a bar when their friends weren’t looking, to avoid being laughed at.

The feeling that peer pressure is inescapable in the UK is perhaps why 62% of men and 48% of women said that they avoid going to pubs and bars with friends at all if they’re hoping to avoid drinking booze. But with low-and-no alcohol alternatives currently experiencing a shift into the mainstream, could sober shaming’s days be numbered?

What is sober shaming?

Image shows two young men sitting at a pub table, facing another man just out of shot. On the table there are crisps and peanuts. A man on the left with a short brown beard looks drunk and is holding his pint glass aloft. The man on the right has a longer ginger-brown beard and holds an arm around his shoulders. Both men are wearing black and white checked shirts,

Sober shaming is the act of saying and doing things that make someone feel uncomfortable about not drinking, as if their decision to remain sober is somehow boring, silly or wrong.

In their article “Are you being sober shamed?”, rehab referral service Rehabs UK notes that something you may think is a harmless joke – like saying “don’t be boring” or “one drink won’t hurt you” – can be all it takes to pressure someone into breaking their sobriety. Celtic Soul’s discovery that many people are forcing alcoholic drinks on people who don’t want them reveals the prevalence of a much more aggressive act based on the same intention.

“British drinking culture is very prominent. Many people view drinking as a normal thing, and think that not drinking is ‘weird’, or not normal. “

Lester Morse, Founder of Rehabs UK

Alcohol Change UK, the charity behind the #StopSoberShaming tag, cites other familiar examples of casual sober shaming such as “You can’t come to my party if you’re not drinking!” and “The night won’t be the same if you’re not getting drunk with us.”

“People may not know they’re sober shaming, and many of those who sober shame don’t do so on purpose. Often it’s unintentional and meant as a joke, but can still be very harmful – especially in combination with all the other messages we receive that drinking is ‘normal’ and not drinking is not.

Sometimes people sober shame to mask their discomfort with their own relationship with alcohol. They may not be ready to address their own drinking, and someone who doesn’t drink can cause them to feel uncomfortable.”


Why is sober shaming an issue?

Fundamentally, sober shaming is an issue because it attempts to invalidate people’s personal choices, and tries to take away some of their sense of control.

For someone who is trying not to drink, whether they are battling a drinking problem or they just don’t feel like it, pressuring them is a public acknowledgement that you do not respect the choice they have made for themselves. Making them feel that their decision is boring or rude only serves to create discomfort, anger and embarrassment.

“It’s not just about those wanting to make a change to their drinking long-term. It’s also about those who have decided not to drink, or drink less, for one evening, one month, one event… When we sober shame, we put people off making these smaller-scale choices, too. The decision not to drink should lie with the individual, and them alone. They don’t owe anyone a reason or explanation, and they certainly shouldn’t be shamed for it.”


Rehabs UK notes that for those who are attempting recovery from alcohol addiction, the ability to build up a resilience to sober shaming takes time. The organisation recommends that for those who are new to sobriety, who are more likely to be pushed back to drinking by peer pressure, boozy environments like pubs and parties be avoided unless attending with someone you know will support your sobriety and/or remain sober themselves.

The rise of low-and-no-alcohol drinks

Three Spirit Starter Pack - all three bottles on a garden table against sunny greenery backdrop

The number of UK adults choosing low or no alcohol drinks on a ‘semi-regular’ basis rose from roughly 1 in 4 during 2020 to roughly 1 in 3 during 2021, with 22% more people taking part in Dry January ’21 than ’20.

Figures for 2022 suggest that around 29% of pub visits and 37% of restaurant visits in the UK are now alcohol-free, with 55% of adults planning to reduce their alcohol intake. With more people choosing to reduce their booze consumption or even quit entirely, could the days of sober shaming soon be behind us?

A January 2023 statement from Princes also highlights the 220% growth in Pinterest searches for ‘fancy nonalcoholic’ drinks in the last two years, and notes findings from a recent 2,000-respondent survey which found that roughly 1/3 of us are planning to further reduce our alcohol intake throughout the year ahead.

“The way people are thinking about alcohol is changing. It’s no longer about whether you do or don’t drink and having to pick a side while out with friends or family. More and more are wanting to enjoy a bit of everything for a really varied and interesting repertoire – whether that’s a cocktail, mocktail, low or no ABV.”

Jeremy Gibson, brand marketing director at Princes

What to drink when you’re not drinking

Three Spirit Social Elixir - bottle with cocktail next to it, with sunny garden backdrop

I, for one, am thrilled by the ever-growing range of non-alcoholic alcohols that are now on offer. I’m not big on fizzy drinks, I don’t want to drink three pints of orange juice at the pub, but I will admit I enjoy the emotional crutch or decompression feeling of a glass of something after a long day.

So, I am very much here for anything I can try that can be shaken, served and sipped with a sense that it’s still interesting, still adult, but sans-hangover and sans-rapidly-decreasing-levels-of-self-restraint.

I recently reviewed some of Three Spirit’s range and made my love for them so apparent that they even gave me an affiliate link and a discount code to add in afterwards – find out more about Three Spirit here, or go shop here using code TABBYFORTEA to get 15% off your next order.

Other drinks worth checking out include:

  • 0% Gin: Gordon’s or Tanqueray. Available Tesco, Sainsburys, ASDA, Morrisons & more. Add tonic and cucumber or lemon and you won’t know the difference.
  • 0.5% Beer: Lucky Saint (lager) or Erdinger (German wheat beer). I haven’t tried the 0% Guinness, but I hear good things about that too. Available online and from specialist retailers, plus bigger branches of Tesco, Sainsburys and ASDA.
  • 0% Cider: Kopparberg (various flavours). Available at most major supermarkets in the UK.
  • Seedlip in place of gin or vodka

I’m still hunting for a 0% wine that isn’t jarring, so do let me know if you’ve found one worth mentioning here…

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