What Does “Social Drinking” Really Mean?

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Many of us enjoy having a nice glass of wine with dinner, or throwing back a beer while watching the game with friends. And we all know that drinking to celebrate happy occasions, such as weddings and holiday gatherings, is very common in our society.

But when does having a few drinks at an event or party cross the line, and start inching toward alcohol use disorder (AUD)

There is actually no definitive moment—nor is the answer the same for every person. But there are some indicators. Let’s look at the definition of social drinking, why people drink socially, and some red flags to look out for.

What Defines Social Drinking?

low light shot of beer and wine glasses on a table at a party
Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

One might ask “what is a social drinker?” or “what’s considered social drinking?” A social drinker is someone who often drinks in social settings, such as bars or parties, but doesn’t experience a related life disruption. In other words, alcohol doesn’t lead them to any serious physical, mental, or emotional issues.

What is the Difference Between an Occasional Drinker and a Social Drinker?

An occasional drinker might consume alcohol by themselves or with others. A social drinker mainly drinks in a group context, such as with friends or at an event. Neither person would be considered a regular drinker, but when they do drink they have somewhat different motives.

Why Do People Drink Socially?

Social drinking has been a part of world cultures for thousands of years. From ancient civilizations to early American settlers, wine, beer, and other alcoholic beverages have forged human connections. Just picture long tables, loud singing, and big goblets!

So, why do people drink socially? There are actually several reasons, and fortunately many people do so without any harmful consequences. The most common reasons people drink socially include:

  • Fitting in/bonding with others. Many people like to raise a glass and share the experience. For example, it can be common for colleagues to stop somewhere for a drink after work, and socialize outside of the office.
  • Relaxation. People drink to unwind. Having an alcoholic beverage is known to take the edge off. Some experience a feeling of relaxation and reduced tension when they drink. Those with social anxiety may feel less inhibited.
  • To celebrate. Many weddings and holiday gatherings offer an open bar as a way to “get the party started.” In most cases, champagne toasts are seen as part of the ritual—right along with eating, dancing, and throwing the bouquet.
  • Peer pressure. Some people don’t particularly care to drink, but will do so to avoid being pegged as anti-social. They prefer to avoid questions and awkward excuses. This is common among teens, but occurs with adults as well.

Read more: 8 Best Excuses For Not Drinking

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When Is Social Drinking OK?

Social drinking is generally safe, so long as the person remains well within their limits and does not engage in risky behaviors, such as driving or other misconduct. In most cases, safe social drinking is similar to moderate drinking.1

The distinction is “low-risk drinking” versus “harmful drinking.” Social drinking can be low-risk for most people if they know their limitations and can pace themselves. They don’t put themselves or others in danger.

Signs Social Drinking is Becoming Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

Here are some common signs that your relationship with alcohol is in trouble. You don’t have to experience all of these in order to seek support. Ask yourself if you are:

  • Unable to stop drinking even when you know it is time to do so
  • Getting drunk before a social gathering
  • Frequently binge drinking
  • Hanging out with heavy drinkers
  • Blacking out often
  • Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms
  • Engaging in risky behaviors when drinking
  • Hearing concerns from family and friends
  • Having issues at work or school
  • Feeling shame or guilt after drinking
  • Using alcohol as an escape from stress or negative emotions
  • Expressing denial when confronted about your drinking
  • Spending more money and time on alcohol than you should
  • Needing to increase the number of drinks to achieve the same effect
  • Having frequent hangovers
  • Often drinking alone
  • Unable to imagine quitting, or life without alcohol

Concerned about your relationship with alcohol? Take our alcohol use assessment.

Is it Possible to Relearn Social Drinking After AUD?

A common question among people who struggle with alcohol use is “do I really have to stop drinking permanently?” They want to know if they can learn how to drink in moderation or become social drinkers.

group of friends socializing around a campfire
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

For years, the implication was that an alcoholic could never drink again. However, today there are programs which allow for a certain level of controlled drinking, with appropriate support. Many people have relearned moderate social drinking through these approaches.

One example is the Sinclair Method (TSM), a medication-based approach to alcohol addiction treatment. It allows people to reset their drinking habits by using targeted doses of the drug naltrexone. Many people find they can eventually drink moderately, or that they even lose interest in alcohol, after enough time on TSM.

Still, moderation programs are not the right match for everyone, which is why professional supervision is critical. There are many people who struggle with AUD, try moderate drinking programs, and come to realize that abstinence is the only option for them.

The Takeaway

Social drinking continues to be prevalent in our society, and for many people there is no cause for concern. Their drinking is controllable and low-risk. But there are many other cases in which drinking alcohol becomes habitual for a person, and leads to dependency.

Some people can see the problem coming and get a handle on it by avoiding triggers, developing new habits, and switching to nonalcoholic options. However, others may require professional support.

Ria Health offers alcohol treatment from the comfort of your home through a smartphone app, including anti-craving medications and weekly coaching meetings. We support both moderation and abstinence as goals, and can help you work towards a healthier relationship with alcohol on your schedule.


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Written By:
Lisa Keeley
Lisa Keeley is a freelance writer who believes in the uplifting power of words. She especially enjoys writing about health, relationships, employment, and living one’s best life. Lisa has a Master’s in Education and previously worked in vocational and educational services. Her articles can be found on Your Tango, Thrive Global, Heart to Heart, Medium, Muck Rack, and on various professional websites.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
Evan O’Donnell is an NYC-based content strategist with four years’ experience writing and editing in the recovery space. He has conducted research in sound, cognition, and community building, has a background in independent music marketing, and continues to work as a composer. Evan is a deep believer in fact-based, empathic communication—within business, arts, academia, or any space where words drive action or change lives.
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