"How do you find out if your dinner guest is a vegan/vegetarian?"
"Don't worry, they'll tell you."
Or so the joke goes. I smiled the first five times I heard this, but 50 tellings later it started to wear a bit thin. Not only because I had heard it 55 times, but because it's a pretty weak and lazy stereotype. Yes, some of my fellow herbivores are a bit on the vocal side, but the majority feel uncomfortable shouting about their food choices from the rooftops. Vegans and vegetarians (like anyone else) just want to fit in - and they don't want every social situation to turn into an animal rights rally. More often than not they want to talk about normal things like the weather, or perhaps the recent hummus shortage.
Often when I tell people I don't eat meat, I immediately see battle lines being drawn. Some will go on the defensive, countering with rationalisations about their own behaviour (completely unprompted). Others will attempt to undermine me by finding inconsistencies in my behaviour. Perhaps they saw me step on a snail when I got off the train. Or they heard about the fly I swatted last week. Apparently unless you adopt the life of a Jain monk, you lose the argument. A few will react with the sort of awkwardness you usually only see when Aunt Mable says something outrageously un-PC at the dinner table.
Not wanting every social event to turn into a bitter feud, it's tempting for us herbivores to be more discreet. Instead of battle cries, we may sit in the corner nibbling on celery sticks stuffed in our hemp jackets. But most of us want people to know about our food choices - not to judge or to get attention, but because we want fewer animals to be tortured and killed (cue awkward silence). We want to prove that a plant-based diet can be healthy and enjoyable, because ultimately we want more people to follow it.
Communicating our values in a non-judgemental way is difficult, so it's important we develop an effective approach. If we act uncertainly we can appear indifferent, flaky or weak - character traits that rarely rouse the masses. Over-confidence can lead to battle-lines and considerably fewer dinner party invites.
I've given a fair bit of thought to the perfect approach - the one that fights the ethical corner and doesn't haemorrhage you barbecue invites. 'Perfect' probably doesn't exist, but there is one that seems to work well for me.
Gandhi once said, "Be the change you want to see in the world" and I think that advice has relevance here. We are social beings and always observing our peers, working out how we can improve or should be behaving. So perhaps the most powerful way to promote a plant-based lifestyle is to simply allow its benefits to shine through. Psychologists tend to agree with this approach. Most meat-eaters are in what they refer to as the 'pre-contemplation' stage of veganism, a phase that is more receptive to non-confrontational prompts. This means that our energy is better put into being a positive example rather than winning an argument. The detailed reasoning can be reserved for those who are genuinely curious and interested ('post-contemplatives'). At a dinner party this might mean visibly enjoying what we eat - making lots of 'mmm' and 'ahhh' noises whilst chowing down on our fourth beetroot burger for example. More generally, it could involve self-improvement, perhaps in mind-set and physical appearance. One of my motivations for hitting the gym is to counter the 'skinny vegan' stereotype (it's a work in progress).
Of course, there are times when pre-contemplatives will ask for the detail. Here, I've settled on one response - "I don't eat meat because I don't need to". It is simple, honest and completely side-steps possibilities of judgement. The next move is with the questioner, and it's their choice whether they choose to open any cans of worms. If they question the assertion, then there are plenty of medical studies and authorities (such as The World Health Organisation) that back up the health benefits of a plant-based lifestyle. And there are countless recipes and restaurants that prove eating this way enjoyable.
Of course, there are a number of different types of audience where the challenge may be a bit more difficult (a butcher's convention for example). But in the main, this approach seems to work well. I'd love to hear your comments (even the trolls).