In last week’s blog I wrote about safe(r) spaces and who they are for, exactly. Are safe spaces reserved only for the most damaged, the most oppressed in our society/community? Or is a space supposed to be safe for everyone? I mentioned toward the end that I thought a conversation about what respect looks like, what it means and who deserves it is necessary as part of the larger conversation about safe(r) spaces.
Respect is a word that has, at this point in our culture, become so overused that it practically ceases to have meaning. It’s almost like the word “nice.” What does it mean to show respect? What does it mean to respect yourself? What does it mean to be respectful? Here are some thoughts on the subject.
Simply put, to me, respect means having the skills to identify, acknowledge and follow another person’s boundaries. It means not making assumptions about other people. It means not dismissing another person’s feelings or experiences, no matter what you think of them or their background. Respect means letting other people be who they are, no matter how they behave.
Respect does not mean always being agreeable or being obsequious. It is possible to disagree with someone or to deal with someone directly without being disrespectful. It’s a skill. And, as I’ve seen it, few people have this skill, but it is possible.
One of the most ubiquitous violations of respectful behavior that I see all the time is interrupting. People in our culture - in social and in professional situations - love to interrupt. Interrupting is a red flag that the person interrupting does not respect the person speaking. (And btws, saying “I don’t mean to interrupt you but…” and then flying headlong into an interruption is not acceptable under any circumstances.) Allowing someone to finish their thought, not matter how offensive or foreign it is, is vital to respectful exchanges between people.
Of course, people do need to learn how to respect themselves before they can respect other people. Many people have been treated disrespectfully since childhood. It is a common misconception that children don’t deserve respect. I vehemently beg to differ. Going back to my original definition that respect is to identify, acknowledge and follow another person’s boundaries - how many times have you witnessed a child being coerced to hug an adult they don’t want to hug? This is an egregiously disrespectful act. Perhaps the child, who is not operating under the same time/relational/customs standards that the parent is, simply doesn’t feel like being touched. Or they have some discomfort around the person the parent is coercing them into hugging. Forcing a child to hug someone they do not want to hug is the beginning of teaching them that their feelings, their impulses, their needs do not matter. It is disrespectful and it manifests in teenaged and adult years as people who either walk all over other people’s feelings and needs or who allow other people to walk all over their own. Thus we have this epidemic of disrespect in our country,
So, how does a person learn to respect themselves? The first step is to investigate what makes you feel respected. For me, it’s being listened to (not interrupted). Being responded to with a certain gentleness and kindness of tone. Being appreciated for what I bring to the table. Once I identified these qualities, I sought out people and friends who treated me this way and/or who were open to feedback about how their behavior seemed disrespectful to me. What has resulted, over the course of the last 10 years of so, is the development of a large and wide pool of good friends who treat me and each other with respect.
Now, it’s not always possible to ensure that the work environment has these kinds of standards in place. We may be in situations where we are required to work or go to school with people who are not respectful. These are more sensitive situations, but they are still manageable. I have definitely taken the time to respectfully and calmly tell managers, co-facilitators and other co-workers that I felt disrespected by their action(s). I’ve always done this in private. And I always tempered it with the context of wanting as productive a working relationship as possible with the other person. Sometimes it’s made a positive difference, sometimes it’s gone nowhere. But I do try. And that’s because I respect myself enough to want other people to treat me with respect.
Also. As a caveat. I wish people would stop using the term “with all due respect” as a get out of jail free card for being an asshole. “With all due respect” does not give the speaker the right to say something disrespectful. It is meant as a warning that what you’re about to say may not align with what the other person has just said. But what is said after that warning must ACTUALLY be respectful.