|...meticulous advice for the refined activist|
Dear Gwendolyn Good-Deed:
I've just received an invitation to a surprise birthday dinner party for a friend of mine by my friend's cousin, Marlene. Marlene doesn't know that I'm vegan or there's nothing on the invitation that mentions what kind of food will be served. Is there a polite way of letting her know what I can and cannot eat? Or should I just "rough it" for the meal and not eat? I'm really afraid of stepping on any toes here.
Gentle Vegan -
In situations like these, it's easy to get ahead of oneself and imagine the worst possible scenario. For example, you might be thinking, Well, if I call Marlene and ask if vegan food will be available, she could become so infuriated that she'll slam down the phone on me, spread rumors about town that present me in an unflattering light, I'll get kicked out of the country club, the PTA, and the League of Woman Voters and none of my friends will never speak to me again. I'll have to pack my bags and move to a new town, resigned to a lonely, reclusive existence. All right, you may not have gone quite that far, but Ms. Good-Deed thinks that when we become squeamish about events with an uncertain outcome, it is because we've blown things out of proportion, fixating on an unlikely fantasy of a possible conclusion.
Although Ms. Good-Deed is world renowned for her equanimity and forthrightness, she too has occasionally indulged in such flights of fancy. Her freshman year of college, for example, she went to spend the weekend at a friend's home during Easter weekend. Gwendolyn had been a vegetarian for quite some time at that point, but she was still a little insecure about what she could ask for and what she couldn't. Instead of being upfront but polite about her needs, Gwendolyn concealed her dietary restrictions and nibbled the occasional salad or side dish. By Sunday afternoon, not only was Gwennie famished, but her host family thought she was snubbing their food out of rudeness. So you see, in her attempt to be polite and not offend, young Ms. Good-Deed failed on both counts.
In your situation, Ms. Good-Deed advises that you approach Marlene in the sort of manner that is considerate but honest, a way that you yourself would like to be treated. Think to yourself, which approach is better on the ears: Hi Marlene, I'm a vegan and I don't eat any animals or animal products, so, tell me, am I going to go hungry at your party or should I plan to eat ahead of time? Or, Thank you for the invitation to Bootsy's party, Marlene. How thoughtful! I was wondering what sort of food you were planning to serve, though, because I eat a vegan diet, and, as the hostess, I thought that you'd like to know.
From here, Marlene can respond in a number of ways, but one of the following is the most likely: One, she can say that she herself is a vegan, so of course there will never be any animal products in her home (or the food can be vegan for no intentional reasons); two, she can ask what sort of food a vegan can eat so she can prepare it; or, three, she can tell you to get lost. Answer number one is easy...Fabulous! For number two, let her know of some simple dishes you can eat, ask to provide recipes if she'd like, or offer to happily prepare something if she seems overwhelmed by the vegan parameters. If her response is closest to number three, it's not your fault. A host is supposed to make guests feel comfortable and welcome, no matter their individual needs. This doesn't mean that your host is expected to special order organic chanterelle mushrooms from a specific region in France for her finicky guests, but just that she is willing to fulfill your basic needs with a modicum of consideration. If she responds to your polite inquiry with defensiveness and incivility, then it is she who is rude, not you.
Gentle vegan, most people would appreciate that you've given them the benefit of the doubt, and that you've allowed them the chance to make your visit enjoyable. By hiding your needs under the guise of politeness, you'll have denied them this opportunity, and you're quite likely to offend. However, if your open and thoughtful attempt to let Marlene know your dietary needs is met with a phone slamming on your ear, you can be certain that she is to blame. Quite likely her response will be reasonable and helpful, and all your concerns will have been for naught. Enjoy the party!
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