How to Talk About Lifestyle Differences Without an Argument

We’re all different. But a lot of us feel pressure to conform—out in public, at work, in the dating world and, sometimes most of all, at home with our families.

The holidays set the perfect stage for this. Families gather and catch up with each other—and why is it that one person’s touchy subject is another person’s small talk?

If your lifestyle choices—like going vegetarian or vegan, smoking, living sober or choosing not to have kids—are different than your family’s, or your friends’, it’s common to feel like you’re under a microscope when conversations turn to those topics.

“Humans are built for connection, and many of us connect over shared experiences,” said Bryanna Burkhart, neurolinguistics programming expert, life and success consultant and host of the podcast “Shadowlight.”

Extended family at Thanksgiving dinner talking about lifestyle differences. pbs rewire
Focus first on being happy with your choices. When you are, even people who don’t understand how you could be under your circumstances will support you.

“Often, though, the connections that we build on shared experiences are limited when we have different backgrounds, lifestyle choices and perspectives. This can cause many of us pain as we are craving connection, but don’t know how to find it.”

When your choices are questioned, there are ways you can talk about them kindly and confidently, without getting into an unwanted conflict. And if you’re concerned about a loved one’s choices, you can talk about it without making them feel judged.

Communicate your needs ahead of time

“Friends and family can be our biggest support for our healthy lifestyle. They can also do the most food bullying. Sharing our goals ahead of time can make a difference,” advised wellness consultant Lori Ann King.

“Years ago I discovered I had a gluten sensitivity. … (I) had to learn to navigate restaurants and social settings. I quickly learned to always have a plan, a backup, and to offer full discloser up front. … If we were invited to a meal with family or friends, I immediately let them know that I was gluten-free. It then just required a little bit of education on my part to let them know not only what my food options were, but also why it was important that I ate this way.”

Get mentally prepared

Nance Schick is an attorney and mediator “who grew up in Kentucky, was the first in my family to get a J.D., is the only one of my sisters who never married and has no kids, eats mostly a vegan diet and is self-employed.”

She said she knows personally and professionally how easy it is to be misunderstood and judged by people we love. It’s important to love and believe in yourself through it all.

“With the holidays coming up, you probably know which relatives will ask you certain questions about your social life, food preferences, career aspirations, life goals, et cetera,” she said. “Take some time to explore those topics, so you are clear where you stand on them. It is often when we are still discovering who we are around them that we are most likely to feel hurt, defensive, judged, fearful, or angry, and this vulnerability will unfortunately seem like an invitation to some people who think the way to affirm their own choices is to prove they are better than yours. …

“Focus first on being happy with your choices. When you are, even people who don’t understand how you could be under your circumstances will support you.”

Be proactive

If you feel your lifestyle choice is sure to come up, you can get ahead of it by bringing it up yourself.

“An important step in talking to friends and family about your lifestyle differences is to tell them why you are doing what you are doing and why it is so important,” King said.

In the case of a diet difference, “do this advance of a meal and remind them—with calm and patience—along the way. You may be surprised as some will join you. Others won’t.”

Try putting yourself in their shoes

Remember that your family and friends are likely coming from a good place when they question your choices. This tactic has helped consultant Lidia Aviles as she’s navigated five years as a vegan with an unsupportive family.

“I think we should remember how we used to think when we weren’t vegan so we can come from a tolerant space of understanding their skeptical minds,” she said.

Maintain communication throughout the year

Having regular discussions about your life with the people you love can make weird blowups less common. People who have different backgrounds and make different life choices can have a good relationship when they “create space to discuss and still disagree,” Burkhart said.

“They have an open mind to consider where the other person is coming from, and why they are saying the things that they are saying and doing the things that they are doing, while still maintaining their own beliefs and holding their own ground in who they are and what they believe,” she said.

“This creates a dialogue, driven by their mutual desire to see and understand the other person as they are, regardless of whether they agree with that person.”

Don’t let others’ opinions change your opinion of yourself

“If people want to learn more about your choices, then feel free to share. But also don’t feel that you have to share,” said therapist Jenny Matthews. Know that there is not one right way to live in this world. Everyone is entitled to their own choices. There is a reason you have chosen your lifestyle. It likely brings you joy, comfort or improves your life in some way. Not everyone will agree. Haters will hate.”

Know where to draw the line

Some behavior is just not okay. Have an exit strategy if you suspect unacceptable behavior from a family member.

“After years of being surprised by aggressive, angry behavior from my brother-in-law, I began to prepare by knowing bus routes and how to use Uber, if I needed to leave family gatherings at his and my sister’s house,” Schick said.

“I became very clear on what I would not allow … This allowed me to have more effective conversations with people who truly wanted to discuss lifestyle differences with the intent to understand them. It also allowed me to recognize when that wasn’t possible and to politely and lovingly end my participation in arguments.”

Figure out why you care so much

If you’re feeling the need to question someone else’s choices, interrogate yourself about why that is.

“Most of us just want to know we are loved, even if we are or do things our loved ones don’t understand,” Schick said. “Start from a loving place and consider why you are concerned and why it matters to you that you don’t understand.

“Typically, the concern is about our perceptions, based on our knowledge and experience of our lives. We assume we know what is best for other people, when we might not truly know what is best for ourselves.”

Approach conversations with curiosity rather than judgment

“Come up with neutral questions that reflect an interest, and create good conversation. For example, ‘When did the vegan movement start?’ ‘What do you think are the greatest changes in society in the past 50 years?’ ‘Are more blended families getting together than ever?’ Or ‘Has the woman’s movement changed how we think about roles?’

“By asking neutral questions that don’t arouse defensiveness, but get people talking about themselves, we can understand each other more deeply and open our minds to different ways of thinking. We avoid the risk of entering into discussions that divide us, reflect unspoken disappointment or resentment, and otherwise make the holidays more difficult,” shared psychoanalyst and author Claudia Luiz.

Make sure the environment is right for the discussion

If you’re curious about someone’s lifestyle choice, be mindful of whether it’s the right time and place to get into the topic. What seems like not a big deal to you could be a sensitive subject for someone else.

“Holidays are really not a good time to have deep conversations about lifestyle differences,” Luiz said. “Everybody is full of longing, and unmet needs, disappointments and shame rear their heads at every turn because of the overwhelming expectation that you are supposed to feel… connected, fulfilled and happy at these times.

“Therefore, the best conversations reflect a desire to know the person more deeply. This is achieved with the right questions. The questions cannot be too personal… For example, ‘why have you not had children yet? Why do you not want to eat meat anymore?’ Any ‘you’ questions feel threatening and arouse defensiveness. Not a good idea at the holidays.”

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.