A few years back, I went to a friend’s dinner party. Knowing that vegan options would be scarce, I’d eaten beforehand. What I hadn’t foreseen was the awkwardness of sitting at a table surrounded by people who were tucking into dinner and dessert, trying not to feel left out. There were several people at the party whom I’d never met before. Unaware that I was vegan, they were probably bemused as to why I wasn’t eating anything. To make matters worse, I didn’t drink alcohol at all at that point in my life. So when everyone else started drinking, it only increased my feelings of alienation.
Then, as everyone got drunk, they began playing party games which weren’t very amusing if you happened to be sober. When they began sticking Post-Its on each other’s foreheads and trying to guess what they said, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was exhausted by the effort of trying to match everyone else’s high spirits. Pretending I was going to the toilet, I slipped out to a back room and revelled in the peace. But at the same time, I felt frustrated that I never quite seemed to fit in.
I think it’s very important to stand up for what you believe in. Any distress or discomfort I’ve experienced as a result of being vegan (and my other lifestyle choices) is nothing compared to what the animals go through. And I’m sure many people would dismiss these feelings as a ‘first world problem’.
But the fact is, many people are put off being vegan because of the social implications. And other ethical decisions may lead to similar feelings of exclusion. For example, I recently pledged not to travel by plane because of the environmental impact. But this may mean I miss out on joining friends on future trips abroad if they can’t or won’t travel by other means.
This may make it sound as if veganism and other ethical lifestyle choices are personal sacrifices. But this isn’t really true. Looking back, I realise that some of the situations where I felt most excluded didn’t really need to be that way at all.
Taking the example I described earlier, though vegan options at the party were limited, they weren’t nonexistent. I could have eaten a small meal before going out and had some couscous and salad at the party. This would have made me feel less like an outcast. Additionally, I could have brought a bottle of something non-alcoholic to drink – I believe many of the effects of drinking alcohol are placebos anyway!
For many years, I identified strongly as an introvert because events like parties exhausted me so much. Recently, I’ve begun to suspect that I actually felt exhausted because I was always going against the grain. When I eventually made friends who were vegan and drank very little, I began to feel energised rather than exhausted by their company.
For a while, I neglected my old friendships, thinking perhaps I had outgrown them. But I came to realise it didn’t have to be that way. So I decided to stop resisting so much and go with the flow instead. I got some nice clothes for going out in so I wouldn’t feel self-conscious. I loosened up when it came to alcohol, having the occasional glass of wine when everyone else was drinking. And I now trust that friends will provide at least some vegan options, so I don’t eat too much before going out. These things have helped a lot when it comes to fitting in, and I don’t feel like I’ve had to compromise on my beliefs or stop being true to myself. I suspect my previous difficulties had more to do with my attitude than anything else.
Though many people do find they drift away from old friends after going vegan, most of us retain the majority of our old friendships and form new ones too. For me, veganism has been part of my personal and spiritual growth, and I feel like I now have a better social life than ever before. Will living ethically make you a social outcast? Only if you let it.