Conversations at the Table with Non-Vegans, Getting Ready for the Holidays
Carlos and I have been vegan for a few years now, and sometimes that means I forget what it was like in the very early stages of making this change. By now, all our friends and family know we're vegan, they know why we've made the change, they've even got familiar with vegan foods and they make delicious meals and treats for us! It's very rare that we need to explain the way we eat to people these days. On our latest trip to London though (which you can hear all about in our two most recent podcast episodes here: part 1 and part 2), we were surrounded by dozens of non-vegan doctors at the two incredible dinners we were invited to, and I remembered what it was like to have all eyes on the two different plates of food at the table, mine and Carlos's. Yup we were the only two vegans in the room! It was a great reminder that we just had to talk about this topic together in the blog and podcast before the holidays, and it was a great way to flex that "we're the same but we're also different" muscle. In today's post and podcast episode, I'm going to tell you about what usually happens in these vegan/non-vegan conversations, and tips on how to be yourself and inspire without preaching or relying on any specific outcome, and especially, how to have fun and enjoy your meals when all eyes are on you as you answer some difficult or personal questions. If you're an introvert like I am, you know what I'm talking about and how strange it feels to be under the spotlight.
The cartoon of it all
Have you watched any cartoons lately? If you haven't, let me just say that every episode is a slightly different version of the previous one. The story might be different, the script might be different, but in cartoons and children's movies, there are always archetypes, meaning, the roadrunner is always getting miraculously saved with little to no effort or awareness, the coyote always ends up with stars around its head, Lisa is always trying to save the world while Homer is elbow deep in silly shenanigans he can't seem to learn from. It's what makes cartoons so endearing!
Guess what? Same thing happens in conversations at the table when you're the only vegan there.
There's the person who tells you they love vegetables and could easily be vegan. There's the person who says they could be vegan but they could never live without (insert food obsession here, usually it's cheese, or ham in the case of Spain). There's the person who says they really don't eat that much meat. There's the person who simply tries to pretend you're not sitting at their table. There's the person who asks sincere questions because they're curious. There's the person who is so jealous of the yummy food you were brought that they can't stop eating your food and vow to order vegan next time they're at that restaurant (this one happened to us A LOT during our trip to London). Then there's the person with the "tell me what I want to hear and I'll keep asking until you do" questions (i.e. questions that will confirm why they won't/can't go vegan, for example that it's too expensive, that kids shouldn't eat this way, that it's hard to travel, that you did it for the animals and since they don't really care about animals they don't have to make the change, etc). Then we have the hardest archetype of all, the "Gotcha enquirer", the person who asks the weird questions to find some kind of flaw in the whole "vegan thing". They're the ones that ask whether plants feel pain and whether the yeast in bread is an animal. You're probably laughing right about now, saying yup... yup... exactly! Put a group of non-vegans together with a vegan and all of these conversations will make an appearance. They are the vegan conversation archetypes and they always pop their little heads out.
That's the first important step when having positive conversations at the table that won't escalate to "weird", "uncomfortable" or "argument" scenarios. Recognize the archetypes, accept the archetypes, and understand that most of the time people are coming from their own resistance, beliefs or issues with food, and it has very little to do with you. Most of the time, people are just legitimately curious and it's a great opportunity to plant little seeds and answer questions.
Now I can answer questions with confidence, but I have to admit it was much harder in the beginning. I also have to confess that although I love planting seeds and talking about veganism at brownble, I don't like doing it at every moment of a social gathering and would sometimes rather talk about the new season of Stranger Things, but alas, it comes with the territory when you order differently from other people and they're curious as to why. Especially in a culture like the one where I live now (in Spain), where veganism is only now becoming more mainstream. So yes, our two very elegant dinners in London a couple of weeks ago, were filled with questions we had to answer, and I did so gladly because many people were legitimately curious, but it made me remember how hard these situations were for me in the very early years of me being vegan.
You've heard me say it before, suddenly you go vegan and you're expected to be an expert on nutrition, animal rights, disease prevention, soy agriculture, gluten anything and everything, cooking, travel, sociology, religion and even psychology. To this I always say, you don't need to be an expert, you just need to be honest about your story, and with time, you'll start gaining those very useful nuggets of information that will start planting little seeds in people.
Whenever we're at a table with lots of non-vegans and all the typical archetypes I mentioned pop up, I can immediately tell who is really curious and who is just looking for a reason not to ever have to make this change. When I told Carlos this after our dinners with the docs in London, he reminded me of something. A little yoda-like piece of wisdom that Carlos is so good at. He said: "they might not be ready now, they might not be ready in 10 years, but every time they hear it, see it, read the word vegan in a menu, it's the beginning of having awareness that there might be something to look into there. It might be that 15 years from now hey hear it from Dr. Oz after you've been talking about it for ages, and right then and there they take the leap, if not fully, with whatever changes they can make."
I have such a bright husband! He's totally right!
It's why when my Stranger Things conversations get put on the back burner and instead I get a "but you have time to cook right? I don't have time to cook" question, I remember that this might be seed number 1 or 13 or 200, that they all matter, and I answer happily and with as much kindness as I can muster, without overwhelming the other person or overpowering the conversation, answering as briefly as I can, guiding them to other things they can read or watch if they feel like it. I don't take anything personally and I use the tips I'm going to share with you below. When I first became vegan these conversations felt like a vegan pop quiz I was either going to pass or fail, now I take it just like I do any conversation or any questions I'm asked, and that means I can say "I have no idea" if indeed I have no idea. You don't have to be an expert, you just have to be yourself.
Especially now that the holidays are coming up, in which we often get together with non-vegan family and friends for Thanksgiving or the Holidays, and in which people are particularly attached to their traditions and their food, these tips might come in handy:
Tip #1: Don't shame, guilt trip or talk about animal abuse issues at the table, even if all the food that is being served is vegan
Nobody likes a bite of cheesecake with the image of a veal crate rolling around in their head. It will never have a positive outcome if you're making the person feel uncomfortable. Sure, learning about what is happening to animals is incredibly important, but don't do it while people are eating, even if they're eating vegan food. I find that it's much more effective to actually say "I really don't like to talk about animal abuse issues at the table, but I'd be happy to talk after if you have questions". People will respect you for understanding that they have boundaries too, and we do a lot of shaming and guilt-tripping to our own selves when it comes to food. Don't add to that. Answer questions stating that you understand where the other person is because you were once at that very place.
Tip #2: Don't take it personally or rely on the outcome
Answer questions as if these issues had nothing to do with your beliefs or your ethics, even when they do. That's often when things get heated, personal and when communication breaks down, especially with family members or those hardcore carnivore friends who actually do take their steak very personally. I love to try to separate myself from the issue a little bit, and answer people's questions as if veganism was simply another choice I had made in my life. Using phrases like:
"That might be some people's experience, but it really wasn't mine...", or, "I understand your resistance, I was at that very spot once too, but then I realized I felt great with this change and it simply worked for me. I find that each person finds their sweet spot and a place they're comfortable in".
You can laugh at jokes and throw a meat eating joke right back at them, and try to keep the conversation as light and simple as you can, speaking from your perspective, telling your story, without taking comments personally and without relying on the outcome. Take the pressure off by realizing yours might simply be the first little seed, and perhaps the only thing that person needs to hear right now is that you can buy vegan cheese at the store. Even that is a great starting point.
Tip #3: If they ask you what you eat, ask what they eat and take it from there
You've heard me talk about this one before, the question "well, what exactly do you eat?", can be answered in so many different ways! I love to include the other person, not only so I don't have to recall my previous week of eating on the spot, but so that they can see that what they like to enjoy can also be made vegan. I ask people what they eat on a typical day, and show them how with a few swaps the same day of eating can be made vegan. For example, toast and scrambled eggs becomes toast and a tofu scramble or vegan scrambled "eggs", a burger with cheese becomes a vegan burger with vegan cheese. You get the idea. Then I can add some of my favorite meals and the ones I eat on a regular basis so they realize all the variety there can be. Don't answer this question by saying vegetables, grains, fruits and beans. Answer with the actual dishes you can make, that's what people are really asking, aka, what does a day of vegan eating actually look like?
Tip #4: Read our Frequently Asked Questions About Veganism post, to find some specifics and resources to the common questions we get
Especially if you're a new vegan, you might not know what to answer when people tell you they have problems with iron, or if they ask you about vitamin B12, or if they ask you questions about raising children when you might not even have children (this was one of the questions we were asked at one of the dinners in London). That's why I created this post and episode with the cliff's notes version of some common concerns, in the hopes that these help you answer some of these questions.
Tip #5: Don't oversell or over promise, keep it kind and keep it about you
It's become very common these days to portray a vegan diet as the magical key to everything. A fool-proof road to disease prevention. A straight path to "the perfect body". A solution to all the problems of the world. This is simply not the case, saving animals aside (a beautiful side effect that happens EVERY TIME you choose a veggie burger over a meat-based one), it is simply not true that a vegan diet is perfect, the ideal solution to all of these problems, not even the direct path to perfect health or weight loss. Don't sell it as that, instead, what I recommend is that you talk honestly and from your heart, you can talk about all the positive things it has brought to your life, in my case higher energy levels, feeling great, having better confidence and loving the food and new adventures in cooking. I also feel perfectly fine agreeing that some of the things regarding this change were hard for me. This is important when planting seeds. People are much more likely to have an "aha moment" if they feel you're a normal human being. They love to hear that you made mistakes sometimes and that that can happen, they love to hear that you don't need an endless supply of willpower and that it's not about perfection. That doesn't make you less of a vegan advocate, it makes you human, and only humans can inspire humans.
I love telling people that I've had cravings for certain non-vegan foods. I've loved telling people of the times I've slipped up or had no idea something wasn't vegan. I love telling people of all the strong resistance I had to being vegan in the beginning and how I thought it was just for hippy enlightened yogis and that I thought I'd never be able to do it. It makes people see that in spite of these things, if making this change is something you feel like trying, you can. It also starts changing the perception many people have about vegans, something that is still very much engrained in the culture and totally based on stereotypes.
Keep it about you, say "I don't know" when you don't know, give honest answers and share your journey, share the difficulties and of course the positive, and offer to give them more information later if that moment is not appropriate to talk about certain issues.
Tip #6: Practice makes perfect
You will answer questions in ways you wish you hadn't, you might even get emotional or angry sometimes, especially when family members who really know how to push your buttons try to do so, but each time you talk about these issues and answer questions honestly, you get a little better at it, a little more confident and little more comfortable. Practice really does make perfect, or as close to it as us imperfect humans can get!