On vegetarians who eat chicken


This is a chicken. What does it look like to you? Does it look like a vegetable? No. It looks like an animal. So how can you be a vegetarian who eats chicken? You’re lying to me when you say you’re a vegetarian, aren’t you?

Thus spake just about everyone ever presented with someone with a dietary preference more complicated than “I eat all the things” or “I’m vegetarian”. I’m sure I’ve said similar things in the past.

This post is not more of that. It’s a post about how calling yourself “vegetarian but I eat chicken” is entirely OK.

I am not vegetarian. If you ask me if I’m vegetarian I will say “kindof”. I might elaborate, but I probably won’t unless it clearly makes sense in context to do so. But if you say “Who here is vegetarian?” I will likely put my hand up.

Am I lying to you? Well, yes, technically I suppose. My dietary preferences are much more nuanced than “vegetarian”. But I’ll eat vegetarian food, and I probably won’t eat the non-vegetarian food, or will have a preference about it which goes sufficiently against the meat-eating members of the group’s preference that I will either a) End up eating the vegetarian option anyway or b) Annoy them by making them eat something they’d prefer not to eat. Does anyone really think that life would be improved by my going “Well, actually, I’m not vegetarian but I do have some very precise constraints about what sort of meat I think it is appropriate to eat. Here, let me tell you all about them”. I didn’t think so.

All communication is this sort of trade off. Many of the things we say are inaccurate, or at the very least imprecise.

In many cases you are simply much better off answering the question “Are you vegetarian?” with “Yes” than you are “No, but life will be much easier for all concerned if you just treat me like one”. Many people will still use the latter, and that’s fine, but many people will choose the former, and that’s fine too. It is no more “lying” than a thousand other social constructs we use every day.

Another reason why people will sometimes do this is that people can be real assholes about food. This isn’t something I’ve personally experienced much when I’ve been vegetarian (hypothesis: Because I’m male), but it’s something a lot of vegetarians encounter.

It is vastly more irritating when you do not neatly pigeon hole. People are mostly used to vegetarians now. Support for vegetarianism is pretty widespread – it might get you some funny looks, it might start a discussion, but it’s pretty normal and boring at this stage so it’s unlikely to create a big deal.

Try telling someone you can’t eat something specific. For me it was dairy – I spent a period of time with a dairy intolerance (yes, this is a thing that can go away). A literal quote from someone on hearing this: “I would sooner the sweet embrace of death than go without cheese”. Sure, it was funny, and it’s among the higher quality responses I received, but imagine how tiresome this gets when you get this sort of response every single fucking time you have to explain your dietary requirements to people.

Why is this? I think it’s because you’re in an unfamiliar category. You’re strange and different, and people don’t know how to react to you. Moreover, food is something that people seem to feel very strongly about because it’s such a big part of their life, so by refusing to eat things they love it feels like you are judging them for the fact that they do. So you’re a weird and unfamiliar thing which is attacking their way of life. What do they do? They attack back of course!

Sure, it’s entirely possible that they are a lovely person who would never attack you like this, but if you don’t know them very well then you have little way of knowing that, and if you do know them very well then they probably already know about your dietary preferences so what’s the issue?

So here are your options: You can apply a label which people are familiar with and might be a bit dickish about, but are probably basically going to be fine with, or you can give the more accurate truth which has a non-zero chance of getting you put on the spot and asked to defend your life choices. You encounter this every time you engage in a common social activity. Which one are you more likely to choose?

So this is where the motivation to tell people you are vegetarian when you’re not comes from.

Know where the motivation to tell people you are vegetarian but you eat chicken comes from? Well, it might come from the fact that you just really like chicken. I’m sure for many people it does. But another place it comes from? Consideration. You are giving people options to make their lives easier. It sure is nice when they use that as a reason to judge you, isn’t it?

Finally, from a language point of view, the construct “I am vegetarian but I eat chicken” is totally OK. People use it, you understand what it means, what’s the problem? It’s functionally equivalent to “I keep a mostly vegetarian diet but I eat chicken” or “I’m like a vegetarian but I eat chicken”, so it gets shortened. You wouldn’t object to the sentence “I am a vegetarian, with some exceptions”.

There are two ways to parse the sentence: One is “(I am a vegetarian) and (I eat chicken)”, which is a logical contradiction and so probably not what was meant. Another is “I am a (vegetarian with the exception that I eat chicken)”. One of these is the obviously intended parse of the sentence. The other is the parse you are insisting on out of a misguided sense of linguistic prescriptivism which you are using to police someone else’s life choices. Please stop it.

Edit: An update in response to some feedback from friends who are strict vegetarians.

An important thing to note here is that this is not the same thing as people who say “I’m vegetarian” whilst chowing down on a steak. Descriptive linguistics is a powerful tool, and with great power comes great responsibility. One of these responsibilities is this: Don’t ruin words for people who need them. One of the ways you can ruin the word “vegetarian” is by making people think that all vegetarians eat chicken.

Social lies are OK, but when you tell them you have a responsibility to exhibit behaviour consistent with what you are describing it as. If you describe yourself as “I’m vegetarian but I eat chicken”, this is fine. If anything it reinforces the idea that eating chicken is an exceptional behaviour for people who describe themselves as vegetarian. If you simply say “I’m vegetarian” whilst eating chicken, you are reinforcing the idea that vegetarians eat chicken and you are making other peoples’ lives worse. If you say “I’m vegetarian” and go on to eat vegetarian food, that’s fine. You’ve not hurt peoples’ perception of the world, and you probably have a perfectly good reason for having preferred to eat vegetarian right now even if the reality is more complicated.

There is a large gray area in the middle here as to what’s acceptable behaviour, and I’m not going to try to take a stand on where the dividing line is. All I’m saying is that there is a wide range of acceptable behaviour, and that the way people react to some of it is very unhelpful.

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10 thoughts on “On vegetarians who eat chicken

  1. David

    I’m not vegetarian at all, but I tend to claim that I am a lot when I’m asked what menu I want for some kind of event – exactly because eating meat from unknown sources makes me rather twitchy, and because there is some meat (cow) that I don’t eat at all. In my experience, trying to convey a list of things I don’t eat can and does go wrong all the time. Such as when my relatives assume that I don’t eat beef but do eat calf, because, uh, it’s not the same kind of meat in their minds.

    On the other hand, I’ve heard plenty of horror stories from actual vegetarians and vegans where people assumed insane things like “small bacon cubes aren’t meat, so let’s add them to this soup” and “fish isn’t meat” – so there’s definitely a lot of people out there who are surprisingly hazy on what vegetarianism actually means. Then you get the people who assume that because you’re vegetarian you must hate food and have a different digestive tract from “normal humans”, and get you a small packet of raw chopped broccoli when you ask them to bring vegetarian options to the BBQ. So there’s a lot of education left to be done.

    Finally, there was the amusing story of going to a party with my vegan girlfriend, where the party host excitedly produced a packet of burgers that he had bought at a health food shop. The packaging loudly proclaimed just how healthy they were: no gluten, no onion, no dairy, no eggs! 100% pure beef!

  2. Rich

    Q: How do you know if someone is vegan?
    A: Don’t worry; they’ll tell you.

    (I support people’s right to eat whatever they want without being hassled about it. I have to admit that I frequently ask about food preferences when I get a hint that someone has unusual requirements. I think I do this just because it’s likely to lead to an interesting conversation and because it quickly reveals a lot about people’s world views. Maybe it is likely to be tiresome for the subject though. I’ll bear that in mind.)

    1. david Post author

      The “Don’t worry, they’ll tell you” perception is definitely one of selection bias: If the only vegans you notice are the ones who like to preach to you about it, then you’ll get a very biased view of what percentage of vegans are preachy.

      I think the main thing to bear in mind when asking about food preferences is just to make it clear that you’re not criticizing their choices so much as curious. As long as you do that you’re probably fine, though I will tend to avoid it unless I get a hint they’re OK to talk about it.

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  5. Emily

    Eating an animal means that you are not vegetarian. You saying that you’re ‘vegetarian but…’ is just you not understanding how words work.

    1. Mike Jones

      Your “how words work” suggests that you want to take everything literally, but, as MacIver points out, language is full of abbreviations and shared understandings. Maybe the following example will drive this home: You are comfortable, are you not, with a sentence like, “The bus will stop to pick up some more passengers.” However, this cannot ever be literally true, as all passengers are, by definition, already on the bus. But everyone knows what is meant, and there is no confusion. No one bothers to say, “The bus will stop to pick up some more people whose status currently is that of “intending-passenger”.” If you said that, the other passengers would look at you funny, and you might even find yourself an unintended early ex-passenger.

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