What is respect?

Showing respect is much applauded yet hotly contested. One person’s respect is another’s insult.

The word carries two main meanings.

Respect as in admire deeply, as a result of abilities, qualities or achievements. For example, ‘she is a respected academic’. Another way of expressing this is to hold someone in high regard, or high esteem. In this case the person is looked up to, praised, even revered.

Respect also means to have due regard or show consideration for a person’s feelings, wishes or rights. This is the meaning that is used when public service values refer to respect. In the APS, Respect refers to considering people’s rights and their heritage, treating all people with dignity, recognising that all people have value, and fostering diversity.

While easy to subscribe to this value, complying with it in practice is not so simple. The behaviours that I think show me respect might be inconsequential to you. You may not give much thought to those behaviours that are of vital importance to me, and even consider them “so PC” as to be not worth considering.

A useful exercise is to make a list of those behaviours that mean Respect towards you, then compare them with others’ lists. Here’s a list of 20 items that would appear on my list:

  1. Extend everyday courtesies such as opening doors, saying thank you.
  2. Check what title I wish to use, don’t assume I’m Mrs.
  3. Use titles if I have one.
  4. Don’t use any expression that states or implies I am lesser, other, or deficient in some way.
  5. Refer to me as an adult [i.e. woman not girl] unless I give you permission to call me something else.
  6. Don’t shorten or alter my name unless I give you permission.
  7. Spell my name correctly.
  8. Shake hands at our first meeting.
  9. Don’t assume I want to be kissed as a greeting.
  10. Choose colours other than pink and blue, particularly when implying gender.
  11. Check your assumptions about me.
  12. Ask questions about what I’m thinking, rather than assume you know.
  13. Take an interest in my experiences and what I do.
  14. Don’t hog the conversation.
  15. Engage in give and take, turn-taking when conversing with me.
  16. Accept that I don’t have to be talking all the time.
  17. Don’t refer to me as a ‘guy’ or ‘guys’.
  18. Don’t interrupt me or talk over me.
  19. Look at me when we are talking to each other.
  20. Don’t play with your smart phone while talking to me.

Some of these may appear on your list. Some might appear strange or unimportant from your perspective. The point is, that showing regard for my wishes, rights and dignity means taking into account what respect means for me.

Several on my list refer to gendered language, what some may label sexist. The APSC’s gender equality strategy provides some useful information on how language is gendered. In their Lexicon of Gender, they write:

“Gendered language is so deeply entrenched in our everyday speech that many people don’t even hear it anymore. Even if they do, it is understandable to question what the big deal is. Words are just words, aren’t they? Well, yes and no. Literally taken, words are just letters on a page but more importantly they are also symbols of meaning that can convey our prejudices, fears and anxieties. This can affect a wide range of behaviours and lead to subtle biases. In that sense, it is worth taking a critical look at the words we choose to use and the social implications behind them.”

Words are powerful. Don’t be fooled by sayings like ‘It’s not what you say, but how you say it’ or most communication is non-verbal. These are misleading and in the case of the latter, based on Meharabian’s research, just plain inaccurate. Respect will be shown when words are chosen wisely.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist® specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.