Secondhand Barbecue Smoke

Dear Helena,

A big group of friends and I were trying to figure out a bar to go to. The obvious choice was Zeitgeist, a popular San Francisco bar with a giant outdoor beer garden. But I nixed the choice, because I’m vegetarian and that place always stinks of hamburgers from their outdoor grill. My one friend and I got into a big fight about it. She said, “But you used to eat meat and not mind the smell. You make everybody’s life difficult because of your personal choice.” Yes, it was harder to decide on a bar because of me, but I feel that because the first-choice bar made me gag, that was a legitimate reason to not want to go there. Is it OK for vegetarians to insist on meat-free environments, even if it means distressing nonvegetarians? And what’s the best strategy for getting your way without alienating your friends? —Ooh That Smell

Dear Ooh That Smell,

Gagging is unpleasant. But as a vegetarian, you can’t demand that your dining companions give up meat, barbecue aromas, bouillon cubes, leather shoes, Jell-O, or anything else that came from animals just because it doesn’t agree with your personal philosophy. To do so would be not unlike an atheist insisting that his believer friends give up God. This is not an overstatement, considering how strongly some meat eaters feel about a good, juicy burger.

Whether or not you, as a vegetarian, have the moral high ground (and there are many convincing ecological and health arguments to be made that you do), you’re not going to win any converts by making a fuss. You will only look high-maintenance and preachy to your meaty friends, and they may even think twice about including you in future get-togethers.

Mark Rifkin, a Baltimore dietitian and former animal-rights activist, says, “Constantly harping on the negative is counterproductive and generates bad karma. It helps activists vent their frustration and anger but does nothing constructive in terms of behavior change.” So instead of scorning the beer garden with the grill, or the hamburger joint that someone else suggests for dinner, research another bar that can accommodate a large group, or rave about a restaurant that does a great garlic eggplant with peanut sauce.

If your ideas are shot down, you may have to put up with the meat smell. Think of it as a sacrifice you’re making that may actually help animals in the long run. If you want to win people over, it’s better to make vegetarianism look easy, rather than a drag. Kim Sturla, a vegan and cofounder and director of Animal Place, a sanctuary for abused and discarded farm animals in Vacaville, California, says, “I have gone to places like Sizzler and I just go to the salad bar.”

Another thing to consider: If you’re rigid about people not eating meat around you, your militancy may be serving an unmet emotional need for attention or control. If that’s the case, you’ll have better luck making an appointment with a psychotherapist.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.