Just Watch Me Drink

Dear Helena,

My in-laws are boring teetotalers. When my husband and I invite them over for dinner I always supply them with lots of tea and other nonalcoholic beverages. I try to make a great dinner, and I work hard at keeping the conversation going. During their visits I love to have a glass of good wine before dinner and a couple during. I have done this for many years before they came on the scene, and I am proud of my ability to pick out a good bottle. However, when my in-laws are around and I pour myself a glass of wine my in-laws become very uptight. In the past my mother-in-law counted (!) the amount of wine I drank during a Christmas meal (three glasses of red) and told my husband after the meal that she felt I drank too much. I’m 40 years old and I love having a couple of glasses of wine a day, especially with a meal. I never lose control while I am drinking wine, and I don’t plan to. Should I give this practice up for my in-laws when they visit my house for dinner? Are they uncivilized? —Red Whine

Dear Red Whine,

Your in-laws have no right to get uptight about your drinking, any more than a vegan should feel justified sulking when his dinner companions enjoy steak. But discussing the matter with them won’t be productive, because you have very different ideas of what constitutes excess.

The situation requires an unspoken compromise. To find out what a reasonable one might be, I called people who don’t drink for personal and/or religious reasons, to learn more about how they feel being around those who do.

It just so happened that five teetotalers I spoke with said they’re not bothered if their dinner companions have a drink or two, whether it’s wine, beer, or something stronger. It was when the number of drinks reached three that they began to feel uncomfortable, and viewed the drinkers as “overdoing” it.

After three drinks, says Nicole Daedone, the teetotaling founder of OneTaste in San Francisco, which offers yoga, massage, and sensuality classes, “You get drunk, you begin to shut down channels … so you have diminished bandwidth. You’re not connecting authentically.”

Not only that, but “people become offensive, disrespectful, or overly emotional,” says Abdul Rahman, the nondrinking treasurer at the San Francisco Muslim Community Center. “They lose their ability to reason,” says Sheryl Gardner, a dry Mormon who works at the California Los Angeles Mission.

So if you want to be a good hostess, stay on roughly the same chemical wavelength as your guests. Don’t rely on your own judgment as to when you’ve had enough. The more you drink, the less accurate your estimate of how sloshed you appear. As a rule of thumb, stick to two drinks or fewer.

It’s also a good idea to send a subtle signal to your guests that you’re planning to limit your consumption—for instance, by putting the bottle of wine away. Otherwise, they may start needlessly panicking.

All of this applies only if your guests are sober for religious, moral, or health reasons. If they’re in recovery, you should first ask them if it’s OK if you drink in their company. Rick MacFarlane, clinical director of Insight, a substance abuse treatment provider in Michigan, explains: “Some people it doesn’t bother. Other people may not have had a drink in 30 years but being around drinking can make them very uncomfortable.” Broach the topic in private. If you don’t know your guest well enough to do so, then it’s best to err on the side of caution and take the evening as an opportunity to detox.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.