Must I Refuse Free Booze?

Dear Helena,
The other day I was in a bar waiting for my boyfriend when the bartender set a martini before me. Indicating a guy sitting a few stools down, he said, “The gentleman over there sent this over.” I smiled at the guy but stayed where I was. As I was taking my first sip, he came over and started talking to me. I told him I had a boyfriend, and he got in a huff, like I’d led him on. If someone sends you a drink, is it OK to accept if you’re not interested in them? In any case, isn’t sending people drinks a little creepy?
—Martini Gal

Dear Martini Gal,
Getting sent a drink from a stranger makes many people feel uncomfortable. “It’s the same as if you go on a first date and take her somewhere expensive. She’ll think, ‘Is he expecting sex if he spends all this money?’” says “Savoy,” president of Love Systems (formerly Mystery Method), which offers workshops in the art of picking up women (and whose practitioners adopt fake names). Well, it’s not the same thing exactly. But having a drink set in front of you, already paid for, presents a serious etiquette dilemma for the recipient who’s not interested in the buyer.

Here’s the best way to handle the situation.

1. Decline the drink. There’s no such thing as a free drink. The cocktail is a form of barter. “Most guys think if they buy a drink for her, the woman is now obligated to talk to them,” says Jason Kosmas, co-owner of the New York bar Employees Only and coauthor of You Didn’t Hear It from Us, a women’s guide to picking up men in bars. You don’t have to offer the drink to the bartender or anyone else. Once you’ve declined, Kosmas says, “the bartender will take it from there.”

2. Say thank you. Even though you’re not interested in the person, politeness demands that you say thank you, the same way you’d thank a stranger for a compliment. If you want, you can throw in an excuse: “Thanks—but I have a [boyfriend/girlfriend/am in the middle of a messy divorce].” After telling the bartender you’re refusing the drink, ask him or her to deliver your message. “We don’t mind being go-betweens,” says Kosmas.

3. Shun flirtation. When the person who sends the drink is cute, it’s tempting to let him know (directly or via the bartender) that you’d happily get drunk with him if you were single. But this might be taken as a come-on. “If guys think there’s any chance in hell they think they might end up with a girl,” says Kosmas, “they’ll keep on pursuing her, especially when they’re liquored up.” He adds: “Why would you let him know you think he’s attractive unless you’re interested in him?”

4. Establish a boundary. People don’t always take no for an answer, particularly when they’re drunk. So use body language to reinforce your message. San Francisco bartender Duggan McDonnell, who has worked at the Redwood Room and Cantina, among other San Francisco bars, advises: “If you’re with a friend or partner, focus your attention on them. If possible, turn your back on the person who sent the drinks.” But according to Savoy, you shouldn’t worry too much about offending the person. “Guys that are sending drinks in bars are pretty used to getting rejected.”

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.