The vegan handicap & the art of vegan conversation

If you’re vegan or vegetarian: you may have experienced it more than once: you are at the dinner table with other people, and the conversation turns to not eating meat. Some people at the table may be able to have a rational conversation about this, but others get a bit (or quite) angry, defensive, or sometimes downright nasty.

For some of your table partners to turn defensive, you probably actually didn’t even have to start to talk. Your mere presence as someone who doesn’t eat meat/animal products, is enough to make them uncomfortable. And this discomfort may impact the whole ensuing discussion. This is what I call the vegan handicap.uncomfortable (1)

My guess (and I think it’s a pretty reasonable one), is that at the basis of the discomfort lies guilt. Most people in their right mind will know there’s something wrong with what’s on their plate. They may believe that it is ok to kill animals for food, but most of them also believe that when we choose to do that, we should give the animals “a good life” and make sure they “don’t suffer” (whatever those words mean to us). They believe there exists something like “humane meat” and that there is no problem with that. At the same time, however, most of them are buying meat from just any source: at the supermarket, in restaurants, in the cafetaria at their work… They are quite aware that they could at least get meat in organic stores, which they might think meets their criteria for “humaneness”, but almost none of them do that. Apart from all this, there may be a voice inside them that tells them that killing animals for food is unfair.

So the people at your table, looking at you, feel guilty – at a conscious or less conscious level – about the discrepancy between what’s on their plate and what they believe they should do. You confront them with that guilt, and they get defensive. They get the feeling that you are or are going to attack them, while your opinion merely represents that dissenting opinion within themselves: that gnawing little voice inside them, that they actually don’t want to hear.

It is very important to be aware of this dynamic. Assuming this attitude of guilt and defensiveness is not a good basis to work on, I suggest that the vegan at the table needs to go a certain extra length to put the omnivore at ease, and not put oil on the fire. All of this means that things you say may sound accusing and guilt-inducing much easier and faster than you expect or intended. It means that – pardon the expression – you should walk on eggshells.

There’s a lot of points you can give attention to in order to put others at ease and make the conversation go better. Here are some of them: behave very pleasantly, have a sense of humor, make it clear that you’re not accusing them, avoid charged words like “murder”, talk in terms of “we/society” and not “you”, explain how you have eaten meat yourself before (and how it possibly took you a while to see things clearly). Avoid sounding holier-than-thou. Don’t tell them things like they are complicit in humanity’s biggest crime ever (even though you may believe they are).  Admit that you are not perfect and that you don’t have the answer to everything. Above all, don’t talk all the time but listen and ask smart questions.
I would summarize this as: be nice. Being nice not just makes the world a better place for everyone (so I’m not talking about faking stuff), but it is crucial if you want to be effective at helping animals. 

This whole attitude of yours is, in my view, a lot more important than the content of the actual arguments you will bring to the table. Your conversation is first of all about the relation between you and the others, not about the content. When you have established a good relationship, when there is the trust that you are not accusing or attacking the other, then you can give more attention to the arguments themselves.

Vegan conversation is an art that we all need to master.

27 thoughts on “The vegan handicap & the art of vegan conversation

  1. It’s really sad to think about how many more effective vegan/animal advocates we COULD have if they could just grasp these basic communication skills. Instead, they come from a mindset of “the animals don’t have time for us to be diplomatic”, and they bludgeon those they speak at with guilt and an overloaded of information that quickly gets shut off. Opportunities lost. Animals not helped.

      1. Yes, exactly, Jeff…the animals don’t have time for us NOT to be diplomatic. I understand the huge sense of urgency and just how overwhelming that feels. I feel it every single day. But when we do not take the time to be diplomatic (and nice!), it usually only causes the exact opposite effect we are striving for, and that only causes the animals’ time to be even longer.

        Thank you Tobias for this post and shedding light on this concept that many people are not even consciously aware of, vegan and non-vegan alike. This knowledge is a vital tool to put into the “psychology toolbox” for our work to help the animals. You can’t unscrew a stuck screw with a hammer. 🙂

  2. There’s a very clear difference between being civil and tolerating rudeness and bullying. If people treat me like shit, I don’t “have to” walk on eggshells. I don’t owe them anything. It’s not my fault, and not my responsibility if they feel so insecure in themselves that they choose to attack me.
    Try substituting the Word “vegan” with “Black”, “jewish”, “homosexual” or “transgendered” and see how ridiculous that sounds.

      1. It’s not at all about getting even. I just don’t go to extreme lengths not to upset people by my mere
        mere existence. I don’t have to apologise or pretend it’s not their fault. I don’t actively do anything to upset anyone.

        1. i would say that being very careful is “beyond the call of duty” and if you get annoyed or impatient with people being rude, that is very understandable. however, i think that if we can be the more mature half of the conversation, so to speak, and manage not to get angry and stay patient etc… that would benefit the animals.

          1. I agree. I don’t just explode with anger at rude meat eaters. But some people seem to think we should be good little vegans and take it because after all, we’ve chosen to be different.
            Maybe I mistook your argument to be more along those lines than you meant. My bad.

    1. Surely it makes more sense to substitute “vegan” with “non-racist”, “non-homophobic” or “non-sexist” and see how that sounds? In all cases I’m pretty sure we get further when we seek common ground, welcome all signs of compassion and openness, encourage people to question their assumptions and beliefs, and help them discover new information and insights. The alternative (going on the offensive or even just being defensive and unfriendly) is likely to entrench people’s positions, discourage them from questioning themselves, and push them into the “anti-vegan” mindset. We – and the animals – desperately need that not to happen!

  3. Very well said. As much as we hate to, we do need to be very gentle at the start. Then once respect and patience has opened peoples’ hearts we can, in a more appropriate setting (ie. not around a dinner table full of meat), begin sharing the truth about things like factory farming. But if we go in all guns blazing with all our facts and horror stories, peoples hearts will just slam shut and we’ll get the opposite effect we were going for.

  4. I love this, thank you!

    It took me a very long time to realise the huge difference in the way people respond to:

    “I don’t eat meat because…. ” VS “You shouldn’t eat meat because…..”

    I’ll definitely try the “We shouldn’t eat meat because….. ” approach as well.

    As soon as people don’t find you threatening and judgemental they actually start to listen.

  5. This is hogwash. Do you really believe nice conversation would have worked with Nazis who were murdering Jews because they thought Jews were inferior? Really? No, it took a war. If you truly are a vegan, an ethical vegan, then it means you believe that animal lives matter. The writer of this article is relegating animals to inferior status. He thinks their murder is not as worth getting angry about.

    If there were puppies on your dining partners’ plates, most people would be justifiably outraged. No one in their right mind would advise vegans to be “nice” to dog eaters or to nazis or to murderers of any other kind. No one in their right mind would tell you to stay polite as someone’s pet is carved up in front of you. Animal rights activists understand that if one is going to be outraged, one must not be selective and speciesist as ALL animal lives matter.

    This is a speciesist and wrong-headed article. Shame works. Read the history of all social justice movements. The Bastille wasn’t stormed by nice conversations with oppressors. As Nina Simone wrote, “Mississippi Goddamn.” Nice conversation has NEVER saved victims of institutionalized, government sanctioned violence.

    This writer needs to think more and be nice a little less.

    1. Yes, “ALL animal lives matter” and “No one in their right mind would advise vegans to be “nice” to dog eaters or to nazis or to murderers of any other kind”, but are you suggesting we go to war?

      To illustrate the difference in a vegan mindset vs. the current mindset of the majority of the population, there are no commercials on TV for fast food restaurants serving dog burgers, or supporting the views of nazis or murderers. This is because the majority of the population does not support those things.

      We must first change the mindset of this population to believe as we do in order to have their support. Otherwise, what are we going to do? Go to war with them? Hold guns to their heads to forcibly make them vegan? Shoot them if those won’t be?

      Unfortunately, we can’t realistically do that, not to mention that would go against the tenets of being a vegan in the first place. This is not a fight we can win by war, so we are left with the option of changing mindsets in order to have a world where ALL animal lives matter.

      If you believe that ALL animal lives matter, then you will embrace the option that has the possibility of helping them. To support unavailable options such as war is equivalent to supporting no possibility of change for the animals.

    2. Sorry, I forgot to add that having a “nice conversation” does not in any way mean that “murder is not as worth getting angry about”. Being nice & polite does not mean there is no outrage or anger.

      But recognizing that being nice “a little less” doesn’t have much possibility of helping the animals and being nice a little more does, that is what I’ll embrace. I don’t behave that way because I’m not angry or outraged, but because that is the option that has the possibility of helping the animals.

  6. But even the nicest, gentlest vegan who gets their points heard will ruin that meal that the people sat down for. Oftentimes it is meat in front of the other diners at the time of the discussion. So the vegan (even being kind) will ruin the event – made even worse if one of the party cooked it. This is why it is incredibly difficult for an authentic vegan with integrity (not willing to be silent, complicit, or laugh off unethical remarks which seek to normalize cruelty) to dine with non vegans successfully. Even if the vegan is kind, gentle and rational.

    1. thanks for your input candice. Personally, i feel i’m authentic also when i’m silent, or laugh off “unethical remarks”, since whatever i do will be with impact in the back of my head. sometimes i think it’s just about NOT trying to ruin the meal that will have the most impact

  7. I consider my greatest impact to be bringing tasty vegan food to potlucks and other gatherings. I don’t make a big deal about it, though I’ll mark it as vegan if I think there may be other veg*ns there. People love my cooking, including my omnivore friends, my elderly neighbors across the street who are really into Weston Price, and my partner’s conservative Southern family. Because I’m simply offering good food, not judging other people’s diets or trying to convert them, they’re far more likely to respect my diet. And it makes it a lot easier for them to start a rational conversation with me about dietary choices, the meat industry, etc. I’ve actually only ever had one really rude comment directed at me. (Which I admittedly could have handled much better.) Anyway, I feel that feeding people delicious, healthy vegan food shows them that it’s possible to enjoy a meal without meat or dairy. And if they get to a point where they want to change their diet, they know they can do it.

  8. It never hurts, I don’t think, to reverse the scenario and think, now would I (bold uppercase) like it or listen if someone ranted and raved and finger pointed at me? Think of how teenagers are with parents who (to them) seemingly rant and rave… they become defiant and turn a deaf ear…

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