How Not to Talk to Vegetarians

When it comes to vegan outreach, surely vegetarians are the low hanging fruit.

Many vegans completely disagree with this, and will point to the fact that vegans often face serious resistance from vegetarians. I believe this is largely due to vegans’ favourite tactic: “I know you’re trying hard, but it’s worthless.”

Now, you may not use those words. I doubt that most vegans tell their vegetarian friends that because they are imperfect, they are doing nothing. But as Maya Angelou famously said “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will NEVER forget how you made them feel.”

This tactic fails miserably for two reasons: first, it’s terribly ineffective (most people who are trying hard to make a difference don’t like being told they’re doing nothing). Secondly, it’s objectively wrong. Clearly, by not eating meat, vegetarians are helping to reduce demand, increasing the availability of meat-free options.

But as vegans, we do want to see vegetarians adopt a more plant-based diet. And we would like to see them stopping eating dairy and eggs, and in the case of many vegetarians dropping leather as well, since many vegetarians do wear leather.

What approaches work best for this?

Respect that they went vegetarian in the first place

Firstly, we tend to relate better to people we respect. You will never be effective in any conversation if you start by making the other person feel horrible. Saying that vegetarianism is “pointless” is a sure way to alienate your audience before you start.

Many vegetarians come from a religious background, such as Seventh-Day Adventism or Hinduism. And many go vegetarian without any outside input at all, based on personal conviction.

As an aside, I’ve noticed that people generally go vegan after hearing information about the treatment of farm animals. It’s considerably more common for someone to vegetarian without any outside input at all, based solely on the belief that it is wrong to kill animals.

Beginning any conversation by undermining the value of someone’s deeply held values are worthless is not a great way to create rapport. And despite the fact that this is glaringly obvious, it continues to be the primary way vegans interact with vegetarians. This needs to stop. Acknowledge the steps people have already taken, and then you can work on adding to their existing ethical framework.


Listen to friends who are vegetarian. Ask them about the reasons they consume animal products, and really listen to them before attempting to offer solutions.

This is not my forte. I am horrible at listening. And I do mean terrible.  But listening is (at least) half of communication, so I work hard to improve my skills.

Share new vegan foods

At least when you get to my age, you will meet a lot of people who have been vegetarian all (or nearly all) of their lives. I’m vegan today thanks to a conversation with a dear friend of mine who became vegetarian when she was still a teenager.

Vegetarians went vegetarian at a time when being vegetarian was weird. And I mean, weirder than being vegan is today.

People who stayed vegetarian during this time needed to make their newfound dietary habits work. They asked for vegetarian options at restaurants. They popularized hummous and other foods that people had never heard of before. And they quite honestly paved the way that vegans have taken advantage of.

I think of vegetarians much like I think of my 88-year-old grandmother, who was a feminist long before that was an easy thing to do. Today grandma is bound to roll her eyes when she hears about workplace harassment. Why? Because she had an office job when 90% of her friends were home raising kids. Ditto vegetarians. If you tell them that honey is evil, they are likely to groan and remember the time when they had to explain that no, fish is not a vegetable.

So instead of telling them how terrible they are, let them know that things are changing. They may have never heard of earth balance, for example.

In my experience, many vegetarians chose to go vegan long before there were great faux meats and cheese analogues, etc.

As a result, they are likely to completely ignore the vegetarian section of the grocery store. So it’s really helpful to inform them that soy milk no longer tastes like cat vomit, and that soy cheese no longer contains casein.

A really great “first vegan” product to introduce to vegetarians is egg-free mayonnaise.

Another great vegan product is earth balance, which has the same sweetness as butter, but with a cleaner finish.

Finally, there is cheese, which most vegetarians will admit is their downfall, and the reason they aren’t vegan.

But many vegetarians haven’t tried vegan cheese in years. There are so many good options available these days, such as Chao vegan cheese, and the amazing nut cheeses that are popping up everywhere.

Closing thoughts

Vegetarians really are the low-hanging fruit. I think the reason that vegans have had so little success engaging with vegetarians in the past is that we have had a genuinely horrible approach to communicating with them.

If you’re a vegetarian, what has your experience with vegans been like? And if you’re vegan, how do you usually share veganism with vegetarians? Do you think you should consider changing your approach?


What do you think? Join the conversation!

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