What is Respect?

Key message: Respect is tolerant, polite, honest behaviour towards others and compliance with social rules. You don't have to like everyone, but you should always be polite.


What types of respect exist?

"As children we are taught (one hopes) to respect our parents, teachers, and elders, school rules and traffic laws, family and cultural traditions, other people's feelings and rights, our country's flag and leaders, the truth and people's differing opinions. ... Although a wide variety of things are said to deserve respect, contemporary philosophical interest in respect has overwhelmingly been focused on respect for persons, the idea that all persons should be treated with respect simply because they are persons." (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/respect, 30.12.20)


Basically, there are two types of respect: respect without evaluation and respect with evaluation (Darwall, S. L. (1977). Two Kinds of Respect. Ethics, 88: 36–49). "The idea that all persons should be treated with respect simply because they are persons" is respect without evaluation. It is respect with evaluation when we respect someone because she has a special skill.


"Evaluation is always done in light of some qualitative standards, and different standards can apply to one and the same individual. Thus, appraisal respect is a matter of degree, depending on the extent to which the object meets the standards (so, we can respect someone more or less highly and respect one person more highly than another), and it can co-exist with (some) negative assessments of an individual or her traits (judged in light of other standards). We can have appraisal respect for someone's honesty even while thinking her lazy, ... we can respect an individual as an excellent ... carpenter yet regard her as far from a moral exemplar." (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/respect, 30.12.20)


In this text, the term "respect for persons" without evaluation shall be defined.


What is respectful and what is disrespectful?

Nurses were interviewed what indicates respect:


"Respect To and From Colleagues

• Listen, be fully attentive, and truly hear.
• Treat others as you want to be treated.
• Acknowledge and express appreciation.
• Exhibit empathy and understanding.
• Display courtesy and consideration.
• Be accountable and professional.

Respect From Managers

• Acknowledge staff.
• Communicate and provide for information exchange.
• Ask staff for their opinions and for what they need.
• Be supportive, fair, consistent, and empathetic."

(Ulrich, B., Breugger, R., & Lefton, C. (2009). Respect: Beginning to define the concept in nursing. The Official Journal of the Center for American Nurses, 2(3), p. 8)


On the other hand, we must be able to identify disrespect. Basically, one can distinguish between physical disrespect (through physical violence) and psychological disrespect. The latter can also happen online:


"We propose five contextual types of harassment in online communication on social media:

  1. Sexual harassment is an offensive sexual speech that usually targets females. ...
  2. Racial harassment targets race and ethnicity characteristics of a victim such as color, country, culture, religion, in an offensive manner ...
  3. Appearance-related harassment uses embarrassing language referring to body appearance. ...
  4. Intellectual harassment offends the intellectual power or opinions of individuals. Even smart people may be ridiculed and become victims ...
  5. Political harassment is related to someone’s political views ..."

(Rezvan, M., et al. (2020). Analyzing and learning the language for different types of harassment. Plos one 15(3), p. 1-3)


For 32 years I taught process engineering and ergonomics to students in a laboratory. During this time I worked with around 3000 students. In order to treat them with respect, I have answered the following questions for myself:
  • May students and I have different opinions? Yes
  • Do I have to like all students? No
  • Am I allowed to discriminate against students who have a different opinion or who I don't like? No
  • Do I have to be polite to all students? Yes
  • Am I allowed to criticize students? Yes, but politely.
  • May I say bad things about students behind their backs? No
  • May I be disrespectful to a group of students? No
Conclusion: "Respect for people" (without evaluation) has four characteristics.
  1. Tolerance: You accept that other persons are different and have different opinions.
  2. Politeness: You are always polite to other persons.
  3. Honesty: When you have a different opinion you tell it directly to the other person. You do not tell lies about others.
  4. Compliance with social rules: Every person belongs to at least one social community (e.g. a state). You respect not only the person, but also the legitimate rules of his community.

What is the definition of "respect for people"?

The definition of a term names the class to which the term belongs and the essential characteristics that distinguish that term from the other terms in the class (read on Learn-Study-Work "How to define words").


Class: Is respect a behavior or an attitude? A person's attitude is shown in his or her behavior. I can judge a person's behavior, whereas the attitude behind a behavior is not so easy to recognize. Therefore, it makes sense to think of respect as a behavior.


Definition: Respect is tolerant, polite, honest behaviour towards others and compliance with social rules. 


With this definition, every person can and should check his or her behavior. If one criterion is not met, it is not respect.

Respect definition: Respect is tolerant, polite,honest behavior and compliance with social rules - www.learn-study-work.org

Why is tolerance important?

After the Second World War it was clear that such a disaster should not be allowed to happen again. That is why the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed in Paris on 10 December 1948:


"Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind ... Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations ...

Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. ...
Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."


Nobody will doubt that tolerance is essential for respect.


"Every person has dignity, and enjoys the right to have dignity respected by her fellow humans ... The dignity that is protected by the Eighth Amendment, the Due Process Clause, and American constitutions, federal and state, is not social dignity, but human dignity, a property shared by all persons as such. It is not a dignity that is bestowed upon persons, either by other persons or by 'the state' or 'society' or some community or other, and that therefore can be taken away." (Markus Dirk Dubber (2004). Toward a Constitutional Law of Crime and Punishment, 55 Hastings L.J. 509)


Does tolerance mean that you are not allowed to criticize other people? No, everyone has the right to express their opinion openly and politely (see below).


"Article 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression ...

Article 29. ... In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others ..." (Universal Declaration of Human Rights - the United Nations)


Tolerance therefore means accepting that other people may express their opinions and pursue their own intresses. When different interests collide and neither side wants to give in, a conflict occurs.


A conflict is "… incompatible behaviour between parties whose interests differ." (Brown, L. D. (1983). Managing Conflict at Organizational Interfaces. Ad-dison-Wesley. Reading, MA.)


In case of conflict, we should try to understand the other party's interests and find a compromise. If this is not possible, a court or other recognized authority must decide. To avoid conflict, a community should clearly define what rules apply to it (see below).


Why is politeness important?

The basis for a polite coexistence of people in a state are the laws of the state, whereby it is assumed that these laws implement human rights.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:


"Article 29. ... In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society. ..." (my emphasis)


I am allowed to express my opinion and to criticize the actions of other people but I am limited in doing so because I have to recognize and respect the rights and freedoms of the others. This means that I have to be polite to other people.


"etiquette ...


the customs or rules of behaviour regarded as correct in social life ...
good or proper behaviour ... politeness" (www.collinsdictionary.com/de/worterbuch/englisch-thesaurus/etiquette#etiquette__1, 04-01-21)
"... any highly stratified society will possess an etiquette in which every person knows the behaviour expected from him toward others and from others toward himself. ... By mid-20th century, however, concern about polite conduct was no longer confined to a social elite. Good manners for ordinary people in everyday situations were set forth ..." (www.britannica.com/topic/etiquette, 04.01.21)


Definition: Politeness is a set of rules of good behaviour.


Every culture has its own rules of politeness. The rules change over time. Example: In the past, it was normal for hospital managers not to exchange information with nurses. Today, the nurses consider it rude if the managers don't do that (see above).


Why is honesty important?

The model for honesty is a fair trial: the accused is treated politely. Everyone is obliged to tell the truth. The prosecutor presents the accusation. The accused may defend himself on all points. If he is guilty, he will get a just punishment.


When two people meet, there are three possibilities:

  1. Both have respect for each other and they get along well.
  2. Both have no respect for each other, they fight and the stronger wins. 
  3. One person has respect and the other does not. The person with respect might get in trouble.

This classification looks simple, but it is not, because the line between respectful and disrespectful is fluid. Sometimes a person behaves respectfully, sometimes not. It depends on the situation. What one person considers disrespectful is still acceptable to another.

The line between respectful and disrespectful is fluid - www.learn-study-work.org

Those who have respect do not lie about others. When we criticize another person, we may be wrong. Therefore, we give the other person the opportunity to defend himself. People without respect sometimes try (openly or covertly) to harm others by bullying, harassment, or mobbing. Then they often tell lies about these other people behind their backs.


Why compliance with social rules is important?

"We live most of our lives in communities, similar to lions who live in social groups rather than individualistic tigers who live alone most of the time. Those communities shape, and ought to shape, our moral and political judgments and we have a strong obligation to support and nourish the particular communities that provide meaning for our lives ..." (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/communitarianism/, 23.10.21)


"The political economist Elinor Ostrom (who shared the Noble Prize for economics in 2009) observed the same phenomenon of spontaneous rule construction when people had collectively to manage common resources such as common land, fisheries, or water for irrigation. She found that people collectively construct rules about, say, how many cattle a person can graze, where, and when; who gets how much water, and what should be done when the resource is limited; who monitors whom, and which rules resolve disputes. These rules aren’t just invented by rulers and imposed from the top down – instead, they often arise, unbidden, from the needs of mutually agreeable social and economic interactions. The urge to overturn stifling, unjust or simply downright pointless rules is entirely justified. But without some rules – and some tendency for us to stick to them – society would slide rapidly into pandemonium [chaos]." (https://warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/knowledgecentre/science/psychology/world_without_rules, 23.10.21)


A community cannot do without social rules, otherwise it cannot develop. Respect for a person must take into account that this person is always a member of a community. Anyone who does not respect the rules of this community shows no respect for the members of the community.


Example: Two friends live in the same apartment building. Each has his own apartment. One of them pollutes the staircase. The other is not happy about it. His friend lacks the necessary respect for the community of house residents.


Often conflicts arise because one person does not respect a community and another person gets upset about it, is angry and then rudely expresses his opinion. In such a situation it is helpful if there are clear rules that can be applied. In court, the judge can be polite to the defendant because he knows he will apply the law and sentence him if he is guilty:


"Every criminal law follows a simple principle. It can be broken down into the following formula: 'If someone does this and that, then he must expect this and that consequences.' Whoever engages in a certain prohibited conduct must expect a certain punishment. In criminal law, the prohibited conduct is called an offense, and the consequence is called a legal consequence." (www.koerperverletzung.com/tatbestandsmerkmale/, 09.04.22)


"In the broadest sense, a rule could be any statement which says that a certain conclusion must be valid whenever a certain premise is satisfied, i.e. any statement that could be read as a sentence of the form 'if ... then ...' " (Hitzler P., Krötzsch M., Rudolph, S. (2009). Foundations of Semantic Web Technologies. Chapman & Hall/CRC, p. 213 - 216)


Example: If the captain of a soccer team makes the "rule": "The announcements of the coach and captain are to be obeyed (no discussion)," then this is not a rule, but a wish. The corresponding rule might be, "If a player does not obey the coach's announcements, then he has to sit out a game." If a player disregards this rule and is made aware of it, then he is likely to acknowledge his wrongdoing. He sits out a game and the matter is forgotten.


"Parents who no longer dare to communicate clear rules often unconsciously resort to withdrawal of love ... Instead of the child learning to take responsibility for its actions, it internalizes that it is somehow not lovable. ... That is, if a 5-year-old keeps throwing his jacket on the floor, it is agreed that as a consequence he will clear up the jackets of the whole family. It is important to agree with the child on the consequences of a certain action. It strengthens a child's self-worth if he is supported in bearing these consequences himself and taking responsibility." (www.sabine-ihle.ch/dokumente/gewaltfreie-erziehung.pdf, 11.08.22, p. 12)


So rules must be established (agreeing on rules together is better than imposing them), but there must not be too many rules. Too many rules restrict freedom, are annoying and have the opposite effect.


"It is well researched that positive reinforcement has more beneficial effects than punishment (Hautzinger, 2013). Positive reinforcement is always directed at behavior, "Great, you cleaned up your shoes and jacket." ... That's where punishment clearly shows itself at a disadvantage, because it requires constant monitoring of children's behavior. And punishment can lead to an overall decrease in behavior [to blunting] rather than just a decrease in the behavior being punished (Mazur, 2006). For example, when a child's behavior is undesirable, repeated, severe corrections by the caregiver may cause the child to withdraw and not to express himself or herself freely." (www.sabine-ihle.ch/dokumente/gewaltfreie-erziehung.pdf, 11.08.22, p. 14)


Respect and a "good will" belong together

Nobody is perfect, which is why misunderstandings sometimes occur. Before we consider someone to be disrespectful, we should try to objectively check whether our view is correct. It is also possible that there is a misunderstanding on the part of the other person. If all persons involved in a conflict have "good will", then mistakes can be forgiven and a compromise can be found to resolve the conflict.

Intelligence, wit, judgment, and the other talents of the mind, however they may be named, or courage, resolution, perseverance, as qualities of temperament, are undoubtedly good and desirable in many respects; but these gifts of nature may also become extremely bad and mischievous if the will which is to make use of them, and which, therefore, constitutes what is called character, is not good. ... I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law." (www.woldww.net/classes/Information_Ethics/Kant-notes_and_excerpts.htm, 05.06.21)


So other people should also be judged by the will behind their actions.


Continue reading "How to respond to disrespect" (on Learn-Study-Work).


Read on Learn-Study-Work:

"How to define words", "How to solve problems", "What is Science", "What is Health", "How to write a text", "How to analyze situations = systems", "How to be creative"

en français: "Qu'est-ce que le respect?", "Comment écrire un texte"