Impressions Matter: Promoting Veganism On A Personal Basis
Vegans and vegetarians (hereafter referred to as veg*ns) are seen by some as being overly moral, preachy, or intolerant. Regardless of how much merit such a judgment might have, it’s something many advocates take seriously. This has led to many people living a meat-free lifestyle to concern themselves with how they come across to omnivores, and prioritize conflict avoidance.
In this study, a psychology researcher asked several veg*ns to describe how they perceive and interact with non-veg*ns. All 26 participants in the study were recruited from various veg*n groups on meetup.com. The group consisted of 7 men and 19 women. 18 members were vegans, 7 were vegetarians, and one was a raw vegan. Their ages ranged from 27 to 63; 23 were white, and 19 had at least some college education.
Food is closely linked to culture and identity, and eschewing a major category of food can come with social costs. For someone who grows up in a traditional family that highly values shared meals, giving up animal products can be scary. In many areas, it can be impossible to find a community of veg*ns to make the transition easier. Most participants believed omnivores to be unwilling to learn about the moral and environmental costs of animal agriculture, due to a desire to avoid guilt and marginalization. As one interviewee put it:
Being vegan is a big sacrifice. So many people don’t want to know about it because they will change. And they don’t want to have to change.
Suggesting a diet that avoids animal products, then, must be presented in a way that doesn’t threaten the other person. Most interviewees felt a need to present themselves in a non-threatening, non-proselytizing manner, to avoid feeding into stereotypes and prompting defensiveness. Another interviewee had this to say:
Some people think if you give people information and you yell and scream at them enough they are going to realize how rational it is to be vegan. That’s not how humans operate. You can’t push them to a cliff. It’s all gradual.
While many vegans and vegetarians feel a need to speak out about the harms of animal agriculture, most of the interviewees found that such “preaching” is ineffective at best, and harmful at worst. Proper timing was often brought up as being important, with many participants saying they wait until someone asks them about veg*nism to broach the topic. By doing so, they avoid coming across as in-your-face or preachy. They also emphasized discussing small steps, to avoid overwhelming people with information or scaring them away. Inclusiveness and gradualism were found to be winning strategies by the veg*ns in this study, rather than exclusive or absolutist approaches.
Participants also found more success when focusing on the health benefits of veg*nism rather than moral or environmental arguments. One participant put is as such:
You can sell [veganism by telling] them that they will age slower, and they will have healthier lives; that they will be more attractive to the opposite sex, or something like that.
While most of the interviewees agreed with the principles of the animal rights movement, they found that most people want to avoid things that may cause them feelings of guilt or culpability. By focusing on the selfish reasons to go plant-based, veg*ns can avoid inspiring these feelings, making other people friendlier and more receptive. Another common refrain was “leading by example” – living healthy and productive lives to show that veg*nism isn’t exceedingly difficult, or an all-consuming identity. One participant states:
[I’ve had more success] when [omnivores] get to know me and my lifestyle and [see] I’m not this stereotypical vegetarian. I think that intrigues people and they start talking to other people about [how they] know this vegetarian and she is not xyz.
Several other participants mention their physical activities, be it running a marathon or competing in MMA. Put simply, if you live a life that other people want to live, they will be more receptive to your message. For most people, that includes being physically fit, having a professional job, and being able to maintain normal conversation without breaking into a sermon about animal ethics.
The general findings of these interviews are useful to any animal advocates who want to convert their omnivorous friends, family, or colleagues to a cruelty-free lifestyle. Though the sample is small, the consensus seems to be that, to be effective messengers, we should avoid aggressive, guilt-inducing tactics that do nothing but reinforce stereotypes and inspire defensiveness. Instead, we should be respectful, encourage small steps, and lead by example.
This doesn’t mean advocates should be pushovers, or phony; it means waiting to broach the subject until prompted to, and doing so in a way that recognizes the difficulty of making a lifestyle switch. To encourage a discussion, we need to be approachable, and that includes living healthy, productive lives that aren’t entirely centered around dietary choices.