Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Art PrintsWe all want it, but do we always give it to others? I was reminded recently of the importance of respect in dealing with other people, especially those we may not know well.  Impressions based on how someone looks, what others may have told us, or an unconscious (or conscious) bias are more the norm.  It’s human nature.  When we meet someone for the first time, we immediately begin forming a mental image, looking for clues about their morals, intelligence, and other inherent traits, and filling in the gaps based on our past experiences with other people bearing similar superficial features.  This approach is, of course, a dangerous one.

One of the things I admired the most about my father was that he was unfailingly respectful of other people, even when they were treating him with contempt.  He was an uneducated man, a dirt-poor farmer who grew up in the rural Mississippi countryside.  It was presumed (incorrectly) that he was unintelligent, unmannered, and bigoted, based solely on his situation (I also experienced similar presumptions when I first ventured to other parts of the country and the world).  As a child, I watched more educated or wealthier people treat my father with disrespect.  Yet, I never saw him get angry or raise his voice to anyone (not even his children when they let snakes loose in the house [a pest control experiment]).  He listened respectfully and responded politely to others who clearly thought themselves to be his superior and made a point of emphasizing the difference.  

As a teenager I was embarrassed by my parents (who wasn’t?), but the lesson of his respectful nature did sink in, and I’ve later come to appreciate just how important it is.   I’ve tried hard to follow my father’s model, but it’s difficult, especially when other people are disrespectful of me.  Some would argue that such people are not deserving of respect. However, it’s not really about them; what’s important is your behavior and whether you choose to take the high road or get down in the mud with your attacker.  And I use the term, “attacker”, because disrespectful acts are definitely attacks. I’ve talked a bit in past posts about “verbal attacks” and ways to handle them (here and here).  But often we don’t recognize when we are being attacked, especially when it involves subtle disrespect. 

In any case, I know my father would say that to maintain one’s own self-respect, it’s essential to preserve your respectful treatment of others.  I’m not advocating here that you should not defend yourself against unfair treatment. Just that you do so without showing disrespect for the other person.

Image Credit: The Farmer by Fred Neveu. I really like this painting, which perfectly captures the affable, hardworking character of a dying breed of family farmers.

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