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Being vegan involves far more than dietary choices. This doctoral dissertation examines the communication challenges and coping strategies that can protect, maintain, and enhance vegan identity.

Eating is often a social activity. From the family dinner table to holiday meals to evenings out with friends, our interactions with others frequently involve food. For vegans, these same occasions can be fraught with minefields. This doctoral dissertation, in the relatively new field of food communications, examines how vegans communicate about their food choices.

The communication theory of identity (CTI) acknowledges both the personal and social aspects of identity. It holds that identity is negotiated on four levels or layers: (1) personal—one’s self-concept; (2) enacted—what a person says or does; (3) relational—a person’s communications with family, friends, partners, and others;  and (4) communal—the groups with which a person identifies.

This study explores the communication challenges faced by vegans when managing their identity and whether identity gaps emerge as vegans try to negotiate the four layers of identity posited by the CTI. Gaps occur when people communicate or behave inconsistently. For example, a self-professed vegan might consume dairy at a business luncheon to avoid awkwardness or to keep from being seen as “not part of the team.” They also might accept labeling as a health nut by their colleagues rather than engage the potentially difficult discussion of the moral reasons behind their food choices.

Data was gathered through 40 semi-structured phone interviews. A variety of open-ended questions elicited information on how the respondents managed and negotiated their vegan identity and what communication challenges they had experienced. Participants were asked questions such as “what does your vegan identity mean to you?”, “how do you display your vegan identity?”, “can you tell me about a time when someone reacted particularly positively when you told them you are vegan” and “can you tell me about a time when you’ve tried to hide that you are vegan?”.

Responses were analyzed for themes expressed across the group of participants. The four most significant themes were:

1. Facilitating Smooth Interactions

Vegans work hard to keep from being misunderstood or judged. This allows them to build strong interpersonal relationships and avoid being stereotyped as a “vegan jerk” or a militant vegan. Participants described how selective disclosure of their vegan status could shield them from unwanted questions or attention. It also could prevent discomfort for the non-vegans who feel defensive about their own food choices. But if they perceive that a discussion of their veganism would be welcome, respondents often engaged both with vegans and omnivores. In the latter instance, they tried to be good “vegan ambassadors,” showing the positive aspects of the vegan lifestyle.

2. Vegan Food Preparation And Consumption

Vegans spend a lot of time planning and preparing food. They enjoy sharing food and recipes with like-minded eaters, so potlucks are a popular form of socializing. The opportunity to share vegan food with non-vegans is also highly valued, for example, at a work function. Such sharing can demystify veganism and show how delicious the food can be. That said, participants acknowledged that being vegan often required planning ahead when attending events at which food would be served to make sure vegan options would be available.

3. Acceptance And Being Supported

Most participants reported that they are accepted and supported by partners, family members and friends, making their veganism an enjoyable, positive part of their identity. Interestingly, the perceived health benefits of a vegan diet seemed to contribute to some of the affirmation’s respondents received. Some also reported that friends and family members made the effort to cook vegan food for them, a gesture for which they were thankful and that strongly contributed to positive interpersonal relationships.

4. Happiest With A Vegan (-Friendly) Partner

Dating, cohabiting with, or marrying someone who accepts their vegan identity was key for many participants. Negotiating the relationship challenges with somebody who didn’t value veganism was extremely difficult because it often reflected a difference in fundamental values.

The author next looked at identity gaps revealed by participant responses. The most common gap noted was when respondents hid their vegan identity or some aspect of their vegan identity. This behavior was most likely when first meeting a new person or group such as in a job interview or a new employment situation. Going out to eat with a group was another trigger for this behavior. Participants didn’t want to become the center of attention because of their diet, so they found ways to communicate unobtrusively with wait staff to learn about their food options. Skipping social functions altogether was another tactic that respondents used to avoid uncomfortable interactions, as was lying about the reasons for their food choices.

The final research question looked at communication challenges facing vegans. Explaining veganism and relating to others emerged as the two salient themes. In the participants’ experience, veganism is often unfamiliar or misunderstood. People may not know what constitutes an animal product, though respondents acknowledged that in our food system, it’s often difficult to know exactly what’s in each food item. Given this, it can be stressful to go to a function where food is served because participants can’t always tell which foods were actually vegan. And while they want to avoid non-vegan fare, they also don’t want to be rude or be a burden. Relating to omnivores can be a challenge in general because vegans often have a different worldview that can arouse defensiveness in non-vegans.

While vegans may choose not to disclose their status to avoid negative perceptions or unwanted conversations, this choice may have adverse consequences. Social support made a profound difference in the lives of the participants, and being less authentic may reduce communication satisfaction and compromise the health of relationships. Animal advocates can use this dissertation to more fully inform potential vegans of challenges they may encounter. It also offers ideas from those who have “walked the walk” on how to deal with some of the potential hurdles of adopting a strictly plant-based diet.

Link to dissertation: https://ir.uiowa.edu/etd/3162/

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