Ask Colin: Proselytizing

Hi Colin,

I’ve recently gone vegan, and I’m trying to convince my family to go vegan, too, for the planet and because killing and consuming animals is morally wrong.

I’m having trouble getting them to even pay attention to what I’m saying when I bring up the topic, though, and they just kinda roll their eyes and keep making family meals that they know I can’t participate in as if I’m not even there.

I don’t think I’m wrong in trying to convince them to consider the value of non-human life instead of just human life, but I’m open to the possibility that maybe I’m approaching this wrong, since it doesn’t seem to be working, and the same is true with some of my friends that I’ve tried to talk about this with, though a few have been willing to try it out.

Any thoughts on this? Anything I could be doing better? Am I being a jerk here, or is this just what happens when you care about things and most people don’t seem to?


Ms. Carrot

Hey Ms. Carrot-

Let’s start with a few bigger-picture thoughts on the subject, and then I’ll get into a few more tactical ideas you might consider.

If veganism resonates with you, and reflects your values, good on you for taking steps to align your actions with your beliefs: that’s unfortunately rare, and often not easy.

That said, although proselytization is encouraged in a great many sub-cultures, from religions to political parties to ideological in-groups (like vegans), pushing one’s ideas on others can backfire, often proving to be one of the least effective methods of spreading the philosophies and practices you think are important.

Think of it this way: if one of your friends started harassing you about eating more meat, saying it’s insane that you’re refusing to partake in glorious beef, that you’re denying yourself the obvious wonders of bacon, that you’re actually doing the world a disservice by trying to run milk producers out of business, how would you feel about that person?

You’d be unlikely to listen to their arguments, I suspect, because you’d be somewhat offended at their approach. They seem to be assuming that they have all the answers, that the conclusions they’ve come to are superior to the ones that you’ve come to, and that their subjective worldview provides them with greater access to the “truth” than yours does.

Flip that around, and you can understand how some of your well-intentioned conversion efforts might be coming across. You don’t intend to be pushy or condescending, but it can seem that way to the person on the other side of the conversation, regardless.

This has little to do with your arguments and the data you bring to bear. You could offer up the most incredibly convincing data ever seen, and your conversational target may remain unreceptive to all the points you make, because they’ve preemptively discounted you and what you’re saying.

It’s often better, therefore, to take a less aggressive approach, making information and arguments available to those who seek them out, but otherwise not being in anyone’s face about it.

You can then make it more likely that people will ask you about such things by living a good life, enjoying the food you eat, and having an overall good time.

If you are clearly fulfilled and happy, other people will generally want to know your secret: they’ll want to know where you got that delicious-looking plant-based burger and why you seem so together.

There’s a hint of what marketing legend Seth Godin calls “permission marketing” in this approach, the idea being that most typical marketing—TV commercials, billboards, things like that—interrupt something else that we’re trying to do and enjoy, whereas permission marketing invites people in, allowing them to choose to come to you. This makes it more likely that folks who are exposed to your message will give it a fair hearing, and they will perhaps even be predisposed to have a favorable feeling toward you and what you have to say: you’re sharing with them something they want, after all, as opposed to pushing on them something they didn’t ask for.

Importantly, the idea is not to be manipulative, and not to start viewing people as marks or targets or consumers that you need to nudge in the right direction, as if they’re mere lemmings and you’re the only person who can see the true, proper path.

Every single person on the planet is viewing things from a different angle, is perceiving the world through a unique collection of lenses—of experiences, knowledge, understandings, personal traits—all of which influence the way they see the world, what they believe, and who they are as people.

It’s possible, then, for very good, very moral people to have very different concerns than you, and instead of focusing on the problem that you’ve chosen to help solve, they’re working on developing and funding clean power, or trying to save children in war zones, or perhaps just trying to protect and raise a family under trying circumstances.

The point being that not everyone will be focused on the same fire that you’re trying to put out: there are a lot of fires, literal and metaphorical, and it’s prudent that we give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to our chosen cause or causes, rather than deciding that we are righteous and aware, and everyone else is bad or blind.

None of which is to say that you’re succumbing to that kind of thinking, but it’s common to feel that way, regardless of what cause you’re fighting for and how you’re approaching that fight.

Scaling these larger ideas back down to the individual level, consider, in the case of your family, offering to make dinner from time to time, introducing your loved ones to some of your favorite vegan foods, giving them the chance to try such things in a non-pushy, non-judgmental context.

It’s also worth thinking about how you might make veganism more appealing to people who don’t feel the same way you do about certain aspects of the philosophy.

Many people like animals, for example, but also consider eating meat to be natural: something that happens throughout the animal kingdom.

As such, it might help to instead introduce a relatively forgiving and chilled-out bridge-concept, like Meatless Monday, as a means of lowering weekly food costs, enjoying some health benefits, and doing something relatively simple and low-sacrifice that still counts as a sustainability win. Benefits that they might be more inclined to care about, in other words, as long as the cost of entry is low.

It’s not the same as going meat-free, but a million people eating less meat will almost certainly be better than 100 people eating no meat, and there’s a chance that once people realize it’s not the end of the world to adjust their habits in this way, they’ll take the reins and make more changes that align with those same goals, in the future.

Almost always, delicious and accessible vegan food that isn’t pushy and which wins people’s hearts and minds will be more effective than shame or implying that your truth is superior to theirs.

This is true of absolutely any wonderful thing you might want to share with others. Be careful that, in your enthusiasm, you don’t accidentally push people away by becoming too tribal or purity-focused.

Consider, instead, inviting people in and being confident enough in what you have to offer that you don’t need to give them the hard-sell for them to see the value in what you’re sharing.

Recent Posts

  • Simmer or Sear
  • Some Final 2023 Thoughts
  • Taking Time
  • Instrumental Flute Era
  • Rearviews