In the last few weeks, I’ve posted about both activism (from the perspective of someone who is new to it) and about the confusion of veganism and deprivation diets. Both of these posts prompted a lot of questions about how I talk to people in my life about my veganism. Do I ever get uncomfortable talking about my vegan lifestyle? How do I sound passionate without sounding preachy? How do I know when to share, and when to be discreet?
This is actually a topic I love to write about. You may remember my post on the power of choice, in which I tried to show you ways to be confident about eating differently than others. In my Thanksgiving Jitters post, I touched on ways you can approach a holiday or gathering without feeling like you’ll have to hide your preferences. And in my Kitchen Wars post, I wrote openly about how the way we choose to eat can force us to clash with loved ones–not because anyone’s intentions are bad, but simply because food runs deep, and the misunderstandings that surround it run deep, too.
To be frank, talking to people about my lifestyle has never been a source of discomfort for me. I’m happy to share the reasons why my way of eating works for me: it makes me feel healthy. I love the food. I believe that it’s one really good thing I can do for animals and for the planet. No matter how hard it has been for you to talk about your own food choices in the past, I’ll bet that, if you were to articulate your own motives that simply, they’d sound similar to mine. Talking about your eating habits and lifestyle doesn’t have to mean launching into a sermon or defending a dissertation: sometimes it means voicing the reasons you live the way you do in the simplest and most basic of ways.
When I first became vegan, I was so excited that I told just about everyone what I was doing. Nowadays, I talk about my lifestyle when it makes sense to talk about it. If I’m having a conversation about cooking, it’s inevitable. If someone asks me what my blog is about, I share. If I show up at a dinner party with a vegan dish, I’m always quick to mention that it’s vegan, because I want people to know that vegan food can taste great. But I also don’t feel the need to “announce” my lifestyle as if it were a nametag, either. When the details of my lifestyle are germane to conversation, I share. But as much as I love to chat about veganism, I realize that not everyone in the world is as fascinated by food ethics as I am. When people are curious, I open up: when they’re not, I withhold.
If there is one broad, overreaching piece of advice I’d give to anyone who’s eating differently, it would be this: know your audience. In the company of people who are curious, you should feel free to talk about your lifestyle choices with confidence. In the company of people who are enthusiastic, you can go a step further, sharing recipes or food ideas. In the company of people who are defensive, hostile, or thoroughly sarcastic about the way you eat, I suggest you keep your sharing to a minimum. Be honest about your choices if asked. But don’t feel compelled to engage in debates or conversations with people who are determined to disagree with you. Their need to be contrary has nothing to do with you, and you shouldn’t waste your breath in an attempt to change it.
Beyond that, I have a few tricks up my sleeve when it comes to talking about my lifestyle. These are fairly specific to being vegan, but I think they apply to any frank conversation about personal choice.
1) Be Confident. The French have a great expression: “qui s’excuse s’accuse” (he who excuses himself accuses himself). You do not need to apologize seventeen times in a restaurant for asking the server to hold the cheese. You do not have to sheepishly ask a family member to serve you extra salad at a gathering. You do not have to apologize for not eating something that isn’t vegan. You have nothing to be ashamed of: veganism is your choice. And the more you grimace, twist, and shrug in discomfort and apology, the less anyone around you will believe it’s a choice you like. Be proud: there’s a reason you’re eating vegan, and it matters much more than how anyone else perceives you.
2) Be Happy. The best way to share your lifestyle with friends, family, coworkers, and strangers is with a smile and an enthusiastic attitude. It’s very hard for anyone to criticize what has obviously made you vibrant and happy: if you want to enlist the support of people in your life, simply show them that veganism makes you happy. It’s really that simple.
3) But what if you’re not happy? After all, transitioning into a vegan lifestyle can be hard. Most people experience cravings for food they no longer eat, or grapple with secret fears and concerns about nutrition and satiety. While the first few months of being vegan can be blissful and euphoric, they’re not that way for everyone; sometimes they’re anxious and lonely, especially if you don’t have a rich support system. If you’re struggling with inner turmoil over your choice to adopt a vegan diet, don’t feel you have to be a cheerleader for the rest of the world. It’s perfectly ok to tell a friend or loved one, “Actually, this whole vegan thing is really hard. I’m struggling. But my intuition is really telling me that this is something I want and need to do, so I’m sticking with it! I’m sure it’ll get easier soon. I’d love it if you would cheer me on.”
4) Be Generous. As I mentioned in my activism post, sharing delicious vegan food is one of the best and easiest ways to tell your family and friends about your lifestyle. Don’t get bogged down in talking points: simply show them that you’re choosing a lifestyle that offers you tasty, nutritious, and rewarding food. Most people have a hard time imagining an entrée, let alone a whole lifetime, without animal foods, and verbiage is unlikely to help. A wonderful vegan meal, on the other hand, is a wonderful way to help them visualize and understand that your new lifestyle is as pleasurable as it is conscientious.
5) Be Prepared. Imagine this: it’s the weekend of a family reunion. You end up at several restaurants with zero vegan options, and are forced to nibble on tiny salads or tepid vegetable plates. There’s no food for you at the reunion itself, so you walk around empty handed, attracting scrutiny and concern. You’re hungry, cranky, and all you can think about is how much better off you would be if you just ate like everybody else. Do you really think you’ll be able to talk to others about how much you like being vegan under these circumstances?
Of course you won’t. To avoid this, all you really need to do is plan. Grocery shop with a family member and bring a vegan dish to the reunion. Call the restaurants you’ll be eating at ahead of time, and work with them to construct a vegan entrée. Carry snack bars and trail mix and other vegan goods in case of an emergency. Assuring that you will be well fed is the best way to both enjoy the occasion and also to show your family that being vegan doesn’t mean starving quietly when you’re not at home in your own kitchen.
6) Be Unassuming. If you’re a new vegan who is headed out into the world, try to abandon the pre-conceived certainty that you’ll be called upon to defend your eating habits. Instead, assume that you’ll be left alone. All vegans (and eaters with strong preferences) have gotten into scenarios where we’re unfairly attacked, but those situations are not the norm. I’ve dealt with my fair share of critics, but most people express admiration when I tell them I’m vegan. Assuming the worst in other people will only lead you to be defensive and uptight, and that in turn will make people more critical of you. Instead of preparing all sorts of retorts to snide comments—or worse, arming yourself with health statistics and studies to rattle off to anyone who challenges you—prepare enthusiastic and friendly comments. Some of my favorites:
“Why vegan? Well, compassion plays a big part. But I really love how wonderful and being vegan makes me feel!”
“I know it sounds limiting, but it’s not! There are so many great things you can make with vegetables, legumes, grains, and fruits. I love being in my kitchen.”
“Miss things? Not really. I’m so focused on how much I love plant based foods that I never think about some of the things I used to enjoy.”
7) Be Forgiving: When faced with ignorant or unkind or thoughtless commentary, remember: once upon a time, you ate without thinking, too. Most of us grown up fairly ignorant of the things that make us become veg*n later on in life—ethics, the environment, health, or other. So, be forgiving when you bump up against ignorance. Being vegan is all about compassion, and that extends to your fellow humans, too.
I hope these tips are helpful. And just remember: when all else fails, let the food speak for you. Last night, I had dinner with my cousins, Aunt and Uncle. They aren’t vegan, but they are tremendously enthusiastic and supportive of my lifestyle: in fact, they’ve even begun to recommend my blog to friends!
With that said, I still see my meals with them as a chance to serve as an ambassador of good vegan food. For the occasion, I whipped up some of my famous black bean and sweet potato enchiladas, which have quickly become one of my top ten most popular recipes.
Truth be told, they weren’t my strongest batch, but the group seemed impressed anyway—and they were likewise impressed with the raw kale salad! Maybe I can inspire one of my loved ones to go meatless for one night by sharing a dish like that. Isn’t that the best way to “talk about” my veganism with others?
I think so, anyway.
What do you guys think?