How to respond to disrespect

Key message: There are many types of disrespectful behavior. Every situation requires its own response.


This is the continuation of the text on Learn-Study-Work "What is Respect?".


How do people become disrespectful?

If a person with great self-awareness is insulted by a disrespectful person, that person will remain calm and just shake his head. A person without self-awareness will get upset and respond with his or her own insults. In my opinion, a lack of self-awareness is the reason why people behave disrespectfully.


There are two reasons for a lack of self-confidence:

1. Those who have had very bad experiences with other people in their lives lose their self-confidence and develop hate. Hate arises from "disappointed love", by which is meant physical and psychological violence (denied recognition, withdrawal of love).


 "Astrid Lindgren said in her acceptance speech on the occasion of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (1978) ... 'In no newborn child is there a seed slumbering from which good or evil will necessarily sprout. Whether a child grows up to be a warm-hearted, open and trusting person with a sense of the common good or a cold, destructive, egoistic person is decided by those to whom the child is entrusted in this world, depending on whether they show him what love is, or not.' Research has confirmed the children's author's thesis. ... People who were beaten a lot in childhood are 4.5 times more likely to be violent themselves as adults compared to 'beloved children,' according to their own reports. They were also 6.5 times as likely to have seriously considered suicide." (, 11.08.22, p. 12)


Example of missing self-confidence:
"As the psychotherapy progresses, it also becomes possible for the patient to make a connection to her experience as a child and adolescent in her parents' home. She reports that her strict and successful parents had always taught her that one had to perform a lot in order to be somebody. As a rule, her parents had responded to school failures or average performance with accusations or - what had been even worse - with an icy silence. She had usually blamed herself for it." (Sternek, K. (2013). Erfolg und Misserfolg. Zur Aktualität und psychotherapeutischen Bedeutung der Untersuchungen von Ferdinand Hoppe. Phänomenal–Zeitschrift für Gestalttheorefische Psychotherapie, 5(1-2), p. 57)


2. Anyone who thinks he or she is better than other people loses the recognition of others and thus enters a vicious circle: the denied recognition causes more arrogance, which makes the recognition even smaller.


Example "narcissistic (self-loving) men":

"The narcissistic man likes to show his brilliant side. ... For all his self-assurance, he can ultimately only be tolerated in small doses. ... He must be the center of attention ... and needs constant confirmation. ... He has no respect for anything or anyone ... In reality, besides the grandiose ego, there is an enormous emotional insecurity ... If they [narcissistic men] are not praised at work, if they cannot develop a distinct positive sense of identity, they fail mercilessly. Then the people around them are turned into scapegoats ..." (Telfener, U. (2017). Hilfe, ich liebe einen Narzissten!: Überlebensstrategien für alle Betroffenen. Arkana, p. 26 - 31)


How to "convince" a person to be respectful

When a person treats me disrespectfully, the following thought process should go on in my mind:

  1. Is it really disrespect or a misunderstanding?
  2. Stay calm. If it is disrespect, there are many ways to respond.
  3. I need to analyze the situation. E.g., how big is the disrespect and how dangerous is the offender?
  4. How should I respond to the disrespect in this situation?

Each of the following responses is correct in a particular situation:


1. I can submit to the person and accept the disrespectful treatment.
If there is a higher goal at stake, it may be right for me to submit to the disrespectful person. For example, if a person threatens me with a firearm and says, "Give me your money!" Then I do whatever the person asks in order to survive. Other example: If I am on probation at a new company and a new colleague is disrespectful to me, then I don't fight back. I can do that when the probationary period is over.


2. I can ignore the disrespectful behavior.
I simply do not react. This is useful, for example, if the disrespectful action is not of great importance or if the person is afraid of me. For example, if a new colleague is afraid that I will talk badly about him to the boss, he may attack me. By not reacting, that person sees that I don't want a fight and we can become friends.


3. I can tell the person to treat me with respect without discussion.
To people who have no respect and lie, we should speak our mind without discussing with them. Liars cannot be convinced with arguments. For example, if someone yells at me, then I can say to the person, "I feel it is very impolite of you to yell at me." Or if the person makes a derogatory comment, then I ask, "Are you trying to insult me?"

In the USA, "Stop - Walk - Talk" is taught to children to avoid bullying, see e.g.


4. I can have a rational discussion with the person.

We need to distinguish between a person who is temporarily disrespectful and a "certified asshole." With the first person an objective conversation makes sense.


"It isn't fair to call someone a certified asshole based on a single episode ... Nearly all of us act like assholes at times ... I once became angry with a staff member who I (wrongly) believed was trying to take an office away from our group. I sent an insulting e-mail to her ... She told me, "You made me cry." I later apologized to her. And although I don't demean one person after another day in and day out, I was guilty of being a yerk during that episode. ... It is far harder to qualify as a certified asshole: a person needs to display a persistant pattern, to have a history of episodes ..." (Sutton, R. I. (2007). The no asshole rule: Building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn't. Balance)


It is possible to convince a person that is temporarely disrespectful that such behavior has no long-term benefit, since only respectful people trust and help each other.


"Social trust is a fragile value; lies [and disrespectful behavior] initiate its disintegration. We all pay a price in reduced willingness to trust others and to enjoy the benefits that such trust makes possible." (Smith, T. (2003). The metaphysical case for honesty. The Journal of Value Inquiry, 37, p. 517)


5. I can get upset and argue emotionally with the person.
If I react like this, it will probably lead to a long conflict. Therefore I should remember that there is no point in "wasting" my energy if I cannot change something.


But sometimes you can't help but react emotionally. Then you should apologize for your behavior afterwards.


6. I can defend myself against the person's disrespect.

If the person sees that I am fighting back, then hopefully they will stop their disrespectful behavior.


Every person has the right to self-defense. § 227 of the German Civil Code states:

"(1) An act required by self-defense is not unlawful.
(2) Self-defense is that defense which is necessary to avert a present unlawful attack from oneself or another."

The attack must be imminent or just happened. It must not have happened some time ago. § 230 BGB says:

"Self-help may not go further than is necessary to avert the danger."

So if I am physically attacked, then I may defend myself appropriately. I am also allowed to defend myself against psychological attacks (mobbing, insult, defamation, spreading false facts), but not with physical violence, but in court.


It is always important to collect evidence of the disrespectful behavior. Then there is the possibility to take action against it. Disrespectful people do not like it at all when their behavior is made public.


7. I can defend myself against a person's disrespect by treating the person disrespectfully as well.
I know of examples where this has been successful, but it doesn't change the fundamental problem. If a disrespectful person leaves me alone, then he or she will look for another "victim". The person will say to himself, "He is just like me. Being disrespectful is normal. It just depends on who is stronger."


How can I prevent a disrespectful person from hurting my soul?

Disrespect can hurt a person's soul. I can resolve to remain calm and react thoughtfully when I feel disrespected, but if my soul has already been hurt by the disrespect I have experienced, I probably won't be able to do that.


Example: When I'm driving and I'm pressed for time, I react rudely if another car stops me. Afterwards, I get annoyed with myself because I didn't stay calm. At the moment, I can only prevent this by driving off on time and not getting under time pressure in the first place. If I were a balanced person, I could accept that there are people who are not so good at driving.


To prevent a disrespectful person from hurting my soul, I should consider the following:


1. You can't tell a person's character by the tip of his or her nose. It is of course disappointing if we are friendly to a person we have just met and then are treated disrespectfully by that person. We should therefore distinguish between politeness and friendliness. We can be polite to anyone because there are no emotions involved (we remain distant). When we are friendly to a person, we hope for a positive reaction.


2. If possible, we should avoid contact with disrespectful people. When they notice that we stay quiet and avoid them, that annoys them the most and hopefully they leave us alone (sometimes they start to feel guilty after a while).


"Let people talk ... Stay polite and don't say anything. That annoys them the most." (The band "Die Ärzte" in their song "Lasse redn")


Of course, it's not about annoying disrespectful people. We also treat such people with respect, that is, we are polite to them because we are polite to all people.


3. By remaining polite, we show them that we believe that disrespectful behavior is of no benefit in the long run. Disrespectful people have two problems: They have no true friends and they don't learn from others.


Two disrespectful people are friends as long as they have a common "enemy". If such an "enemy" loses importance, then they start to argue with each other.


One person can acquire a lot of knowledge, but many problems today are so complex that they can only be solved if several people work together. Disrespect prevents people from helping each other. That is why disrespectful people fail when they try to solve complex problems.


Seen this way, we could almost feel sorry for disrespectful people. But that would be wrong, because they have to see for themselves that they should change.


So, in order to show disrespectful people that their behavior is not successful, we must remain calm and "strong". This is not easy, but we must not lose faith that the reverse is also true: friendly and respectful people make good friends and by learning from others they can be very successful.


4. Fending off disrespectful behavior costs energy. When I was insulted, I was annoyed by the insult for a long time before I "forgot" about it. But being annoyed in silence is better than doing something "stupid" or trying to suppress the insult with alcohol or pills, for example.

Disrespect - disrespectful behavior is not an advantage -

How can a wounded soul be "healed"?

If I have a wounded soul, then there is a risk that I will feel particularly bad if I am treated disrespectfully. This can also negatively affect my relationships with people I love.


Being treated disrespectfully causes stress:


"When we are stressed, those around us notice it too. We are more thin-skinned, more easily irritable and often let little things upset us. ... People who have been suffering from chronic stress for a long time often begin to withdraw from other people. ... It is better to maintain a good social network. It is one of our most important weapons in the fight against stress." (, 30.08.23)


If negative experiences have hurt my soul, then I need positive experiences to heal it again. Healing is a process that begins with small steps (successes) that then grow larger over time. So I have to decide not to see myself as a “victim” and seek contact with respectful people.


I am not an expert on the human psyche, I am only describing my personal experiences here. From the perspective of respect, for me there are three groups of people (the transitions between the groups are fluid):

  1. Disrespectful people
  2. "Normal" people who are neither disrespectful nor particularly respectful
  3. People who can give respect.

I can have positive experiences with people in the third group in particular. But how can I recognize these people? The rule is: "If you want to make friends, you have to be friendly yourself." There are people who interpret friendliness as weakness. That's why I try to avoid disrespectful people, I'm polite to "normal" people and friendly to respectful people. The more self-confidence I have, the better this works and I might get a smile or a kind word in response. Friendship is a goal that cannot be achieved so quickly: so first politeness, then friendliness.


What can we do to counter disrespect?

However, if a disrespectful person is polite to us, we should not react in a dismissive manner, because we do not want to further damage that person's self-confidence. But we should still keep our distance, because politeness can quickly turn into aggression if something doesn't happen the way the disrespectful person expects it to. We must not give in to the illusion that such a person will change quickly.


In order to respond properly to disrespect, we need to counter it with something positive and that, in my opinion, is the belief that one day reason and people's "good will" will prevail.


The right response to disrespect is a difficult subject. The text can probably be written even better, but for that I need to gain further experience based on what I have learned so far.


Read the first part of this text "What is Respect?"


Read on Learn-Study-Work "How to solve problems", "What is Science?", "How to write a text", "What is Health?", "How to define words"

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