What is respect?
- While we can talk about respect as a thing, we get a better understanding by talking about it as a something we do.
- What do we do when we respect someone?
- We respect authority by complying with commands. (Although we don’t have to comply if authority is being abused.)
- We respect people at a personal level by considering their human rights and restraining ourselves when we make decisions that affect them. (And we should give this level of respect no matter who the person is.)
- We can also empathise with people by learning about their experiences.
- And we can admire people for their achievements and qualities.
What does the word respect mean?
Respect is one of those words that you hear all the time:
- “Show me some respect.”
- “Respect your elders.”
- “Nobody respects me.”
- “Respect my wishes.”
- “You’re being disrespectful.”
You especially hear people talk about respect when they are fighting with someone, because people sometimes get angry when they feel like they are not being treated with respect.
But what do we mean by ‘respect’? What does it look like when you respect someone?
Respect is something we do
Although we can talk about respect as a thing (‘Give me some respect”), it’s not a thing you can point to in the same way you point to a phone or a wombat.
To really understand respect, we’re better off thinking about it as a process, as something we do.
But it’s not just one process—there are different ways of respecting someone based on the type of relationship we have.
Complying: Respect for authority
In formal relationships—like teacher/student, parent/child, employer/employee—there is an in-built power balance. One role has authority over the other, within limits.
Respect in this type of relationship means complying with the commands of the person with authority. For instance, if a teacher tells you to take out an assignment, respect means complying with that direction.
Additionally, if we genuinely respect authority we don’t just respond to direct commands, we also comply by anticipating the needs of authority. For example, if you know a teacher doesn’t want you running through the halls, and you genuinely respect the teacher and their authority, then you don’t need to have them command you to stop running; you don’t run in the hall in the first place, because you know that’s what they want.
When authorities abuse their power
We respect authority in order to help society as a whole function smoothly. But if someone abuses that authority—for instance, using formal power to force someone to do something personal, like a teacher or a police officer using their power to demand a nude, then we could rightly withdraw our respect and refuse to comply.
Considering: Respect for individual rights
In personal, everyday relationships—friends, family, partners, strangers—respect is about considering another person’s basic human rights and freedoms whenever you do something that might affect them.
- It doesn’t mean liking them
- It doesn’t mean agreeing with them
- It doesn’t mean doing whatever they want
In this limited sense, considering means stopping yourself from moving a line:
- That’s his hot cross bun; I won’t eat it.
- She seems too drunk to know what she’s doing; I won’t kiss her.
- I’m angry that he was kissing my friend, but I won’t hit him.
We restrain ourselves from these actions because they would violate someone else’s rights or freedoms—it’s the Stop part of Stop Ask Listen.
To give this minimal level of respect, you don’t really need to know anything about the other person.
But we can go further: we can also consider someone else’s needs and values when making a decision, even when it’s not a line move:
- I want to play this music on my speakers but I know Izzy is studying, so I’ll just wear my headphones.
- I could push through this door, but instead I’ll step back and let these others through first.
- I want to jump in and say something, but Bec also wants to say something so I’ll hold back and let her speak.
The theme here is still about stopping yourself doing things, but now because you are considering the impact they will have on other people.
From consideration to empathy
But we have the option to go even further again, into actively trying to help other people in some way:
- I don’t usually agree with what Bec has to say, but I’ll listen and try to understand where she’s coming from.
- Paige looks too drunk. It’d be horrible if something happened to her. I’ll help her get to a safe place where she can sit down, drink some water and sober up.
- Someone’s dropped their wallet on the sidewalk. They must feel so frustrated and annoyed. Maybe I can figure out who they are on social media and let them know I have it.
This is where considering turns into empathising, when we put ourselves in someone else’s position and try to imagine what they are feeling, and how we might act in order to meet their needs as well as ours.
Who gets our consideration?
We should give everyone the base level of personal respect—considering other people’s rights and stopping ourselves from moving the line on them—to everyone, no matter who they are.
The deeper versions—considering values when it’s not a line move, or empathising with someone’s experience and perspective—those are optional, we don’t have to give them to anyone, but when we do we help create a more caring and supportive society.
Admiring: Respect for achievement
Where considering was a restrained, live-and-let-live kind of respect, admiring is a more active, aspirational type of respect. It’s where we actively value someone for the things they do or innate qualities they have:
- My engineer is amazing. I totally respect her judgment.
- Our sergeant is so wise. I wish I could be like him.
- He’s an incredible athlete.
- She is so positive. I wish I was that positive all the time.
Admiring isn’t just about looking at someone from a distance. It’s about how we interact with them. If we really admire someone, we’ll go out of our way to please them, we’ll pay attention to them, we might even try to emulate them in different ways.
Who gets our admiration?
While we should consider everyone equally, we admire people when they earn it. Our admiration is ours to give and take away as we choose.
Respect is important but complex
If you take away one thing from this page, it’s that respect is important—it’s fundamental to a good society.
- In our formal relationships, we show respect for authority, roles and institutions by complying with legitimate directions.
- In our personal relationships, we show respect for other people by considering their rights and not moving the line on them.
- If we go further by empathising with their experience and trying to help them in positive ways.
- And finally, we can give people earned respect for their achievements through our admiration.