NL·Waves of Change

4 ways to talk to people about plastic, without sounding like a jerk

A little social etiquette can go a long way when talking about the environment.

A little environmental etiquette goes a long way

Water bottles and bits of Styrofoam lying in leaf litter.
It's easy to refuse a plastic bottle, but harder to sway someone else to do the same. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Waves of Change is a CBC series exploring the single-use plastic we're discarding, and why we need to clean up our act. You can be part of the community discussion by joining our Facebook group.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: 

How do you find a vegan at a dinner party? Don't worry, they'll let you know.

Or this one:

How does an electric car owner drive? With one hand on the steering wheel, and one patting themselves on the back.

Sorry/not sorry to trot those groaners out, because they illustrate an uncomfortable problem with environmental movements; that sometimes, even the most well-meaning person can turn a conversation about, say, single-use plastics into a soapbox sermon.

That's not to say people shouldn't espouse their views on those immortal tidbits of everyday life. Plastics and other issues like climate change are shifting the world all around us, and more and more people are feeling the urge to act and spread the word.

But understanding how — and when, and if — to communicate your green opinions can be trickier than telling an (actually) good joke.

If that sets your social anxiety ablaze, that's why Wendy Mencel has a job. As the co-owner of the Canadian School of Protocol and Etiquette, based in London, Ont., she spends her days helping people navigate the intense world of human interaction. And in her off time, she tries to reduce her plastic use as much as possible.

Settle in, and listen up, people.

1. Listen up

This one's for the introverts out there. Mencel advises that sometimes, the best way to sway someone is to let other people air their views.

"I think the most important thing is to engage in a conversation where both parties have a voice, where you're listening intensely to the other person's side," she said.

A zero-waste devotee might find it excruciating to listen to someone's undying love for coffee pods, but Mencel said it's worth trying to understand that person's point of view before countering it with your own argument. 

"If someone else brings up the environment, and it's not on par with kind of how you see your value system, I think it's really important to intentionally listen to what they have to say. You can disagree, but it's in the way you disagree, I think, that affects the relationship," she said.

Channel that inner Oprah.

Polite ways to disagree, or get your point across, include using open-ended questions, or outsourcing your views by pointing to the more neutral ground of an event or news article (say, this CBC article about how the creator of Keurig pods regrets his invention).

Ultimately, this is about conversation, not confrontation, said Mencel.

"If you come at somebody, full-fledged 'this is my stance and I'm the only right person in the room and your idea is terrible and you don't understand global warming,' then you're going to shut that person down. They're not going to hear anything you have to say."

This looks like a productive use of time and energy.

2. Use your body

In getting people to hear you, what goes unsaid plays an important role, said Mencel. 

"Just by your facial expression, the tone of your voice, your body language — if that can convey to the other person, 'Look, I hear what you're saying and I value you, and you as an individual, but I'm going to have to politely disagree with that,' then you can get on with what you have to say, and the person is more likely to listen to you," she said.

Mencel recommended making eye contact, leaning in slightly as opposed to slouching away, and making sure your arms aren't crossed in front of you, which can come off subconsciously as defensive.

And she has some bad news for anyone who suffers from Resting Bitch Face.

"Not that you want to keep a smile on your face, but you want to be aware that you're not a natural frowner," she said, "because that can really send a message to someone that they're feeling vulnerable talking to you, because it looks like you disagree with them, right off the bat."

You don't always have to smile. But you might want to if you want persuade someone.

3. Sometimes, don't stick to your guns

Moving away from single-use plastics takes commitment and a lot of planning to make careful choices in everyday life. But Mencel said sometimes people will have to cede control over certain situations.

Job interviews are one big one where you might just have to accept a plastic bottle of water, or another item that may make you shudder.

To get into an argument with someone in a social situation, where it demeans them, is just not a good idea.- Wendy Mencel

Mencel also said it's important to pick your battles, and generally, a public gathering is not the place — particularly one where you're a guest.

"You're not going to go to a cocktail party and criticize the host because they have a plastic veggie tray out. That's not the time to do it," she said, adding perhaps it's worth bringing up to the host at a later time, privately.

"To get into an argument with someone in a social situation, where it demeans them, is just not a good idea," she said. 

Personal attacks are off limits at a party, but that doesn't mean that environmental issues are as well, said Mencel. Just as low-wasters have to think ahead and have reusable coffee cups on hand outside of the house, it's worth figuring out a few statements to be able to engage friends, acquaintances and strangers with your ethics.

"You have to have sort of what I would call 'your elevator talk.' That snapshot of your value system that's non-threatening to the other person," said Mencel.

Probably not a great example of how to act at a party.

4. This also applies to the internet

Mencel even had some advice for that least polite of places: the internet. 

No surprise, but trolling is off limits. As are inflammatory and extreme posts that end up provoking rage instead of discussion. 

"If I put a post up and it outrages you, yeah, we can go back and forth on Twitter but what does that really do? That's not going to convince the other person they need to make changes," she said.

Think before you type.

Posting positively is a big plus, she said, and engaging discussion by linking to articles and adding open-ended questions to get feedback and start conversations.

"Unless people feel they have a voice, they're not going to do anything with it. They're just going to scroll past it," said Mencel.

If all the persuasion and etiquette in the world just isn't for you, Mencel has one other single-use plastic suggestion: keep the focus on your own actions.

"It's all those little things that really add up to helping save the planet," she said.

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Lindsay Bird

CBC News

Lindsay Bird is the producer and host of Atlantic Voice, a CBC Radio 1 show showcasing documentaries and storytelling from the east coast. She is based out of CBC Corner Brook.