There seems to be an unspoken societal expectation that vegetarians be as silent about their food choices as possible. Written into this expectation is the following clause: "vegetarians must be considerate, respectful, and sensitive to meat-eaters at all times. They must not speak of their reasons for being vegetarian unless asked first. But when they are asked, they must make their answers as brief and sanitized as possible so as not to upset the meat-eater while he/she finishes lunch."
I've learned a lot about animals in my many years as an animal advocate, but I have learned much more about human animals. The stereotype that vegetarians talk about being vegetarian all the time is so funny to me, because, well, in my experience, once someone finds out I'm vegetarian, I become their Confessor, counselor, and sounding board. I can't stop them. Unsolicited, they proceed to tell me how often they eat "meat," how much they've cut back, or how they've become vegetarian except for the chickens and fishes they still consume. They tell me they eat only "humanely killed" animals (??), or they challenge me to solve the great hypothetical dilemma: "if everyone went vegetarian overnight, what would we do with all those animals? So, you see, it's much more humane to eat them." Ummmm...
You see, I really do love every encounter I have with animal-eaters, because it offers me the opportunity to offer a perspective they may not have encountered before (such as "well, stopping breeding usually takes care of any overpopulation concerns"). However, I do wish the expectation of respect was a two-way street. Every vegetarian/animal advocate I know treads ever-so-gently in the speciesist realm in which we live.
That doesn't mean we don't challenge the status quo through outreach, education, demonstrations, etc. But it does mean that we're sensitive. For instance, when is the last time you heard a vegetarian ask a meat-eater to defend why she eats animals? And yet how many times have you heard a vegetarian asked why he doesn't? Can you imagine a vegetarian saying to a meat-eater "Oh my word! You're a meat-eater? Where do you get your folate, fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and selenium?" And, yet, how many times - how many blessed times - does a vegetarian have to answer the question "where do you get your protein?"
Frankly, I think vegetarians should start asking our friends and family members these questions, because left unchallenged, our species allows 10 billion land animals to be born into this world every year only to be killed - for nothing. For appetite. Out of habit. In the name of tradition. Every time vegetarianism is silenced, disregarded, ridiculed, disrespected - another heart stops beating.
Honestly, I can cope with the lack of respect for my choices. What I have a hard time with, however, is that it really has nothing to do with me. I'm just the vegan in the room that reflects all the misery, pain, and suffering of every life that's ended by a steel blade. So, I take my role very seriously and will continue to be as respectful, considerate, and sensitive as I can be. I have to be. Ten billion lives are at stake.