A Vegetarian's Dilemma
July 14, 2010 9:08 PM   Subscribe

How do you explain you're a vegetarian without offending anyone?

I've been a vegetarian for a few years now, and it always becomes a Big Deal and the thing people like to mention about me. People will make fun of me, think they can't eat meat around me and that I'm a health freak, or tell me how I'm so deprived and need to eat meat. Ergo, I've learned to not bring up my vegetarianism and don't discuss it unless someone asks me at a meal. Although I love animals, I can't say I'm a vegetarian because of animal rights because as hypocritical as it sounds, I wear leather shoes. Learning about the meat industry in America made me lose my appetite for meat because it made me think about what I was actually eating; as a picky and aesthetic eater, visually, meat grosses me out so I have no desire to eat it, like the way I feel about mushrooms.

I have no problem with others eating meat and want them to feel comfortable eating meat around me. How can I explain my vegetarianism in a laid back, non judgmental way?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (63 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
When I was a vegetarian, I had a long, involved story about how a cow once saved my life. Once I got the part about the anti-venom and the train heist, people were generally laughing with me or ready for the story to end.
Then I moved to Texas, land of brisket. I'm not made of stone.
posted by pickypicky at 9:11 PM on July 14, 2010 [16 favorites]

Who are these "people"?

If family - I'm (mostly) vegetarian, but my family is from the south. They don't get it. I usually just don't bring it up and try to discreetly avoid meat as much as possible when I'm there. I never ask to have something special prepared for me, because that's what's really going to set them off. This is relatively easy for me because I don't live with them, eat seafood, and am from southern Louisiana where fish and shellfish are omnipresent. YMMV, of course.

If friends - tell them to fuck off and die, or get new friends.

If coworkers - it's none of their business, however, you have to be tactful. My advice is similar to the family advice, above. Just don't talk about it. Only the nosiest of coworkers is even going to realize you're not eating meat, anyway, unless you bring it up.
posted by Sara C. at 9:17 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I also agree with pickypicky. If you have to talk about it in a situation where you can't just sass right back, humor is always good.

You could also just say you don't like meat, which seems to be true enough. For some reason people tend to be more accepting of food tastes than of dietary preferences. Though this probably isn't going to shut up the "but how will you get protein????" folks.
posted by Sara C. at 9:20 PM on July 14, 2010

You probably can't. I have the same problem. Unfortunately, there's just some portion of the population who feel threatened by anyone making choices different from their own or worried that you're judging them or freaked out at deviations from social norms. Being polite and quietly firm in your convictions will relax most people, but there are some who are going to react hostilely no matter what you do.

If I have to mention it to someone (say, because they've invited me to share a meal), I usually phrase it as, "I hope it's not too much trouble, but I'm a vegetarian. Can I bring anything?" That gives them the information they need, acknowledges the slight inconvenience I may be causing, and attempts to defray some of the inconvenience. I'm not sure what more anyone can ask of you.
posted by decathecting at 9:21 PM on July 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

Decathecting- if someone throws a dinner party or invites you to dinner, they should have the courtesy to ask what your likes/dislikes/food allergies/food issues are. Any decent entertainer will not make someone tell them, but will ask and cater the meal to their guests- my very opinionated .02 cents.

As for what to tell people giving you grief over it, I'd base it around the group I was with like Sara C. said.
posted by TheBones at 9:29 PM on July 14, 2010

"So why are you a vegetarian?"

"Oh, all the usual reasons"
"I started in order to impress girls in college."
"Give me your address and I'll send you some pamphlets."
posted by hydrophonic at 9:31 PM on July 14, 2010 [9 favorites]

My husband is vegetarian, and he gets this fairly often. Most of the time he just says "I don't like meat" and people leave it at that; if they press him, he tells them he doesn't like factory farming and he's uncomfortable with the production practices in massive meat processing plants. This usually shuts up even the most nosy people, because they realize that either they don't know much about how their meat is processed, or they respect that choice. He occasionally gets the "but how will you get enough protein" or "what, are you some kinda hippie" sentiments, but he just kind of laughs it off and usually they drop it.

So essentially, have a good sense of humor about it, be armed with a response that rings true to you and don't worry too much about it. People tend to question stuff that's different from what they're used to, but they'll usually let it drop if you don't make a big deal about it.
posted by bedhead at 9:33 PM on July 14, 2010

I would just keep it simple and focused on how it's your choice. Like "I just decided it was right for me." "It seemed like a good choice for me." And if people keep pressing just say what you said above - you aren't comfortable with the meat industry and, frankly, meat kind of grosses you out anyway.

Or you could just tell people you've been a vegetarian since you were a kid. This is true for me, and I really never get a hard time about it. I also live in California so YMMV.
posted by grapesaresour at 9:42 PM on July 14, 2010

Perhaps these reactions are Universe's gentle prodding to move in more enlightened social circles. Freaking out about somebody's vegetarianism in 20-freaking-10 is pretty myopic. Retrograde, even.

To be fair to the retrograde, though, I will admit that I used to react to veganism with bluster and exaggerated disbelief. In my case, it was because I was quite certain in the back of my mind that eating animals unnecessarily was not right action. I was in denial because I didn't want to face the implications of that fact for my lazy personal habits. I won't say it's true for everybody, but some people get defensive as just by existing you point out to some dim corner of their brain that they are Doing It Wrong.
posted by zjacreman at 9:44 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

To a large degree, you can't avoid offending them because it's not your problem, it's theirs. You're not offending them, they're just being offended.

However, it's still a cause of social awkwardness that you can graciously help to smooth over.

Some people expect you to judge them, to act morally superior, to look down on them because they haven't made the same choices you've made. If they're nice about it, you can simply re-assure them that your vegetarianism is a personal choice, and that you don't care if they eat meat. If they tell you that you're deprived, you can tell them about mushrooms and other foods you don't like, and that you don't feel deprived. And if they're assholes about it--if they insist on being confrontational, you can say what a vegetarian said to a friend of mine who was, by his own words, "a total prick about it": You can say "I kill less". You're not perfect, and you're not holding yourself over them. But you've made choices that reduce the amount of wrong in the world.

If they really want to discuss why you're a vegetarian, then you'll probably get into a reasonably respectful conversation about it. If not, you can just drop the subject. As they're around you more, and it becomes less remarkable, it'll cease being an issue.
posted by fatbird at 9:50 PM on July 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

I find that people feel more free to judge you, or things about you, when you indicate (with words, behavior, anything) that something about you is open for judgment.

One behavior that indicates this is allowing your those things about you to be the subject of conversation, at all. Responding to comments, defending yourself from comments, letting people talk about you in front of you, etc. In your case the topic is your diet. I think that a person's reasons for eating whatever it is they eat is really none of anyone else's business.

I think if you tell people you're a vegetarian and they say anything critical or rude, you shouldn't reply to it. Replying to those comments gives them a certain validity - indicates that critiquing what you eat is a valid, permissible thing for them to do. If I were you, I'd just not react at all and change the subject. Indicate that the topic of your diet isn't on the table for discussion.

Now, since you're only bothered by rude comments about your diet, not having people talk about your diet at all, I think you should only do this if the people are critical or rude. If they're genuinely just curious there's no reason not to talk about it if talking about it doesn't bug you.
posted by Ashley801 at 9:59 PM on July 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

I think "offended" is the wrong word here. I've never known anyone who was offended by a vegetarian. (Well, unless they're going to hold a vegetarian cookout without telling the meatatarians there's no meat.)

This is one of those situations where you've just got to learn some sort of stock answer that works for you. My wife and I get similar responses when we share that for twenty years, we've kept separate finances. Or when we say that we're atheists (well, that one does offend people). Or when I say I don't watch television.

People aren't offended. They're surprised. And curious. You can choose to be offended by this, or you can use it as an educational opportunity. But I've found that the best response is generally tailored to the situation. If I can tell people are seriously curious about why I don't watch television, I'll give them a long list of reasons and we can have a good discussion. But if I think they're just kidding me (because they understand there are good reasons not to watch TV) or that they don't really care or that they wouldn't understand, I just say something like, "By not watching TV, I've been able to get a lot more done in my life. I wrote a book. I ran a marathon. I built a blog that let me quit my day job." That usually satisfies them.

So, in short, people aren't offended. They're usually just curious, and if you're serious about this, you need to learn how to respond because you're going to get these questions for the rest of your life.
posted by jdroth at 10:00 PM on July 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

If I were you I'd go the route of "oh, I'm just so picky, you see" and leave it at that. If someone pushes it, "oh, you've never had a really perfectly cooked rare steak, have some of mine!" then you can respond with no thanks, and if they keep pushing it, explain about the factory farming and so-on. Basically, make it a non-issue. If somebody hated potatoes, would you push french fries on them like they were a child? No. Point this out if you need to.

It was said upthread but I think this may be worth repeating: it may be a signal that you're in the wrong social circle. I'm a crazy omnivore, but I've never once felt the need to push my ideas onto vegetarians. I can't remember a time in my life when someone under 40 made a big deal about anyone in my life being any sort of veggie. The only time it's come up has been when choosing what restaurants to go to, and if anything it's been a matter of the veggies asking me to accompany them to some vegan buddhist place or something, to which I reply with an enthusiastic "hell yes! soy meat!"
posted by Mizu at 10:13 PM on July 14, 2010

I'd have to agree with jdroth. I found your question a little confusing, mainly because as an omnivore, all of my experience has been that omni/carnivores are more concerned/annoyed about offending vegetarians, not the other way around. I feel for you if you're surrounded by otherwise ignorant people who aren't used to slightly differing lifestyle choices like this.

If you just don't like the attention, take a firm, stock answer and use it.

The only time I have ever been offended by a vegetarian (a militant vegan, specifically), was when this person loudly proclaimed that she could not stand even seeing pictures of meat dishes, which ended up canceling a group activity. This is when an ethical lifestyle has the appearance of being judgmental upon others and ends up inconveniencing everyone involved, when the activity (eating) is not an ethical activity for the rest of the group. If this mixed company ends up being problematic (and it doesn't seem to be for you), then it's time to break the social ties and find other like-minded folks--or at least for that specific food-related activity.

I'm surrounded by vegetarians, and we all get along. Heck, most of my relatives are vegetarian for both religious and health reasons.

"My doctor told me to lay off."
"I don't for personal religious reasons."
"I hate the taste."

My favorite vegetarian explanation, even if it's just odd: "I'm allergic."
posted by Ky at 10:18 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

*(In context, I mean this mixed company doesn't seem ethically problematic for you in the sense that you're fine with others eating meat around you.)
posted by Ky at 10:20 PM on July 14, 2010

If you want an excuse to not consume ANY substance whatsoever, "My doctor said I should cut it out" always, always shuts people up. Whether true or false, nobody really wants to know more about what horrific digestive problem meat/coffee/booze/whatever was causing you.

I just say I don't like it. Which is true by now, 16 years in - if you're not used to it, meat is weeeeird.
posted by little light-giver at 10:35 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's tricky. One doesn't want to lay down an argument based on ethics or disgust (or any "argument," really), because people do tend to feel judged, no matter how much you try to reassure them that you take no issue with their own dietary choices. Yet if you go the, "I just don't like meat" route, some people will invariably get pissy at you for not just sucking it up "this once" for the sake of politeness (I mean, even though you mention you don't like mushrooms, you'd probably find a way to make it through the experience of eating them if courtesy dictated that you do so).

A sometimes-useful tack to take is to say, "I haven't eaten meat in X years, and I find that now it doesn't agree with me." Make vague hand gestures toward your intestines, and most people will drop it. If you're the person's guest, they may still not approve of your "lifestyle choices," but they really don't want you getting the shits in their bathroom.
posted by wreckingball at 10:47 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Why are you a vegetarian?"
"I don't like the way it looks or tastes."

posted by Night_owl at 11:00 PM on July 14, 2010

I have been a vegetarian for most of my life and are by now very, very tired of talking about it. For me it is a personal choice and I have no wish to defend it (did that enough it middle school, thank you very much).

I am with Ashley801 on this one. If people ask I try to change the subject.
Why don't you eat meat?
Why do you ask?
I was interested.
Ohh, ok. Have you heard about... (other subject)

I could never become a vegetarian.
Good for you to make your own choice. Do you know about... (other subject)

I also think that you should offer to bring your own food. Most people will not let you, but is a polite way to tell that you are a vegetarian.
posted by furisto at 11:06 PM on July 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

In advance.

You definitely do not do it after you have invited yourself over to your cousin's house next Wednesday for lunch when she is a new housewife determined to make a great impression and is armed with the Betty Crocker Cookbook spiral meatloaf recipe. And she has prepared all morning cooking her fabulous beautiful spiral spinach stuffed meatloaf and when you get there you turn out to be a vegetarian. And then she feels really stupid when all you eat is salad.

Definitely in advance. Well in advance.
posted by SLC Mom at 11:52 PM on July 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

"meat grosses me out so I have no desire to eat it"

"I don't eat meat."
"Why not?"
"I don't like it."

Also, it boggles my mind that you're getting grief for being a vegetarian. Vegetarians are easy, it's vegans that are a real pain in the ass to feed... :)
posted by Jacqueline at 12:56 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Where physically are you (US? Asia? South America? elsewhere? Largish city, small town, rural?) and are these the same people over and over again commenting on your dietary preferences, or do you just hate that it always comes up and becomes a topic every time you meet and eat with someone new? Are there other things about you that differentiate you from the people teasing and questioning you, such that the needling about food might actually proxy discomfort or anger about something else? Different contexts might reward different approaches.

I usually respond to "why are you a vegetarian?" questions with "inertia; I'm just used to it." This works for me. (By looking at me and listening to me, the interlocutor can usually tell that I was born & raised in the US and my parents are from South Asia, so if I additionally say "my parents brought me up vegetarian and I never really wanted to change," I probably get a pass from people who make the connection that oh yeah, lots of Indians are vegetarians. But I don't actually have to play the "I'm Hindu, it's a religious thing" card, which would be both misleading and too personal.)
posted by brainwane at 2:04 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes, people do this. There are a lot of people out there who seem to get really needled by the very existence of vegetarians, far beyond simple curiosity. There's a difference between curiousity about why you don't eat meat and people who actually want you to defend your vegetarianism to them (with the added extra irony of complaining about how preachy all those vegetarians are, but aaaaanyway).

I usually say "I just didn't want to eat meat any more," and then swat the conversation in a less troublesome direction ("yeah, twenty years and my mother still thinks it's just a phase I'm going through"/"yeah, I don't miss anything except bacon, but God I miss bacon"). I'd actually recommend against saying something like "I just don't like the taste" unless that really is the only reason you're vegetarian, because I guarantee you somebody out there will then treat you to a five-minute monologue about how that's fine but those vegetarians who have ethical reasons, well that's just stupid because etc etc etc, and if that's part of your own justification, this won't help make the conversation go smoothly.
posted by Catseye at 2:35 AM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

So, in short, people aren't offended. They're usually just curious [...]

That's not generally right from what I've seen (especially on the net), though of course I might be remembering the more obnoxious ones and forgetting all about the rational people who just let it slide. There are meat-eating people who act as if you've found them wanting and declared it from the rooftops if you mention that you don't eat meat. Unless it is true that you physically cannot eat meat, I would lie or be ready to have your diet discussed, challenged, and mocked.

If you say you are vegetarian for environmental reasons, some people are going to feel as if you're implying that they (as opposed to you) are the ones who are fucking up the planet, and they'll take it as a challenge to find all of the ways that you (as opposed to them) are not doing everything you can to not fuck up the planet. If you say you are vegetarian because you think eating animals is cruel, the bone-sucking diner across the table may feel like you have just declared to the world that he or she is a shitty human being. If you say that you are vegetarian for health reasons, you will get defenders of every sort of diet rising to your unspoken challenge. Even if you tell them that it's just a matter of personal taste, that you just don't like meat, there are people who will feel insulted that you think their favorite food sucks and who may then taunt you with ultra-sophisticated "mmm bacon" wit.

If you're going to go with the truth, and if that truth involves a personal choice rather than inevitability, you have to be ready to explain that we are all imperfect and that you are not claiming that you are better than anyone in any way. But some people won't believe you and won't leave it alone, so you also have to be ready for the long haul with examples and statistics and disarming one-liners and so on. Also, you have to appear to live the life of a completely consistent ascetic in a bubble -- absolutely no leather, of course, even if your one pair of leather shoes is nothing compared to the daily consumption of meat and dairy products, but also no swatting flies or mosquitoes and no use of antibiotics because, as someone will always argue, even little bugs and germs have a right to live, right? You are allowed to be inconsistent and fallible and individual in almost anything else (politics, religion, etc.) but if you're caught up in one of those Vegetarians: Evil or Just Stupid? arguments you are not allowed to be an even slightly imperfect vegetarian or it will invalidate absolutely everything about you and other vegetarians and vegetarianism itself until the end of time.

Unless you have a lot of time on your hands, all that stuff is just too much work to devote to someone at a party or on the net who just wants to fuck with you for not validating his life. It's faster, simpler, and easier to go with a simple lie that takes everything out of your hands. The doctor lie mentioned earlier is pretty reliable. You don't choose to be a vegetarian; your doctor has told you to stop eating all animal products for the time being because something in animal products appears to give you terrible migraines. If Doubting Thomas Jr. wants evidence, tell him that you could eat some meat, get a wicked migraine, barf all over him, and spend the next 24 hours feeling miserable, a lot like the last few times you ate meat, but that you don't feel as if you really need to go that far for the sake of this little chat.
posted by pracowity at 2:42 AM on July 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Also, it boggles my mind that you're getting grief for being a vegetarian.

Oh yes, you get grief. Hell, I've gotten grief for being a vegan from vegetarians. Sometimes people just assume you're judging them, even if you have no interest in what they do with their lives.

My response to the "why" question is usually just "I don't like it". It's tough for anyone to argue against that and if they keep asking, then "Because I don't like it. More for you, right?" never fails to end the tedious hassle of explaining your personal choices.
posted by cmonkey at 2:49 AM on July 15, 2010

I don't know why they feel threatened, but a minority does. But as fatbird said: you're not offending them, they're just being offended. You can't stop that... just be polite, don't inconvenience other people, and ignore the people who freak out.

And jdroth, people *do* get offended just hearing that someone is vegetarian (here in the US, anyway... I don't know what it's like anywhere else). I've even had guests get upset, after I fed them a meal, when they found out the meal they'd just eaten and enjoyed was 'vegetarian'. I don't look at it like 'this is vegetarian food, this isn't"... to me, meat just isn't food. I also don't care at all what other people eat or whether they eat it around me, but some people just hear the word 'vegetarian' and assume it's an attack on them, their diet, or their way of life. Even after telling them it's just what I'm comfortable with and I don't care what they eat, I've heard people say "so you think you're better than us?" or "eating meat is American, are you some kind of commie?" or "I'm going to eat twice as many animals to make up for the ones you don't eat".

Then there are people on the other side of the spectrum, who still think it's a big deal but want to prove they are open minded, so they eat the whole vegetarian pizza before I get a slice and tell me for weeks about how it really wasn't that bad. From this I get the impression that they think we ordinarily eat twigs and grubs or something.
posted by foobario at 2:56 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Although I love animals, I can't say I'm a vegetarian because of animal rights because as hypocritical as it sounds, I wear leather shoes.

Sure you can! It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Just say that you're not prepared to be a vegan and avoid all animal products, but you feel strongly enough about animal welfare/love animals enough/etc that you want to do what you can. For you, that's not eating meat.

I'm vegetarian too, for ethical reasons. If ever people give me grief for wearing leather shoes (or using glue or soap etc), then I raise my eyebrows and say "But I don't EAT my shoes/glue/soap!" and laugh. Often they laugh as well, and get the point that it's none of their business. Sometimes they get even more rude and annoying, and I feel justified in getting a little rude back and saying that overall I'm responsible for the deaths of fewer animals than the average omnivore, so I'm happy. (People can take this as an attack on them, so I avoid this approach if possible.)

I think a major reason people get shirty with vegetarians is because they feel the vegetarians think they're morally superior or more self-disciplined or something. People often say "Oh, I'd love to be vegetarian but I couldn't do it, I love meat too much, I'd really miss bacon," and thus imply that you're 'stronger' or 'better' or something. If you say that you don't like meat much anyway, thus showing you're not some kind of superhuman bacon denier judging them for their lack of self-control, it makes them feel more at ease and they're less likely to be antagonistic. That's my experience, anyway.
posted by badmoonrising at 3:24 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

If I suspect that I am getting That Look -- which is in my experience usually an indication that the person I am talking to is frightened that I might be about to hand out PETA propaganda or otherwise turn out to be unpleasant about it -- I cheerfully tack on "But that's just me; I don't care if anyone else eats it," and then The Look goes away.
posted by kmennie at 3:46 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love meat. I wish everyone liked meat so they could join me in sharing its deliciousness. I appreciate that others feel differently.

I think "offending" is the wrong word here. Meat eaters have it pretty easy - it's the normal state (for most places) so we don't have to constantly defend our choices. It's harder for veggies, though, I'm sure. Don't worry so much about "offending" people who don't appreciate the choices you make, whatever the reason is behind it. If they don't understand it, the onus is not on you to explain. Make a simple remark, e.g. "I don't like the taste," and move on. If they press the issue, make a point that it isn't their goddamned business what you eat and how you eat it.
posted by InsanePenguin at 4:06 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

If I were you I'd go the route of "oh, I'm just so picky, you see" and leave it at that.

Amusing to see all the posters here urging you to jump back in that animal rights closet and shut the door tight so no-one has to have their worldview threatened. Next time a closeted gay man comes on AskMe, be sure to advise him to make up a fictional girlfriend so he can pass among his straight friends and relatives.

OP, you say you are (to a large extent) an ethical vegetarian but don't want to offend anyone or create an awkward scene at a dinner party. Those two positions don't need to be incompatible. If someone asks why, just say you're an ethical vegetarian and you don't wanna eat animals. Say it with a smile, crack a joke, keep the conversation flowing. If someone's interested (and occasionally they will be) tell them what you've learned about the US meat industry. If not, let the conversation move on.

The reason I feel strongly about this is because I believe how you relate to others as a veg*n is (I think) even more important than what you eat yourself (if you really are interested in helping animals). Hiding your vegetarianism in the closet is making it harder for others to come out as a veg*n. But being good-humoured, open and honest about it -- not polemical or judgmental, but willing to expand on it if people ask -- can bring enormous benefits to the cause of animal welfare that you say you're interested in.

(And re: the leather shoes. Many ethical veg*ns I know still use leather products; indeed, most also read books and drive cars with non-vegetarian glue too; the fact that you're imperfect is kind of irrelevant to whether your ethical position is right or wrong).
posted by dontjumplarry at 4:07 AM on July 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

Yeah, I wouldn't describe annoying non-veg responses as "offended" or "threatened," although it makes sense the more I think about it. Usually they're along the lines of "puzzled" or "dismissive." I'm all in favor of vegetarianism, but I've met plenty of vegetarians who are overly ascetic, or sanctimonious, or will blurt out EWW I SMELL MEAT if they bump into you on your lunch break. Unfortunately, those guys have become the stereotype, and people want to know if you're one of those vegetarians. And because of that overly-sensitive no-fun stereotype, vegetarians are prime targets for lulz.

If I meet a vegetarian, sometimes I'll ask them why. It's not that I don't understand - I can think of many good arguments in favor of vegetarianism and have flirted with it myself - it's partly a getting-to-know-you making-conversation question, and partly putting out feelers for whether I'll need to pussyfoot around you. If you immediately launch into a tirade about the horrors of factory farming, I'd agree with you, but I wouldn't want to hang out with you. If you casually say, "oh, for ethical reasons" or "for my health" or "it's cheaper," then I'll nod and ask you if you know any good vegetarian restaurants.

When I was nearly-vegetarian and considering fully converting, my (true) reason was "I don't really like meat." If you mention that, in a "not a fan" way rather than a "sooo gross" way, you'll probably be okay. And if anyone insists on giving you grief or demanding further explanation, you can shrug and repeat "I just don't like it" until they get the message.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:30 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't label yourself as a vegetarian just out of the blue. If the question comes up you probably don't even need to explain yourself. Why does anyone need an explanation of your lifestyle choices. It's like asking someone to explain why they are Catholic as opposed to being a Jew. Vegetarian lifestyles have been around for ages - it's nothing new. If someone wants an explanation give them the address for Google and tell them they can find an answer on the internet.
posted by JJ86 at 6:03 AM on July 15, 2010

"I am not a vegetarian because I love animals; I am a vegetarian because I hate plants." -- A. Whitney Brown

That got me through a lot of such "discussions." If that doesn't work, try asking them about their sexual preferences in the same way they ask you about your dietary preferences.
posted by Etrigan at 6:04 AM on July 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

Meat doesn't agree with me, I can't digest it - I lack the enzymes so it makes me feel sick. (true for someone who's been vegetarian long enough.) So I've just gotten used to not eating it.
posted by lizbunny at 6:13 AM on July 15, 2010

When people would pester me about vegetarianism, I would say:

"Well, because I'm experienced enough to know that if you say 'I don't like the way meat tastes,' people look sadly at you and say , 'Oh, I'm sorry to hear that... here, have another porkchop.' But if you say, 'I don't eat meat,' then they say, 'Iiiiiiiiiiinteresting... huh... can I get you a veggie burger?'"
posted by greekphilosophy at 6:25 AM on July 15, 2010

I was a vegetarian for 27 years, in the deep south, and I can't remember my choice ever offending anyone, at least not that they indicated. Perhaps it's how you phrase it when you mention it? Or as someone upthread said, you leave yourself open to criticism or something about it?

I'm just flabbergasted that anyone would care.

My standard humorous answer for being veg was "It's not that I love animals. I just hate plants."
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:33 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why does anyone need an explanation of your lifestyle choices.

You somehow find yourself at a dinner party where everyone is gobbling bits of beast and you say no thanks to all the meat products, but eventually people start urging you to at least try the delicious buffalo entrails in owl squeezings. They won't stop. It's mother's pride and joy. They try to spoon some of it on to your plate. If they do that, you know you are going to have to abandon your plate and anything else on it and probably just leave the table.

So you have to tell them something that won't offend the hosts and other guests because it's a dinner party and you're a good guest, even if everyone around you is being a bit obtuse and pushy, but you still need to say something that will put a stop to the "just try it!" silliness. You can't go the seemingly simple "I'm a vegetarian" route without tedious reactions from various people for various reasons already discussed. You can't say it grosses you out on a visceral level. You can't say that you find their behavior morally repugnant. You can't offer a po-faced discussion of what you've learned about the American meat industry when everyone else is tucking in to American industrial meat. You can't jump up and declare that you've been SILENCED ALL YOUR LIFE vis-à-vis meat and the non-eating of said. You can't tearily announce that you're finally coming out of some terrible vegan closet that mean old society has forced you into. The goal is no drama.

I would offer up a sincere apology for not having told the hosts that you just cannot eat animal products followed by a somewhat insincere "doctor's orders!" and give no gory details (even fictitious gory details) then and there because you're still at the dinner table.
posted by pracowity at 6:41 AM on July 15, 2010

You don't owe it to anyone to not offend them by your dietary choices. I'm vegan and sometimes I'll get asked why and I'll just say "for many reasons" and leave it at that. If I can tell someone is genuinely interested in learning more about my lifestyle in an open-minded manner, then I'll elaborate otherwise I'll change the subject. Sometimes you'll get the schmo who says "but where do you get your protein?" or "what about iron or calcium?" And maybe I shouldn't respond like this but I do and it shuts them up...I say "you obviously know nothing about nutrition if you're asking me those questions."
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:48 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't eat red meat. I don't like it. I got "but what do you EAT?" from my mother-in-law at the last family function. Some people just can't imagine a meal without hamburger in it. I'd go with a short "don't want to" when asked why I don't eat meat. Most people pick up on the 3-words-or-less answers as not inviting further discussion.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:09 AM on July 15, 2010

Perhaps a good response to 'where do you get your protein, iron, or calcium?" would be "well, since I don't eat meat, I get those from plants."
posted by kindall at 7:16 AM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Some people think that vegetarianism is an indictment of eating meat. Some people are pushy and bossy. Some people should learn to respect the beliefs and practices of others.

Invitation to dinner party: Gosh, I'd love to come. I'm a vegetarian, will you have anything on the menu that doesn't have red meat/chicken/fish(edit as appropriate)? or I'm a strict vegan, and it can be difficult to cook for, may I bring a dish to share?

Co-workers heading to Steak-Bacon-n-Lard for lunch, inviting you: Sounds like fun, but I'm a strict vegan, and can't eat anything there. Could we go to Groovarama Diner some time? They have amazing pizza and I can get a vegan version.

People who harass you in a way that is "funny" but may actually be bullying: silence, perhaps accompanied by a calm stare. Then, you introduce a new subject. They're keeping it up because it's become the thing they joke with you about. It will continue as long as it gets laughs and attention. If you really want to extinguish the annoying behavior, have a ready supply of new topics. Reading the weird news category will give you an endless supply.

The one comment I'd make, from time to time, is "I like being a vegetarian, but prefer not to be a pushy asshole about it." The smarter among them will realize they're bring pushy assholes, and may stop. The stupider ones will not, and you are permitted an inward smile.
posted by theora55 at 7:16 AM on July 15, 2010

I stopped eating meat in 1980, and I've rarely had this problem arise. I don't bother to mention it unless someone specifically asks, but if it does come up, I usually say "Nah, I don't do dead animals". Actually, since it's generally concerning beef and pork when this comes up, I say "I don't do dead cows" or "I don't eat pigs because they're smarter than we are. And because when they've interviewed tribes of cannibals, the tribes always say that pork tastes the most like people."

Alternately: "Because one day the animals are going to get pissed off because people have been eating them, and they're going to rise up and come after all of you! And after that, my vegetarian friends and I are going to take over the world! Mwah ha haaaa!"

If someone persists in an unpleasant way, I just refuse to get involved, or I say "Look, what I eat is my business, and I don't have to defend it to you or to anyone." But generally, people are just curious, and ask "So what do you eat?", and so I tell them. In this day and age, most people are aware that eating less animal protein is much healthier.

BTW, as I've gotten older, it's gotten easier, because people look at me now that I'm close to 50 and see that I'm still the same size I was in high school, and I have low blood pressure and lots of energy and I ride my bicycle for 13 miles a day without any trouble, so they can see the tangible benefits of eating healthy right there.

And, yes, I am a health freak, and I really don't care if someone else doesn't like it. I'll get the last laugh. :P
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:18 AM on July 15, 2010

I don't think that anyone has commented on something I've noticed, which is that some meat eaters feel judged for eating meat. I'm a meat-eater for what seem like lots of good reasons to me, and yet I tend to agree that vegetarianism is a better choice ethically, and less resource-intensive, and more sustainable than eating meat. I try not to get defensive about it (and the vegetarians and vegans I know are never directly judgmental at all) but I have seen meat-eaters get defensive just from having a vegetarian at the table with them.

The parallel in my life is that I homeschool my children, and some parents seem to take that as a reflection on their decision to send their kids to school. And some people want to argue with me about it. If I say anything that hints at specific reasons why we decided to homeschool, people take that as an invitation to argue. If I say, for example, that my very introverted 9yo would have a hard time dealing with the big groups five days a week, they reply that he needs to go to school to learn to suck it up and cope. I say that we do lots of things to help him learn to deal with groups without being completely overwhelmed by it, and they say he needs to learn to deal with "the real world." Etc.

So, I would not advocate any answer that implies a specific reason. (Not even, "I don't like meat," which might seem to invite, "But you've never had my meatloaf!" I don't know if meat-eaters do that, but I get it a lot from tofu people when I say I don't like tofu. "You've never had it cooked right! Try mine!" No thanks.)

Better answers, for me, when asked, "Why do you homeschool?" or its more hostile or judgmental variants:

"Oh, any reason you've ever heard for homeschooling probably applies to us to some degree."
"Lots of reasons, really."
*shrug* "It's what's working best for us right now."

If people are actively teasing or being hostile, sometimes you have no choice but to directly ask them to please knock it off. But you can also try a vegetarian variant of the non-answer answer with subject change:

"But how will he learn math?"
"There are lots of ways to learn math. How's your job?"


"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. How'd your mom's surgery go?"


I am not as good at this in real life as I am when talking about it on the internet.
posted by not that girl at 7:52 AM on July 15, 2010

To echo dontjumplarry,

I am vegetarian, leaning toward the vegan end of that. I also think meat is delicious. I refuse to closet myself about my reasons (environmental issues and farming practices mostly), and if that threatens people to hear, then let them be threatened.

To those who aren't veg, and think meat eaters aren't offended... here's the clue stick: some are! Just like some veg*ns are sanctimonious (as people seem to feel no shame pointing out in this thread), some meat eaters are real jerks about it, and immediately get defensive, start looking for inconsistencies in my thinking, and otherwise attempt to discredit my choice. I understand that my morals are inconsistent, my actions are imperfect, and my commitment is incomplete. If pointing that out helps others feel better, then so be it!

To OP: if people ask, you have lots of choices: "it's complex, but I can explain if you like" is a good one for judging how people will react. If they follow up, then they're probably all right. I generally say, "I prefer not to eat meat", and wait for follow-up.

And to those people who say "veg is easy, veg*n is hard", I don't want to eat cheese dip every damn picnic either! Make good veg food, and leave out the cheese :) Have a good fruit salad, some garlicky hummus, baguette, rockin' guac, and you're mostly homefree.
posted by gregglind at 8:31 AM on July 15, 2010

Like many of the other various posters, this question confuses me.

1. This is a choice you made for very valid reasons
2. Are you hurting anyone with this choice? No!
Where does the question of being offended come into the picture?

The various scenarios where I may have to explain my vegetarianism (in my experience) have been situations like choosing a restaurant with a group of meat-eaters. I don't impose my dietary choices on everybody; I can find choices in almost any restaurant.

Another situation has been for job interviews. In this case, I was usually asked beforehand if I had any dietary restrictions (I actually consider this a positive sign about the work culture). If they did not ask, I would mention in passing that I was a vegetarian but how these days menus were more vegetarian friendly. I would not even mention it if not for the fact that some interviewers would have catered lunches and hence more inflexible menus. Which brings me to meals at other people's houses -- friends already know, and I always take a vegetarian dish anyway. Newer friends/ strangers: I tell them in advance but also tell them that I can bring a dish, and also not to go into any extra trouble for my sake.

Rude comments have been mostly from acquaintances. To questions like "What? So you eat only grass and leaves?", I say "Yes, why do you ask?" and look at them inquiringly. If I am asked about reasons, I just say "For ethical reasons", and change the topic. If they are insistent, I say "Too many reasons and I don't want to bore everybody".
posted by prenominal at 9:20 AM on July 15, 2010

I hate to call people out in the thread, but for those of you who've had trouble believing that people really give vegetarians trouble about their diet preferences, reread mary8nne's comments. "Why can't you just eat fish/wild game/free range beef?" is one of the most common types of questions I get from people who bug me about my diet. It's right up there with, "This ham is so delicious, I can't believe you won't have any!" This is exactly the kind of thing that makes me really nervous about having to have a conversation about my eating habits. I don't want to have to get into a debate about the dubiousness of free range or about the environmental impact of fish farming or about how ham may be delicious, but it's also made from sentient animals who are slowly tortured to death. I'm sure that most non-vegetarians also don't want to have that conversation with me, and I'd be delighted never to have it again, but inevitably, whenever I'm in a new situation, someone brings it up, and then things get uncomfortable.
posted by decathecting at 9:39 AM on July 15, 2010

Co-workers heading to Steak-Bacon-n-Lard for lunch, inviting you: Sounds like fun, but I'm a strict vegan, and can't eat anything there. Could we go to Groovarama Diner some time? They have amazing pizza and I can get a vegan version.

Granted I'm not a particularly strict vegetarian, but I find that this just doesn't come up. Ninety-nine restaurants out of a hundred are going to have at least a meal-sized salad you can order, or pasta pomodoro, or the like. I've only had one experience where someone wanted to go to a special restaurant that specifically catered to their dietary deal, and that was a vegan friend who always tends to be overzealous/self-righteous about food issues.

Then again, if you're in a friendly and informal social situation, you should have the power to veto any restaurant, for any reason. Unless your friends/coworkers are a bunch of jerks; and then why go to lunch with them on a regular basis, anyway?
posted by Sara C. at 9:40 AM on July 15, 2010

mary8nne - yes, it absolutely is true that vegetarians lose the ability to digest meat easily after a long time of not eating it.

I was once on a first date with a meat-eater at a relatively nice restaurant. I didn't know the guy very well, and I didn't want to make a bad first impression (especially as being whiny or pushy about dietary choices). The dish I ordered off the menu sounded like a perfectly good vegetarian choice, to the extent that I didn't even think to ask. It came covered in Italian sausage.

Because I didn't want to make a fuss, I tried my best to eat around the sausage. But the way the dish was prepared and the sheer quantity of meat made it really hard. In the end, I had to just eat it.

I had the worst case of indigestion I've ever had in my life. I was really ill. Did I have to be rushed to the ER? No. But I felt miserable enough that I realized that in the future I had to be better about asking beforehand or feeling OK with sending things back.
posted by Sara C. at 9:53 AM on July 15, 2010

Mod note: few comments removed - this is not a referendum on your personal feelings about vegetarianism. Go to metatalk. Thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:25 AM on July 15, 2010

I agree with the folks who have pointed out that being vegetarian is not something we should be closeted about and coming up with replies so that it's brushed under the carpet. I am uncomfortable with anything that diminishes my choice to be veg. It's who I am. I have found that modeling good veg behaviour is the best way to handle things.

I usually say that it's complex and a long story. For those who are not really that interested or curious that is enough. For those who are genuinely curious, or who want to eat less meat, it will turn into a really interesting conversation.

Don't lie, just be laid back about it. I treat it like it's normal. It's just the way I am. I don't care if you eat a rack of lamb in front of me. You will very quickly be seen as a cool, laid back vegetarian and that has a whole pile of benefits to it. It's great when people are not threatened by your choices and want to discuss it with you or know that they can go to you for a great veg recipe. Also it's nice having friends who will always make a portion of the meal veg.
(I'm lucky to be in Vancouver where there are a lot of vegetarians and lots of veg restaurants so it's rarely a big deal. I find it to be a big deal with my family but I think that's a generational thing.)
posted by sadtomato at 10:39 AM on July 15, 2010

Try saying this: "I'm unwilling to kill animals for me to eat, so I don't make others do it for me, either."

That's actually less about animals than people. In almost 20 years, I don't think anyone has given me any grief about that explanation.
posted by NortonDC at 11:20 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Or if you want to be more of a jerk you could just tell them to read this.
posted by sadtomato at 11:24 AM on July 15, 2010

As far as leather+loving animals: cow leather is a by-product of the meat industry. If it is not made into leather goods for humans, it's made into rawhide chews for dogs. What would happen to the skin of cattle if we didn't have a use for it? We'd through it away, and that's wasteful. I think wasting dead animals is far more offensive to the animals than using them. Not everyone agrees of course. I tended to rate my vegetarian practices below my anti-waste and environmentalism feelings (and also under my "eat things that people have taken the time to make for you because sharing food is a special thing" feelings), so to me wearing leather and not plastic shoes made from petroleum products made fit into my personal ethos. YMMV.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:19 PM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Humor or something off the wall tends to work well.

"Well, when Mike Vick signed with the Eagles I felt bad about supporting a team that would hire animal torturers, so I decided to balance out the karma by not eating meat for a while, and noticed I didn't miss it at all and felt healthier."

No one has their talking points ready for something like that.

People tend to think vegetarians are all Lisa Simpsons who are annoying and preachy. They try and needle you into a discussion and then have that opinion reinforced even though you didn't even want to have the discussion. I really don't want to explain it to anyone, because I don't give a fuck what choice you make in what to eat. It's like religion, some people don't want to proselytize and just want to keep their beliefs between themselves and their god or whatever.

Meat eaters vastly out number vegetarians, while the Lisa Simpsons per capita may be higher among vegetarians and vegans, the vegetarian will have to put up with more preachy meat eaters just because of the absolute numbers of them. It's really annoying.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 12:48 PM on July 15, 2010

My boyfriend tells people that he's a vegetarian to annoy people. He usually makes people laugh with this answer.
posted by parakeetdog at 1:32 PM on July 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

I agree that people can definitely be offended by vegetarianism. I married into a ranching family, so this was a delicate situation. For them, my being veg wasn't an issue of curiosity; they were perhaps concerned that I was at odds with their livelihood. It's also, to some people, kind of an issue of class - being able to shop for and buy more exotic foods. (Yes, you can be veg without using tofu and miso and portabellos as replacements, but many of us use vegetarianism as a foray into non-western cuisines.) So I think part of the implication is, Is she a snob? Does she look down on our way of life? Doesn't she know that ranching puts a roof over our heads?

Anyway, my in-laws are awesome and readily accepted my explanation of "I have always been a picky eater. I just don't like meat." (I also do take issue with the way animals are treated, but the dinner table wasn't the time or place to bring it up.) I also insist that no one make special food for me. If I think I'm going to go hungry from lack of side dishes, I'll bring something for myself. I don't refuse any restaurants - my experience is that I can find something to eat anywhere. I've been with people who refuse restaurants for this or that reason, and it's a pain, so I don't want to be that person.

Also, when my in-laws visit, I buy some organic, grass-fed beef from the co-op, and my MIL cooks it for us. I do eat that, but if we had a "real" vegetarian join us, I'd do a separate dish for them. I want to be understanding of all my guests.
posted by Knowyournuts at 1:44 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, as has been pointed out, if someone isn't obsessed with making everyone else eat meat too, they may be freaked at the idea that you might be one of those (pardon my french) food nazi sorts who goes on in great gory detail about the meat industry while they eat a steak, make them feel guilty about eating meat and that they can't eat it in front of you, that you'll act all sanctimonious on them, etc.

So don't act like that. Just give a short answer and move on, and don't bitch out anyone else about their eating either. Bring enough to potlucks/other people's houses that you can eat if you have to as well.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:31 PM on July 15, 2010

When people made a fuss about my choice to be vegetarian, I would say:

"Don't worry, I'm not going to eat you..."
posted by Sustainable Chiles at 2:32 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

What you might want to think about is that the people who are going to do this to you are the same people who question and criticize everything people do whenever they think there's an opening.

They are the same people who think it's gross to let your dog sleep on the bed, or think it's cruel to not let a dog sleep on the bed. Even though it's your dog and your bed.

It's not about what you eat - it's about finding a way to poke you.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 3:10 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I always remember the response I got from a vegetarian friend who (back in college when I was more of a dork) I asked in an argumentative way why he didn't eat meat (he had been raised vegetarian by his Buddhist parents). He looked at me sort of quizzically (like, what a weird question, like I'd asked him why he always wore pants or something) and then said very patiently "well, Jon, I just really don't think of meat as edible." That shut me up.
posted by nanojath at 4:00 PM on July 15, 2010

You are not being judgmental when you tell someone you are a vegetarian. They're being judgmental when they expect you to justify your choice.

Some people like chocolate ice cream. Some people like vanilla ice crem. Some people like wine. Some people don't like wine. No one challenges those choices. But, let someone announce they are vegetarian and suddenly the room is full of people who think they've been insulted. it's like being in a room full of high school dropouts who get ticked off when someone announces they went to college. Reverse snoobery, for lack of a better expression.

I am not vegetarian, but I am awfully close. I.e, every once in a while I'll use chicken stock or bacon to flavor some soup. I eat this way for health reasons, not ideological reasons. If someone challenges me, or gets upset, screw 'em.
posted by justcorbly at 5:26 PM on July 15, 2010

For the vegans in the thread mentioning problems with restaurant selection, my vegan coworker has found that most places can make her a vegan dish even if they don't have any vegan dishes on the menu. Just find the dish with the least amount of animal stuff in it and ask them to make it without the animal parts.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:07 PM on July 15, 2010

Don't call yourself a vegetarian, just explain your meatless preference as you would your other picky preferences.
posted by canoehead at 9:28 AM on July 16, 2010

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