I'm the only vegan in my family - what now?
…said or thought probably every one of us vegans, at some point in the past, right? If you haven’t – you’re lucky! It also means there was someone that paved the way to veganism being ‘nothing new’ in your fam and saved you from getting the “first-generation-vegan” title. Go give them a shout-out – they spared you a lot of frustration:)
Our families and people we surround ourselves with are crucial in our lives. They (should) give us a sense of belonging, some feeling of safety and a certain constant. We grow up around them, we grow old(er) around them, we grow with them. They help us see the world when we’re young, and they help us see ourselves when we’re older. They witness and often mirror our life journey – where we come from and what we’ve been through. Tangled in a complex family dynamics, we seek acceptance and understanding of who we are and what we do.
And then comes the vegan thing….oftentimes unknown as a concept, seemingly unhealthy and limiting diet, a hidden threat to tradition, rituals and habits, and an obvious condemn for the way you have been brought up or the way it’s been so far (“we did the best we could, everyone ate meat, are you saying we’re bad parents?”). There’s frustration on both sides, there’s bickering at the dining table, there’s a lot of things everyone might just get tired of.
That is why I’ve put together a list of 10 tips that I feel are most helpful in navigating relationships with your non-vegan family (or closer social circle). I reflected on my personal experience and picked the ones I wish someone gave me back when I most needed them. I tried to keep them broad enough for you to be able to apply them to your own case, but obviously context matters – everyone and their situation is different – so my overall advice would be to take whatever resonates with you and move on from the rest.
1. You might not be the right person – the difficulty of being related
Don’t get me wrong with this one. You probably consider yourself a walking vegan encyclopedia. You know solid reasons to go vegan; you could describe all the cruelties animals go through in a factory farm; you can recite five major health benefits of plant-based diet and name diseases it can help fighting. AND STILL. You might not be the right person to make your family recognize the importance of veganism, let alone go vegan. Why?
1) You guys are related. There are a lot of feelings and family dynamics involved, and that usually doesn’t work in your favor. In a safe space like home, your family wants to be themselves, feel accepted, understood, relaxed and at ease – not judged, nor criticised, nor questioned nor schooled (You think you don’t do it? To them it might feel different). In their eyes, you want to change them and their beloved habits. What do they want? The peace, the quiet, the known and…you as you’ve always been. And here’s another WHY.
2) They remember you and your carnism. They’ve known you as their offspring or a parent. They know you have majored in Design, or work in a KITA or do whatever you do professionally. But now, all of a sudden, you become a Vegan expert, talk to them about nutrition, ethics, environment, food justice and how different oppression systems intersect and fuel one another. And on top of that you probably no longer share the love for “the real” egg salad or those favorite chicken nuggets. A – you’re no expert, B – you’ve moved on from some parts of your relationship.
You see where I’m going with this? Like it or not, in a lot of cases, your arguments might not be heard and your energy wasted. If you recognize those patterns in your situation, it’s best to give your beloved ones resources they feel more disconnected from – a documentary with “real experts” (= people they come to know of as experts and experts only) or do a little advocacy through a friend of yours they get to meet as this vegan person. Trust me, family members are usually the most difficult to inspire or convince to try veganism – give it time, practice a little and leave them to be your ultimate vegan advocacy test 🙂 And deal with the fact, it might never happen.
2. You are not veganism – don’t take it personal
Easy as it sounds, in the heat of the moment (or argument) – it is NOT. In most discussions, you are outnumbered and you represent veganism to the people around you. You want to succeed, you want to sound smart and like you know your sh*t. You try, you sweat, you care, you’re emotionally involved and you mule over what you could have said long after the discussion is over. Sounds familiar? Whatever questions, contra arguments, judgments or jokes come your way you cant help but to feel hurt. Please don’t. You are not veganism. Being vegan is a huge part of your life but it does not define the full complexity of your being. Whatever people say, they probably do it as a self-defence response (or to tease you a little) and you should not see it as an attack on you. This will hugely lighten your emotional load and prevent feeling drained, especially if you have a lot of such talks.
3. Know your audience
Like in business – you really need to understand your audience’s mind and drives before you can really connect with them. And here, being related might actually help a little:) Always make sure you pick the right ‘bait’ for the right person. Don’t waste your time explaining wonders of plant-based diet to a family member that could care less about it. Is your mom a nature lover? Spark some motivation in her to protect our beautiful planet. Got a brother that loves to cook? Challenge him with a veganized version of your favorite meal. Your partner condemns injustice and is big on equality? You know what to do…:) Important note: do not assume that what works for you will work for others too.
4. Remember your own carnism
You don’t want to be this vegan that forgot all about the times they ate animal-products…You probably wish you hadn’t but there’s a lot to learn from that period. The fact that you have a carnist experience is exactly what enables you to understand and empathize with the non-vegan people. Use this knowledge! Appeal to what you know they might feel (or fear). You know how it is to celebrate with a traditional non vegan dish and to have FOMO once going vegan, you know how it is believing certain foods are good for you and finding out you’ve been lied to. Bring your own experience to the table and turn the narrative around to what made you change your ways. To your audience, it should feel more like storytelling not an in-your-face marketing gibberish.
5. Be flawed
Which basically means: get off the high horse and be real. You cannot possibly know everything and always be right, so don’t try. There is true magic in showing vulnerability and it is in fact helpful in vegan advocacy. You’ve been using a product that turned out not to be vegan, you didn’t know and it was your non-vegan family member who rubbed it in your face? Thank them. You’ll display what real-life veganism means – trying as much as possible not to cause harm. You’ll prove it’s in fact a learning curve, you’ll rule out the necessity of being perfect and perhaps inspire them to try ‘this vegan thing’ themselves. Side effect: you’re goddamn more likeable (not that you have to, but you’ll be given more attention you can use for advocacy…a know-it-all would mostly be given eyerolls).
6. Lead by example
“Actions speak louder than words”, remember? Pointing a moral finger at everyone might not be the best way to make your family follow your lead. They can get used to you sounding like a broken record – just like they’re used to listening to your uncle complaining about taxes or your mom always moralizing everyone about explicit language. BOOOORING! But start cooking and they’ll ask what this great smell is (onion & garlic most probably:P). Share your meals. Ask them for help in finding vegan beauty products while at DM. Once they realize how many options there are and how easy it is to choose them – you might see them changing some of their choices. IMPORTANT: good leaders negotiate. Do that as well. If you hear uncomfortable jokes at the dinner table, or plants-have-feelings-too-kind-of-teasing – negotiate. Remind them to respect your choices, spare some comments and let you be. If you advocate for veganism by leading by example, you don’t have a record of ‘pushing your ideals’ onto them, so they will have no choice but to respect your boundaries.
7. Give them time
Obvious, huh? Harder to pull off though. But if you think of every person having a vegan glass, that is empty at first…and each interaction (be it a documentary, a talk, a meal) filling that glass…well, you get the idea. Some people can turn vegan on the spot, some need time to do that gradually, some will never change. But It is always worth trying and advocating. You never know – you might be the person who adds the last drop to someone’s vegan glass or starts the process at all! Time is essential for new concepts to sink in, for new habits to develop. So give it to them.
8. Learn about effective communication
In the meantime, you equip yourself with tools. Learning about effective communication could improve your vegan advocacy and your relationships in general! There are a number of books on that topic (incl. Beyond Beliefs, Tongue-Tied, Striking at the Roots, How to Win Friends and Influence People) or free-of-charge materials (i.e. Earthling Ed’s booklet, Beyond Carnism’s educational clips or both of those authors’ YT conversation on the topic). You can also check out workshops organized in your area – those are usually organized by local activist groups or vegan organizations (like CEVA). We even have one coming up at Plant Base so make sure you join us:)
9. Ask for smart gifts
Since we’re talking family…we’re also talking traditions, celebrations and gatherings. Let’s face it – there are gifts involved 😀 Use your wishes wisely. Ask your loved ones not to get you a bday gift but to join a vegan workshop with you. “Dear Santa, all I want for Xmas this year is for my family to watch this documentary” kind of thing. You’re basically asking for their time and effort – how can they say no to that? Make sure you pick a right documentary, article or a book (see point 3 – Know your audience). You don’t have to watch it with them and expect reflections right after. Let them digest the contents and only after some time ask how they felt about it. If they tell you, be a good listener, provide support and offer your help if needed.
10. Have a community / support system
One should accept the fact that their family might never go vegan. Whatever the scenario, you should have a support system that makes you feel good and purposeful. A community or a platform that proves you’re not an odd one out. It might be your friends, a podcast, a vegan meetup, a facebook group, a community event space…Anything that inspires, motivates and helps you if need be. I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t recommend a book here, so here it is…Self-care tips and relationships advice can be found in books like Living Among Meat Eaters, Millennial Vegan and Even Vegans Die. If you live in Berlin and want to meet like-minded people, you can always come to our community events screenings, book clubs, discussion panels or dating nights.
Ufff…that turned out to be a bit longish! I think a nice way to wrap it all up would be to share a sentence I actually read today in a book called School of Life – An Emotional Education:
“People dont change when they are gruffy told what’s wrong with them; they change when they feel sufficiently supported to undertake the change they – almost always – already know is due.”
Good one, huh? And it was actually said in reference to the closest family relationships…I’m going to leave you with that. Thank you for getting through this until the very end. I hope you learned at least one new thing, no matter if you classify as the only vegan in your family or not 🙂 If you have any other advice you’d like to share please do so here in the comments or via any other social media channel.
About the author
Marika – vegan chef, animal advocate & educator. Professionally: creator of Plant Base & all its food creations, workshops & events, media & design. Privately: book worm, intersectional feminist, dog fanatic, Aquarius. Big on vegan food, even bigger on food for thought. Here to grow, open dialogues & share resources with those who also believe that veganism is only the beginning.