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Veganism, Vegetarianism

Some Thoughts on Talking to Non-Vegans

Hello I'm VeganIt is a wonderfully empowering thing to realise the degree of choice that we have in our lives by making informed choices about what we eat. This is usually reflective of a long process of considered thought and it is not uncommon to feel a little special. Indeed, we may feel very wise. This can be a bit much for other people to bear as the proverbial zeal of the converted leads us to find a way to drop our capital-V Veganism into any conversation on any subject.  And, to not know when to drop the subject.

I don’t presume to dispense advice here, nor do I intend a lecture, but there are some thoughts I would like to share about how we can better communicate with our omnivorous brothers and sisters and with each other.

It’s not about your ego.

  • Don’t be angry.
  • Don’t judge.
  • Don’t accuse.

These tendencies play into the hands of those who would fit us into easy stereotypes and render us easily dismissed as malcontents.

  • Don’t be self-righteous.

Nobody wants to be ‘converted’. Implicit in any attempt to do so is the presumption that you know better; that the person to whom you are speaking is ignorant, misguided, or worse. If we pose discussions as a battle of ideas which ‘we’ must win and ‘they’ must lose, we create opposition, resistance, and discord. We are not proselytising. Veganism is not a religion. It requires neither a ‘leap of faith’ nor unquestioning belief.

On the contrary, questioning is to be encouraged! The facts are on our side: we have the advantage of logical consistency.

Lead by example.

  • Do stay calm. We are, after all, arguing against domination and aggression.
  • Do encourage.

If someone is interested in what you have to say, if they are even remotely considering making the move to a cruelty-free lifestyle, be supportive.  Although you’ve been asked: “But where do you get your protein?” more times than you care to remember, rolling your eyes and embarking upon a lengthy monologue about nutritional misinformation, Big Meat propaganda, and the supposed stupidity and ignorance of the population at large is not an appropriate response.

It is an opportunity missed. Sometimes, that one lingering concern about protein, iron, B12, maintenance of muscle mass, etc is all that’s holding that person back from making the move to a better way of life.

  • Do be patient.

There will be people who take it upon themselves to ask question after question regarding various extreme hypotheses. They belong to broadly two camps: Those who are trying to ridicule you, and those who are genuinely testing the consistency of your ideas. Becoming impatient, angry, or overly emotive will serve only to entertain the former and disappoint the latter.

  • Do be tolerant.

If you are a vegan talking to a vegetarian, bear in mind that you have far more in common than you differ. Telling them that they lack commitment or are somehow not the ‘real thing’ will either infuriate them or make them feel inferior. Neither are particularly helpful to anyone.

If you are a vegan talking to another vegan, resist the temptation to ‘out hardcore’ them by splitting hairs over, for instance, who does or doesn’t eat honey, or whether they’re too much/not enough of a radical or activist. That is not to say that these things should not be discussed, just that it’s all about approach. It is better for us to co-operate than it is to compete, and what is the point of worrying about The Great Rights and Wrongs of this world if we are mean and petty in our dealings with each other?

About Vernon Tava

Barrister. Lives in Auckland, New Zealand.


5 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Talking to Non-Vegans

  1. Good suggestions, Vernon! I tend to be pretty rigid in my views, and quite assertive, even aggressive, about them. A bit more tact probably wouldn’t hurt me.

    I’d like to expand a bit on the distinction you made between people who ask questions to mock, and who ask questions out of genuine interest.

    People do try to mock me for being vegan. A lot of people find vegetarianism and veganism weird, odd, or even threatening. They reply with mockery. A few years ago, I had a conversation with the then-president of the University’s Meat Club. It went:
    ‘Eat meat.’
    ‘EAT MEAT!’
    …until I just swore at him. Sometimes, no discussion is really possible. If someone obviously isn’t interested and obviously is attacking, there’s no real point trying. But, on the other hand, we don’t want to wrongly assume the worst. I have a two questions rule, there: If after the person asks me two stupid, attacking questions about veganism, they don’t seem to be trying to be constructive, and they keep going, then I respond with jokes. After giving them a chance, there’s no point trying to take it further, and I can’t think of a better approach. Maybe there is a better way, but I’m not smart or socially aware enough to work it out.

    However, the other category is more problematic: The people who actually are trying to discuss things. Within that camp, there seem to me to be at least three categories: People who’re considering veganism, people who just like intelligent discussion/debate, and people for whom veganism is a completely new idea. The latter two categories can be the hardest, because they’ll take things right back to first principles. I have tended to give up pretty quickly in these conversations, but a week ago, someone who I thought just wanted to argue with me told me that he was seriously considering veganism.

    So I wonder if we should keep in mind that these categories and sub-categories aren’t rigid. Categorising people is a flawed approach, at best, and people will surprise us.

    Plus, there’s another key point: Veganism isn’t the end of the road. It’s one ethical choice, with political and social ramifications. If, however, we are truly after a finer world, we can’t lose sight of the other ethical, social, and political problems, and we can’t lose sight of the wood for the trees.

    Posted by David Tong | 6 November 2009, 11:18 am
  2. Good post, Vernon!

    The BF and I quite often discuss the attitudes of fellow vegans, as we know people on both ends of the spectrum – the relaxed, easy-going “let’s make veganism look appealing” kind of vegan, and the hardcore, militant “if you’re not vegan you are dead to me” kind of vegan, and the latter always makes us feel a little bit uncomfortable. I find that kind of vegan a little bit irritating, to say the least. They just come off looking a bit crazy, and let’s face it, whose going to want to even think about veganism if one of the spokespeople is a foaming at the mouth, angry, defensive fireball who would rather write humans off completely unless they follow their particular line of thought.

    Posted by Jay Herself | 6 November 2009, 11:35 am
  3. Hey Vernon,

    this is a really great post – lately I’ve been finding it really difficult to conceive of non-vegans as human beings, because too many of them come up with increasingly stupid arguments. But this article has been really helpful – I guess at the end of the day, no matter how strongly a vegan believes in their values, its about not being detrimental to the cause. Appearing arrogant or self-righteous or overpowering people with arugments is essentially threatening – people resist change, they hate it! Its about keeping in mind that, although the change doesn’t seem big on this side, it must be tectonic for a meat-eater. In my experience, leading by example works best – eat what you eat, keep working out that body (and show those meat-eaters what their missing!), and be happy in ethical paradise (or what would be paradise…if every one else could see the truth:( )

    Thanks Vernon – you’ve really opened my eyes up to how to be a better vegan again!

    Posted by Ana Lenard | 6 November 2009, 4:39 pm
  4. Nice post. I don’t personally know any vegans so can’t compare styles, but this podcast helped me decide to become vegan, and at the same time gave me wonderful support in how to talk to people. I just love her approach. If you look at the beginning (bottom of the page) and work your way up you will soon find her suggestions for responding to various specific and general situations. I found it invaluable in helping me keep my friends after my transition, without stifling myself.


    Posted by tinako | 7 November 2009, 6:57 pm
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