I’m 65 and determined to eat right and stay fit into old age. I avoid grilled meat because of its cancer-causing chemicals. But my in-laws love to barbecue and whenever I’m there for dinner (which is often), they grill all this meat and expect me to dig in. How can I politely decline without implying they’ll get cancer if they keep this up?
R.S., North Hampton, N.H.
Thank you for inserting “politely.” You value civility, so you surely won’t lapse into lecturing and lambaste your in-laws for serving (and eating) meat.
The low-drama, diplomatic strategy is to say you’re reducing or eliminating your meat intake. If you’re willing to consume a small amount of grilled whatever, then accept it graciously and load up on side dishes. Raving about your mother-in-law’s macaroni salad can offset any discomfort your hosts might feel for your lack of enthusiasm for their signature rump roast.
Given the frequency of your dinner visits, you may want to send a friendly message before the next meal. That removes some of the awkwardness, says Debra Roberts, owner of the Relationship Protocol, a New York-based communication training firm.
Lay the groundwork by conveying genuine appreciation for their kindness in inviting you to their home. Expressing authentic gratitude creates goodwill.
“Anytime you’re about to approach a sensitive situation, it’s always good to connect with the other person first and say something engaging and positive,” Roberts said. “Now you have them listening. We tend to listen when we hear something positive.”
Example: “I always love coming to your home. It’s great having dinner with you and I enjoy your festive barbecues.”
From there, Roberts suggests that you succinctly summarize your point and leave it at that. Don’t volunteer additional information (such as your concerns about cancer-causing chemicals) unless you’re asked to elaborate.
Example: “I want to give you a heads-up. I’ve decided to stop eating meat. I’m happy to bring food to supplement next Sunday’s menu if you’d like.”
“If pressed, you can explain how you feel,” Roberts said. “But come from a position of ‘I’ and avoid ‘should’ statements.”
For instance, it’s better to say, “It’s a personal choice that feels right to me” rather than “You really should read the research about carcinogens in barbecue meat. That stuff can kill you.”
Zealousness can work against you. If you’re convinced you’re right—and everyone who grills meat is wrong—then it’s tempting to see yourself as their savior by educating them to follow your enlightened path.
That’s a fast lane to conflict. If people are not receptive to changing their behavior, then you’re not going to change their behavior.
To your credit, you sound like you’re more concerned about not hurting their feelings—or ruining their love of barbecue—than proselytizing. But if you’re intent on breaking their grilling habit, tread with care.
“Think of how you want them to feel when you’re speaking with them so that there’s no blaming or aggressive tone,” Roberts said. “People respond to the energy we bring.”
If they don’t show interest in learning more about your meat hesitancy, try dangling a one-sentence statement that stokes their curiosity such as “I gave this a lot of thought” or “It’s the result of some soul-searching.” Then stop talking—and see if they follow up with questions.
Ideally, your in-laws will understand and respect your preferences—and welcome your company as they continue to grill, grill, grill. But if they’re disapproving or confrontational, don’t get defensive; instead, respond with neutral language.
Example: “It seems you’re unhappy with what I’m saying. Help me understand.”
Prompting them to keep talking might seem counterintuitive. After all, you risk hearing more of what you don’t want to hear.
Nevertheless, showing that you seek to understand their perspective goes a long way toward bridging the divide. You don’t have to agree with them. But your willingness to listen can in itself forge mutual respect.