The Idea of Respect

Respect has been called, with good reason, the single most powerful ingredient in nourishing relationships and creating a just society.

Respect for others involves understanding and acknowledging the feelings and opinions of others even though we may not always agree with them. Respect comes from understanding the differences in perspectives, but not passing any value judgments. It involves being courteous and using appropriate language that includes phrases like “please”, “thank you”, and “you’re welcome”. It involves not taking advantage of vulnerabilities of others and treating every one of them as being important. It involves developing mutual trust which research has shown to be the most important factor in successful relationships.


Organizational change expert Paul Meshanko has studied how the human brain responds to various workplace situations and has come to the interesting conclusion that people perform at their highest level when they are treated with respect. Conversely, he has found that when an employee is emotionally harassed by disrespectful behaviour, he or she shuts down. In his book The Respect Effect, Meshanko elucidates the transformational power that respect has in the workplace.

It should therefore come as no surprise that employees in the USA ranked “respect” as the most important job quality in a 2014 survey co-produced by the Harvard Business Review. Similarly, employees in the UK also bestowed highest value to dignity and respect, according to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. Respect sets the stage for engagement, it promotes collaboration and inclusion and it unleashes extraordinary creativity and resilience in the workplace. What is therefore difficult to understand is why very little systematic research has been done so far in this important area.

Management Professor Christine Porath wrote a piece in HBR titled “Half of Employees Don’t Feel Respected by Their Bosses”. She says, that over the 18 years that she studied the effects of civility, which she defines as behaviour involving politeness and regard for others in the workplace, she has learned that the vast majority of disrespectful behaviour stems from a lack of self-awareness. People may have good intentions, but they fail to see how their behaviour is perceived by others. For example, a top doctor in a Masters of Medical Management program that she taught, told her that until he received some harsh 360-degree feedback, he was clueless that so many people thought that he was such a jerk. He was simply treating residents the same way that he had been trained several years ago.

In the current turbulent times, when we are witnessing a disturbing and alarming trend of large scale disrespectful behaviour across the board in our society, there is an urgent need for better understanding of ‘respect’. We need to gain insights into cultural origins of both respect and disrespect and examine how and when these tendencies develop in a person. It is generally agreed that respectful children tend to become respectful, civil, courteous and tolerant adults when they grow up. Conversely, we can trace the origins of incivility, disrespect, intolerance, and other problems of adults to their caustic environment during childhood and adolescence.

Interestingly, in cross-cultural comparisons, Thailand is regarded as having a tradition and culture where respect is shown universally and freely to all members of the society. Bruce Bonta and Douglas Fry while writing about ‘Learning from Peaceful Societies’ give the example of the Thai culture that goes to the extreme of emphasizing the need for respecting the essential dignity of young children and even babies. When parents in Thailand are unable to convince their children to behave in a certain way through coaxing, persuasion and other softer means, they will simply give up the effort saying that the children have the right to decide what they will or will not do and such wishes must be respected.

Even outside Thailand, as children, we are all taught to respect our parents, our teachers and our elders. We are told to respect school rules & traffic laws, family & cultural traditions and feelings & rights of other people. As we grew up we were expected to respect our country’s flag, our leaders and show respect to differing opinions of people. After being fully brainwashed to value and respect such things, we spontaneously disapprove of  people who seem not to respect these important elements. 




In the Indian culture, obedience and subservience is mistakenly viewed as showing respect. Also, allowing the other person to decide on what legitimately is ‘our list of choices’ is considered displaying respect to the other person who may or may not understand our preferences. In India gender inequality and debilitating caste considerations imbibed over generations raise their ugly manifestations both at home and in public. This is a serious problem and the government and civil society are struggling to correct these prejudices where respect is more out of fear and lack of it is due to inability to confront community pressures.

On a different dimension, it is a very Indian tradition for a women’s parents to provide anything their sons-in-law ask for and also treat them as princes. It is an old custom dating back to the days when women were fully dependent on their parents or husbands. For instance, it is customary for women in Indian families to show respect to all men in general. Similarly, married woman’s family members are expected to show respect to her husband’s family members. The upper caste members  expect to receive respect from others. The list of discrimination goes on and on and any changes to this mind set are painfully slow to come.




I came across a couple of internet sites advising visitors to India on some cultural aspects. This particular one was interesting.

“Pointing a finger at someone would be considered rude and disrespectful in India. If you need to get the attention of the waiter in a restaurant make eye contact or try to gesture to him with your right hand/arm stretched out, palm facing down and moving your fingers towards yourself.”

Let us turn our attention to societal issues involving respect. Calls to respect and support for one or other causes are increasingly part of our public life: environmentalists exhort us to respect nature, opponents of abortion and capital punishment insist on respect for human life, members of racial, religious and ethnic minorities demand respect for their cultural differences and those discriminated against because of their gender, sexual orientation or economic status demand respect as equals with others. What is central to resolving such inequities in giving and receiving respect is the widely acknowledged need for mutual respect.

While we are discussing this subject of respect which is implicated in a wide array of areas like racism, sexism, homophobia, culture wars, harassment and so on, let us first clarify what we mean by ‘respect’ and ‘disrespect’.

For example, great scientist Einstein remarked “I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.” Einstein seemed to emphasize that respect is how you communicate with people

Bruce Lee, martial artist, actor, philosopher and filmmaker, on the other hand, said

“Knowledge will give you power, but character, respect.”  His take was that while you can be knowledgeable, such knowledge doesn’t earn admiration unless your mental and physical qualities and actions find acceptance as desirable traits.

Mutual respect between those in different economic strata is waning. This is  partly due to the widening of inequality in resources which has created a “respect gap” between classes. This in turn is breeding a sense of powerlessness among the people at the lower end of resource chain. Powerless people receive less respect and sometimes get even disrespected.

Teacher David Birch has an interesting perspective published in The Guardian. “When we tell pupils to respect each other, we are actually telling them not to disrespect each other. To disrespect someone is to belittle them, treat them as worthless and of little importance. Respect maintains an equality of status and value in the classroom.

While this sounds like an admirable aim, it’s also a high-stakes approach because disrespect then becomes a kind of theft – to be disrespected is to be robbed of our worth. The question is then, how can we get it back? If one pupil tells another to shut up, then he has disrespected him and what often follows is retaliation and resentment. It becomes a race to the bottom where each pupil attempts to recover his worth by taking from the other”.

Bringing up children with patience and showing them respect is a difficult task but is extremely important. Developmental Neuroscientist Douglas Fields claims that the latest scientific research backs up with detailed molecular and cellular mechanisms that during early phase from childhood through adolescence, the human brain is moulded by the social environment in which a child is reared. A disrespectful, stressful social environment is a neurotoxin for the brain and the psyche, and more importantly, the scars that get created are permanent.

A series of studies by a group of psychiatrists and brain imaging scientists anchored by Martin Teicher, of Harvard Medical School, show that even hostile words in the form of verbal abuse can cause damaging brain changes and create enduring psychiatric risks for young adults. In a study published in 2006, the researchers showed that parental verbal abuse has stronger detrimental effects on the brain than parental physical abuse. The main causes are stress hormones, changes in inhibitory neurotransmitters and the damaging effect in the formation of myelin electrical insulation on nerve fibres. We need to appreciate that the most sensitive period when verbal abuse seriously impairs the brain development is during the middle school years.

All parents are familiar with scenes of their teens rolling their eyes, ignoring people and going straight to their rooms and closing the doors shut with a bang, arguing with them all the time and other such manifestations of disrespect. Developmental Psychologist Diana Divecha explains that what appears to most parents as disrespectful behaviour is in fact the teens’ desire to run their own lives with a certain degree of autonomy. She says that a number of changes conspire during adolescence to make autonomy more important than at any other time in their lives. The hormonal changes that come with puberty tend to act on the teen’s brain and bias their motivation in certain ways, perhaps preparing them for adulthood. One of these changes is in testosterone whose rise in both boys and girls in adolescence is correlated with respect-seeking.

Clifton Parker of Stanford warns that disrespect towards people based on group affiliations will give rise to anti-social behaviour by the affected. The consequence of such threats to social identity can harm the future prospects of these people for achieving success in work, school and society. For instance, students are more likely to engage in delinquent behaviour in school if they believe that their teachers and school authorities view them simply through the lens of a negative stereotype. People in general may feel compelled to retaliate if they believe that they have been unfairly passed over from their dues simply because of their gender or race.

Healthy relationships are reliant on respect. This is why being “disrespected” is socially painful.

It may be counter-intuitive but redistribution that is necessary to achieve greater material equality may in-fact undermine respect between citizens. In particular, the funders of social assistance may be resentful and the recipients may feel stigma or shame. Feelings of such stigma may be further accentuated if the ways in which the resources are delivered are not properly communicated.

Philosopher Elizabeth Anderson provides an extreme example in the form of a letter sent by an imagined State Equality Agency, along with the dole out:

“How sad that you are so repulsive to people around you that no one wants to be your friend or lifetime companion. We won’t make it up to you by being your friend or your marriage partner— we have our own freedom of association to exercise—but you can console yourself in your miserable loneliness by consuming these material goods which we, the beautiful and charming ones, will provide. And who knows? Maybe you won’t be such a loser once potential dates see how rich you are”.

While such a letter will never be sent, the receivers of any social assistance may harbour similar kinds of thoughts with a certain amount of resentment towards such doles.

It is now generally recognized that higher socioeconomic status doesn’t necessarily translate into a greater sense of well-being and happiness. The question then is what does? Psychological scientist Cameron Anderson and his colleagues hypothesized that higher sociometric status which is respect and admiration in your face-to-face groups, such as your friendship network, your neighbourhood, or your athletic team – might make a difference in your overall happiness. “Having higher standing in your local ladder, makes a difference as it leads to receiving more respect, having more influence, and being more integrated into the group’s social fabric,” Anderson said.

Human society over the years has given preeminence to meritocracy than aristocracy of birth or inherited wealth. While meritocrats do receive full respect from others for their efforts and their achievements, there is a downside when it comes to others who lack merit. These under-achievers experience a loss of self-respectas they had a chance to show their skills, but failed as they simply lacked them. As the society keeps branding them repeatedly as lacking in merit, they are bound to recognize that they do have an inferior status, not because they were denied the opportunity but because they are really inferior. For the first time in our history the inferior man has no buttress or excuse to protect his self-regard.

Thus, while life in a meritocracy is psychologically comfortable for those who possess whatever specific kinds of merits that are valued, it is indeed very hard on those who lack these merit points. This makes them vulnerable with a tendency to jump into any bandwagon that shows empathy for their difficult situation.

One of the reasons attributed to success of Donald Trump in the US elections is that working class Americans felt that he was on their side, spoke their language and not the elitist sermons, showed respect to them and more importantly was not condescending to them.

It is interesting that when a person trains in aikido, he begins and ends each class by bowing at the edge of the mat and saying  “rei”—the Japanese word for “respect.”

Let me end this blog exhorting “let us respect the idea of respect and propagate respectfor a better society”.