Wednesday, October 18, 2017


"When someone disrespects you," the saying goes, "Beware the impulse to win their respect. For disrespect is not a valuation of your worth but a signal of their character."

I respectfully beg to differ. Although I understand the sentiment, the devil is always in the details and here, the details lie in the unstated assumptions that this seems to be built on. (And yes, I do appreciate the irony of speculating about someone else's assumptions.) What follows are those potential assumptions, in no particular order.

The feeling or perception of being disrespected is the same as being disrespected. This is always a tricky one, because it works under the idea that gestures of respect or disrespect are, firstly, both objective and universal and secondly, obvious enough that the observer is always right about them. In this, I fall back on a lesson my father taught me: "Obvious," he said, "refers to something so crystal-clear that you're the only person who sees it." It's possible to feel disrespected by someone who intends no disrespect, simply because the language they use to convey respect is different enough from the one you use to recognize it.

That respect (or at least neutrality), in ways that we recognize and respond to, is an entitlement. This, in my experience, is not a given. For some people. respect is a gift. For others, respect is something that others earn from them. And there are people for whom the way that they withhold the outward signs of respect that they have yet to give, comes off and being actively disrespectful.

That "worth" is synonymous with any other measure of esteem or regard, and thus, we are best people to measure our own "worth." I understand the idea behind making self-worth, self-value, self-esteem, self-regard and other concepts roughly equal to one another. But it is perhaps useful to take into account that these words can have very different contexts. I can value someone quite highly, yet hold them in relatively low esteem for other reasons. Likewise, I regard someone immensely, yet find that they don't bring much of tangible worth to the table. And those are my judgements to make. Someone can tell me all they like that I should view all people of equal worth, but there are going to be times when choices have to be made, and when they are, we may be better off divorcing their valuation of us in the moment from the valuation of ourselves that we carry with us every day.

Once someone has hurt your feelings, looking for their regard is a form of self-debasement. A reasonable position to take, but not always an accurate one, for some of the reasons I've already outlined. But also, sometimes, having a positive relationship with someone takes work. There will always be times when the work that one put into it turns out not to be worth it. That's true of anything. Chasing the respect of people who will withhold it from you just to boost their own egos is a drag. But sometimes, the risks that we take for connection, and yes, respect, pay off.

It's always about you. This is a variation on the idea that what feels like disrespect is always disrespect. Just because it feels like someone's disrespecting you doesn't mean that it has anything to do with you. One of the big things at my workplace is never, ever, EVER allow someone to tailgate you when you're passing through a secure door. And of course, that can mean that you literally wind up closing a door in someone's face, to force them to tap the card reader and unlock it again so that they can come in. But rules are rules, and I'm not up to being the guy on the unemployment line because I held the door open for someone who had no business being in the building. Or maybe someone doesn't respond to a greeting because they're 10 minutes late for that dressing down their boss is going to give them.

it's never about you, because you never have it coming. I know that I said that these were in no particular order, but I am placing this one last on the list. Sometimes, people disrespect us, because they understand that we've disrespected them. Maybe they're not the person in this situation with the flawed character - we are. And it's important to recognize that possibility. "Character," despite how we like to talk about it, isn't an absolute. Sometimes, we're on our manners and respect A game, and other times, we really need to go soak our heads for a while. When we make being disrespected into a reflection of the flawed character of everyone else, we walk right by a chance to stop and say: "Under what set of circumstances is what just happened a reasonable response to things?" Now, to be sure, there is a risk in this. We run the risk of always finding fault with ourselves and striving to be all things to all people, and losing our sense of self in an effort to please everyone around us. But there are more, and better, ways to avoid that fate than simply presuming that the other person is always wrong. Especially when we live in a society were people, for any number of reasons, won't always tell you that you've done something to injure them. Or if they're intimidated by you. Or if they think you don't like them. Or maybe you blew them off because you were already running 10 minutes late for that dressing down your boss was going to give you, and just wouldn't spare the time.

The idea that when someone disrespects us, we shouldn't consider winning their respect because they have a flawed character runs the risk of turning our subjective feeling of disrespect and possibly hurt at being judged badly into a judgement of the other person - one that we are often encouraged to take at face value and see as infallible. Yes, internalizing a negative external judgment and working to combat that by seeking the approval of others is dangerous. But rather than reverse that judgement onto the other person, withholding judgment in favor of questioning may be the better approach. We are not entitled to be seen as we wish to be seen, because not everyone can see us as we do. And there's nothing wrong with that.

No comments: