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I will be spending more and more time with clients in the near future and we are encouraged to regularly socialize with and entertain them, especially by taking them out for drinks.

I wonder whether there might be an issue with etiquette and professionalism if I myself don't drink (I cannot, due to health reasons), especially if it might come across negatively to those I entertain.

What is the least suspicious and least unprofessional way to offer drinks, toast, and not drink myself?

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Can you clarify the "I cannot drink" portion? Specific kinds of drinks (i.e. alcoholic drinks) or any type of liquid? –  Oded Feb 25 at 13:18
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What prevents you from getting a nonalcoholic drink and socializing? –  atk Feb 25 at 13:19

7 Answers 7

I've encountered this in past. I think the spirit of the entertaining and hosting is what matters, not what you're drinking. A good idea would be to invite them to a social venue that has drinks but also food. Offer them drinks if they want, but get yourself a soft drink, "club soda with lime", or some other non-alcoholic drink. You could get water, but that sets a non-participatory tone sometimes.

A good idea is to also order snack food. Often in business circles, people will not immediately jump on the idea, but as a host you should order some initial food ideas for the table.

So, it's more about being a host than what anyone is drinking.

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Good answer. As it says, don't order water, since that can be perceived as trying to save money (or even encourage others to save money). The important thing is are you hospitable, encouraging, and interested in making them comfortable. –  Wayne Feb 25 at 18:02
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Great answer. The only thing I would add is to become a regular somewhere and get the waitstaff used to you always receiving virgin drinks with out having to ask for them virgin. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Feb 25 at 19:59
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There's no shame in ordering a non-alcoholic drink, either because you can't currently drink alcohol (drug interaction or whatever) or because you just don't much care for it (I don't; I'd rather go with a Virgin Mary than the alcoholic version -- useful when flying; airlines consider that a soft drink), or because you're tired and need caffeine more than alcohol, or because you've got a longer drive home, or because you have longer-term constraints (religious or otherwise)... As long as you aren't constraining others, and are picking up your share of the bar tab, nobody should really care. –  keshlam Feb 26 at 2:28
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... Unless, of course, they're hoping to get you drunk so you'll give them info you shouldn't. In which case, all the more reason not to drink. –  keshlam Feb 26 at 2:30
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Virgin Cuba Libre FTW :-) –  tohecz Feb 27 at 1:06

Be up front, but unapologetic, about it. I recommend mentioning that you cannot drink alcohol, but can join them in something non-alcoholic, before they order their drink so as to avoid any risk of them thinking that you're attempting to get them at a disadvantage by being sobered while they're getting inebriated. If you're dealing with a cultural bias (as I understand it, there are groups and nationalities who would actively be offended at the idea of someone not joining them on a drink), discuss it with your boss and arrange for someone else to go.

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2  
Yeah I agree with this. If they went first and ordered a non-alcoholic drink I would probably be less likely to order alcohol just because in a way it sets the tone of the evening. –  Fiona Taylor Gorringe Feb 25 at 17:41

I've never had an issue simply not drinking and not bringing it up. Grab a soda or even a water, be friendly, and (when in a group) get a round if others are doing so as well. Don't pretend to be drinking alcohol actively - that would come across as duplicitous - but also don't talk about it; it's simply not relevant. If they ask, give them the reason - but don't bring it up.

I suggest not talking about it, because bringing attention to not drinking is more likely to be a negative than a positive. While it's possible someone may have an issue with your not drinking, it's likely they will mention it. Bringing attention to it either is irrelevant (to people who don't care), points it out to people who didn't notice before, or worse, makes it look like you are making a big deal out of it - wanting some sort of pity or credit. Instead, treat it like the non-issue that it is, just like you wouldn't bring up your other health conditions unless something adversely impacted your ability to do your work.

The bigger concern is people who do not attend gatherings because they don't drink; that is certainly detrimental professionally. If you're attending the gatherings, taking your clients out, etc., you're fine. Professionals will treat you professionally.

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Nice edit, really adds to your answer, don't worry too much about being verbose, a well rounded answer will always be gladly received here –  RWY Feb 25 at 21:58

Nothing is stopping you is the honest answer.

I have been to the pub on many an occasion both with friends and with co workers when I cannot drink alcohol (either diet or driving)

Alcohol is the key word in that sentence.

Have a coke, sit around and socialize.

As long as they have a good time, what does it matter?

Plus, if you drink and make a fool of yourself, well it cannot happen if you are not drinking.

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I dunno what you're talking about. I've made a fool of myself plenty of times with no alcohol required. :p –  neminem Feb 25 at 17:11

A lot of the time, entertaining a client doesn't need to be alcohol-related. If the client does enjoy boozing it up, there are steps you can take to make your non-drinking less obvious if you think it will be a concern.

Entertainment

The goal is to make the client happy to be doing business with you. That means that entertainment can be anything that accomplishes that goal. The client may not drink either, and prefer a good meal to drinks at a bar. Maybe they would prefer a hike, or golf, or bowling, or any other activity that doesn't necessarily include booze.

The reason so many sales people take clients out for drink is three-fold:

  1. Most clients drink
  2. Most salespeople drink
  3. After business-hours, bars are open and easy

Since you are the one responsible for building relationships with your clients, there is no reason you have to default for the easy choice if you can find a good alternative that accomplishes the same goal. In Japan the old adage about sales is that you need to do 2/3: smoke, drink, or play golf.

Boozing with Clients

Of course, there will always be clients who appreciate a good drink. And if that's what it takes to entertain them, you should do so. There are several ways of boozing with clients even if you don't drink:

  1. Mix with food
  2. Order the drinks yourself
  3. Create a relationship with a local or two

If you mix drinks and food, the focus isn't solely on drinking, and it makes the focus less on the drinks. If you really cannot drink a drop, then it will be much less conspicuous when you're sharing food as well than if you're just ordering drinks. On the other hand, if you can have a beer or a glass of wine, having it with food will make the alcohol pack less of a punch.

Sometimes the client may not want food (due to the timing, or having already had dinner), and you should take them to a proper drinking establishment. Depending on the type of place, you may not order at the table and have it brought over. Since you are the one paying for everything, being the one to get the drinks is a nice gesture and allows you to get whatever you want without being too conspicuous even if it's non-alcoholic.

If you are based in a single place (or the same places regularly), you can also cultivate a relationship with certain locals that fit the type of clients you usually take out. So long as the staff knows what you drink, you can order at the table and trust the staff to give you non-alcoholic drinks without having to state that it's non-alcoholic. Even if you are constantly going to new places on business, after getting seated having a discussion on the side with the staff who will serve you could get the same service if you ask nicely.

Regardless of how you go about things, do not try to give the customer the impression that you are drinking. Not bringing attention to the fact that you are not drinking is fine, but if asked you need to be honest or risk losing trust that won't be replaced by the entertainment value of whatever you're doing. Tonic (or soda) and lime looks a lot like a gin and tonic, but that doesn't mean you should tell the customer you're drinking a gin and tonic. There are also non-alcoholic beers which look like regular beers if you can stomach them. Just don't lie about what you're drinking if asked.

Through my business with people from over a dozen nationalities, I've met very few cultures that this wouldn't work for, and most of them are in Southeast Asia. Just avoid doing business in China or Korea, and you shouldn't run in to many problems!

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My problem was two "issues" with drinking, so I quit for personal reasons. I used to go on sales calls with clients and social meetings, and other occasions. The only time I've ever gotten complaints about not drinking was not with clients, but when I was playing poker and not making mistakes because I was sober (the other poker players like to play better against someone who is drunk).

In any case, for business meetings, if someone asks, the only answer you need to give is "Oh, I don't drink alcohol" and leave it at that. I still have friends that drink (they like it that I will always be the designated driver), I have friends that never drank alcohol because they didn't like the taste or effect, and except for poker players that want more of my money, nobody has ever complained.

Go out on the business social occasions and just have fun. As mentioned in other posts, if you are in charge, order food for everyone (and pay for it of course if that is part of your job). Also, be careful that you don't try to "conclude" any business with a drunk. You are on a social occasion and the idea it to "bond" with your clients, not conclude a contract that could be construed as "taking advantage of the alcohol". If a client wants to talk business, take notes and rehash everything in a proper business meeting. Even better, if business comes up, just keep saying, we'er here for some fun tonight and we'll worry about that tomorrow.

If you are already in sales you may not have the problem I had with "stepping out of my shell" and actually belting out some songs in a bar sober, especially on a trip to Korea when we ended up in a Karaoke house for the evening but it did make everybody forget that I was still sober.

Remember, if you don't want to "share" the reason, all you have to say is just "I don't drink" and that "should" end the conversation. If they pursue it and you feel comfortable with sharing, you can explain. Otherwise, keep saying, "I just don't". If you don't want to tell them, then don't, it's none of their business. You can always follow up with alcohol is not the best thing for the body and try leaving it at that.

It's your health, don't endanger it for a client.

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Most people will understand if you just graciously tell them you don't drink for whatever reason, but have no problem if they do. Join them with a non-alcoholic beverage to limit the feeling of drinking alone.

There are some groups or individuals who may frown on anyone who doesn't drink. They're stuck in their college days or have some notion that drinking a lot = manhood, adulthood, toughness or whatever.

If they want to engage in some type of drinking contest, you could bribe the bartender into pouring you drinks with no alcohol in an attempt to trick your client into thinking you can drink a lot. Of course there is the risk of being caught, but these may be the type of people who see your deceit as having "moxie". I don't recommend this. Let someone else suffer these fools.

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