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Last updated: Feb 9th, 2017


The topic of respect is a tricky one; respect is often confused with obedience or agreement. It is possible to be disobedient, or disagree strongly with someone, while still being respectful, nor does obedience or agreement guarantee respect. There are several dictionary definitions of respect, which reflect different ways of thinking about respect. The word respect can be used both as a noun and a verb. The definitions of respect that I find most empowering and useful are the following; these are my own definitions, inspired by but not exactly the same as any dictionary definition:

I think the essence of respect is closely related to the notion of the inherent worth in all human beings. Respect, at its essence, stems from the reality that we are all sentient creatures with a life and mind of our own, and the belief that we all have inherent worth because of this sentience, and not because of our status in society, or our choices in life.

Benefits of Respect

Respect is one of the key foundational attributes of human society that keeps society functioning smoothly. Respect provides an anchor, or a boundary, which can prevent violence or hostility, and which can encourage people to look for common ground, and to be patient in understanding each other. When a person views others with respect, if that person is harmed in some way by the action of another, they will approach the person who harmed them with a genuine desire to rectify the situation, rather than to exact vengeance or punishment.

Cultural Notions of Respect

Cultures sometimes define respect in ways that I find can be misleading, and sometimes, can even conflict with what I see as the core essence of respect. I find this is especially true of authoritarian cultures and cultures that place a heavy emphasis on rule-based social norms.

Confusing Obedience with Respect

When I was a child, I was often in environments, such as in school, where respect was confused with obedience or deference. In these environments, if someone (usually a child) refuses to submit to authority, they are told they are being disrespectful. I disagree with this analysis, and I think there are strong, relatively objective grounds on which to disagree. It is possible to break rules in a respectful or disrespectful manner, just as it is possible to follow them in a respectful or disrespectful manner.

One can follow rules and yet harbor resentment or authority to an authority figure, such as in the case of being passive aggressive, and most people would agree that this sort of behavior is disrespectful. Similarly, one can engage in civil disobedience in a way that respects a position of authority, and respects the holder of this position as a human being, and yet resists or protests the rules or decisions of an authority figure.

I believe that equating respect with obedience is damaging to children's minds and the formation of wholesome value systems in society as a whole. I think that in schools, it is worthwhile to make it an official policy to distinguish respect from obedience. Schools can still enforce rules and punish disobedient students, but I think it is important that they separate the notion of rules and obedience from the deeper idea of respect.

Rule-based Notions of Respect

Any culture has some degree of rule-based cultural norms surrounding respect. These rules include not only rules about what sorts of actions are acceptable or not, but also, how various actions are interpreted or how meaning is assigned to them. Certain words, certain gestures, and certain behaviors (or omitted behaviors) are seen as respectful, or disrespectful. Some of these behaviors are universal or innate, and have biological roots, such as universal expressions of sadness, happiness, anger, or other emotions. However, others are highly variable from one culture to the next; a rather silly but telling example is the practice of slurping while eating food, which is considered to be rude in western culture but polite in many cultures of East and Southeast Asia.

Rule-based notions of respect work well in some circumstances, when everyone knows the rules and generally agrees to go by them. However, in diverse, multicultural societies, or societies with changing social norms, these rules can quickly become problematic, causing misunderstandings, and in some cases, conflict escalation between culturally distinct groups.

I think that as a general rule, when interpreting others' actions, even if another person seems to come from the same culture that you do, it is best to rely only on innate cues that have biological roots, and not to interpret people's behaviors based on cultural norms that may vary. However, this recommendation is more easily said than done. Often, one is not fully aware which norms and rules are universal and which ones are culturally variable, until one has come into contact with cultures in which familiar rules are broken or contradicted. This fact highlights one of the primary values to travel and exposure to different cultures.

Commanding Respect

Most people would like to be treated with more respect at all times and by all people. At first though, it might seem like you are at the whims of others, who can choose either to respect or not respect you. But this is only partly true: by your actions, you make it more or less likely for others to respect them. The process of acting in such a way that others respect you is called commanding respect; people who are able to command respect tend to have an easier time in life. So how does one do it?

These guidelines are useful regardless of what position you are in in life. They can be useful both when supervising or leading others, and also when dealing with authority figures or supervisors. They can be useful in conflicts and in comfortable situations alike, and are just as useful in romantic relationships as they are in professional or political situations.

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