How to Talk about Veganism

Veganism has become more mainstream over the past decade. In large part, this is a result of individuals recognizing the positive impacts veganism has on curbing greenhouse gas emissions, decreasing animal suffering, and making us healthier. That said, it’s still not all that unusual for people to be unfamiliar with the movement.

Every vegan has faced this unfamiliarity at one point or another: the look of confusion (sometimes even pity!) you receive when you first tell someone you’re vegan. At best, this look leads to a casual conversation about the “why” behind your dietary choices. At worst, it leads to an all-out attack. This article provides you with a foundation to navigate these conversations in ways that leave you, your friends, and your acquaintances with as positive an experience as possible.

People are intrigued by things that are different. While it’s becoming less so every day, veganism is still considered “different” by many people. As such, the people you share meals with often take a special interest in your diet. They may feel emboldened to make comments on what you choose to eat — or, more importantly, what you don’t — and ask questions about why you’re vegan. It can be easy to be dismissive about your answer because you’re tired of explaining yourself or worried about making people feel uncomfortable.

However, it’s essential that vegans are able to effectively communicate our choices to others in an honest, comprehensive way. We should never minimize the importance of our decision, which can cause our choices to be misconstrued as a passing whim. Nor should we start with a verbal tirade of all things that are wrong with eating animals. Rather, we should provide enough information to explain our decisions while taking cues from the person we’re talking to. In being open to the direction a conversation can take, we create space to have honest conversations that benefit all parties involved.

How many conversations have you started with another person by immediately spewing out statistics? Probably not many. Starting conversations this way can ostracize the person you’re talking to, automatically putting yourself in a position of power because you know more about the topic at hand. This almost inevitably leads to counter-productive communication. Omnivores may feel like they have to defend their choices, preventing them from hearing about your perspective from a place of curiosity. Successful conversations about veganism don’t start off with a laundry list about all things that are bad about eating meat. Rather, they start with an invitation.

By stating one or two succinct reasons about why you’re vegan, you create opportunities for the other person to engage with you from a position of curiosity, rather than defensiveness. If they’re interested in learning more, they can ask. If not, you can steer the conversation to safer territory until the person is ready to engage (and I promise, if you’re really friends with this person, the conversation will come back up).

Most of us probably had that light bulb “aha!” moment when we first decided to go vegetarian or vegan. Maybe you watched Earthlings for the first time. Maybe you took an ecology class and realized how wasteful consuming animal products is. Or maybe you just looked at your dog one day and thought, “I would never eat you, so why would I eat another animal?”

Whatever your reasoning, telling a story shows that you too used to eat meat. This simple act simultaneously humanizes you and demonstrates that neither meat-eating nor veganism are a given: they’re a choice. By telling the story of our “aha” moments, we demonstrate that we used to feel the exact same way that an average omnivore does: eating meat is healthy and necessary, veganism is an extreme fringe movement, and the life cycle of the animals we eat is entirely natural.

It was a very specific set of circumstances that opened our eyes. We are in no way special for having been in the right place at the right time with the right mindset to receive information about veganism. Sharing a conversation about what made veganism “click” for you can help others recognize their own “aha” moments in the future — when the right set of facts, at the right time, with the right emotions, will suddenly click for them.

You’ve heard the “where do you get your protein from” question more times than you can count. I completely commiserate with your frustration, but try to think back to what you knew about a vegan diet before you went vegan — probably not a lot, right? It’s easy to be confused by how people can get vital nutrients when we’re taught to believe that a meat and potatoes diet is the “right” way to eat, and anything different from that diet is not only strange, but even dangerous.

Taking the time to succinctly and casually answer these recurring questions helps people recognize that it isn’t really all that hard to get enough protein (or whatever the nutrient du jour is). When you act like something isn’t a big deal, omnivores shift their perspective away from “there’s only one way to get enough nutrients and it involves meat” to “this person has been vegetarian/vegan for 10 years and is clearly doing fine.” By answering questions, we invite people into a space where they can learn about an often misunderstood movement, giving them information to help reframe they think about veganism.

Like any good conversation, a conversation about veganism must end at the exact right moment — a place where there’s still some curiosity, some unknowns, and no one feels like they’re beating a dead horse. Finding that right moment will require that you read your audience. For some, the right moment will be after you answer their first question. For others, it will be after you’ve delved into specific aspects about why factory farming is a cruel practice.

Look for verbal and physical cues: are people learning forward or do they have their arms crossed? Have people started saying things like, “Well, I don’t eat that much meat” and “veganism just isn’t for some people”? It’s time to gently steer the conversation to calmer territory and end it with an “anyway, that’s enough about veganism. How’s your job going?”

You can invite those individuals who have responded positively to participate in Meatless Mondays to learn more about veganism first-hand. It’s easy for people who are just learning about veganism for the first time to be overwhelmed by the prospect of giving things up forever. On top of this, and in part due to the gate-keeping common to veganism, people feel like if they’re not doing everything, they might as well be doing nothing. By inviting people to take the first step in reducing meat, we show others that 1) you don’t have to be perfect to make a positive difference and 2) it’s not really as hard as it seems to cut out meat, eggs, and dairy. Positive reinforcement, not shame, will help grow the vegan movement.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the world isn’t going to go vegan overnight. As animal-free alternatives become more accessible and affordable, it becomes easier for people to reconcile their ethics with their appetite. While that occurs, it’s important that vegans navigate conversations about our choices in a tactful way. We must speak the truth in such a way that encourages people to join the movement (even with what we may perceive as small baby steps), rather than pushing them away because they aren’t doing “enough.” Taking the above steps into consideration can help facilitate the positive change our world so desperately needs.

Personal finance + simple living. Local government employee by day — writer by night. Trying to make this timeline less shitty.

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