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The Activist Whisperer: Emotions are contagious

Award-winning activist Sarah Corbett is an author, the founder of the global Craftivist Collective and a pioneer of the art of ‘Gentle Protest’. In her weekly Agony Aunt column for Lush Life she tackles those issues that may be stifling someone from being part of the change they wish to see in our world.

Dear Activist Whisperer,

My younger sister has recently decided to become vegan after watching a film about the meat and dairy industry. I really admire her for this shift in her lifestyle and the passion she has to end animal cruelty. However, she’s upsetting a lot of our family and friends by preaching at us all to become vegan too. I don't want to stop her from being vegan, and I don't want to stop her campaigning for what she believes in, but is there a way I can talk to her about being less judgemental and aggressive towards people who aren't on the same page as her please? For my her sake and ours I hope you can help before we all break away

Best wishes,

her big sister, Lauren

Aberdeen, Scotland


Dear Lauren,

My best friend at University was vegan and it nearly tore our friendship apart. We had the same music taste, the same fashion style, a similar sense of humour and we were first in line to question the Professor at a tutorial. But when we were near people eating meat my friend would say loudly how horrible it smelt. When we walked past a burger van I would have to physically restrain her from spraying the van with the word ‘Murderers’ using their own bottle of tomato sauce: I’m not joking! Sometimes I wouldn’t invite her out with my other friends because she had upset them in the past with unkind comments. Over our years at University, she was passionate for everyone to become vegan; she was also frustrated that she hadn't converted anyone. Here’s what I wish I had tried to share with her then:

Praise their principles and passion:

Tell your sister that you respect her commitment to veganism. Praise the discipline she has put into learning about vegan products, cooking vegan food and other information she’s shared with you. Praising her shows respect, as well as creating a safe space for dialogue which is important for the next part of your conversation:

Emotions are contagious:

Acknowledge your sister’s frustration with others for not changing their ways. Empathise with her. Then gently share with your sister that her words and actions have made it hard for you to hear her message because you feel judged and even shamed by the delivery. Share that you have learnt recently that emotions are contagious. Ulf Dimberg, a Swedish researcher at Uppsala University, discovered that people viewing a smile or angry face show evidence of that same mood through slight changes in their facial muscles. This is not always visible to the naked eye but is evident through electronic sensors. This means that when your sister gets angry you feel angry back which puts you in flight or fight mode and decreases your concentration on her message. If she wants to engage people in her message neuroscientists and psychologists recommend:

Show more than tell:

People mostly change their mind and actions through seeing others acting differently with purpose and joy. Watching other people live out their values with self-control and respect for others shows that it is possible for us to do the same. Practising your principles, rather than preaching them, also puts the ownership on others to make a decision to change rather than their feeling forced into it. When you offer an alternative to people as a quiet invitation to change, or welcome questions, then people can ask you about veganism - that’s when the magical transformation can happen! And one way you can sometimes speed up transformations in others without being manipulative is by:

Attracting people with honey not vinegar:

This can be a fun, shared activity with your sister. Brainstorm, together, ways to show the benefits of veganism to your family and friends. Could you suggest that you and your sister prepare a lovely meal for your family that just happens to be vegan and they don't even have to do the washing up? Another vegan friend of mine helped me do this for 12 friends and they still talk about how creamy the risotto was, even though it had no cream in it! Is one of your friends concerned about carbon emissions? You could offer tasty alternatives to meat for them to keep their emissions low? Is one of your loved ones trying to save money? You can help them by offering cheaper products for them that happen to be vegan? I love it when people say they like my boots: it gives me a chance to say “I do too! They are super comfortable, vegan and made in the UK!”.

Accept that you can’t change people’s hearts. Only they can:

I know I can’t force people to change their hearts, minds and actions. I still get frustrated with that fact. Don’t take rejection of veganism from your loved ones personally. It’s a balance of offering people the options and hoping for the best, knowing that you won’t reach your perfect goal of converting everyone you meet.

We are all on different journeys but I’m so glad my University friend and I didn’t lose our friendship. We hit some bumpy patches but I will always appreciate how she opened my eyes to animal cruelty and showed me ways I can be vegan (many that I still practise). Together, we raised lots of money for animal rights campaigning organisations by making vegan cupcakes for music shows and we still laugh over our shared memory of eating big bowls of lemon roasted parsnips in our favourite café, while revising for University exams.

In many ways veganism was the difference between us that made our friendship deeper. I hope the same happens for you and your sister.

in solidarity,

The Activist Whisperer


Additional support for you and your sis:

1. ‘READ: Give a Shit: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet by Ashlee Piper (Running Press 2018); it’s a great read for your sister to see someone else’s journey as a vegan animal rights campaigner who has influenced others in a positive way.

2.  WATCH: Brené Brown’s famous TEDx talk on the power of vulnerability:

3.  JOIN: Vevolution, an organisation which offers resources, events, a podcast and community to be part of

If you have a question for Sarah, email her at: [email protected]

If you're question is chosen you will receive Sarah’s one-off hand stitched fabric post-it note created for your question to keep


People mostly change their mind and actions through seeing others acting differently with purpose and joy

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