Why Respect Should Be Earned, Not Given

The admiration isn’t always mutual. An essay on why we shouldn’t casually give people respect they did not earn.

Why Respect Should Be Earned, Not Given
Photo by Tiago Felipe Ferreira on Unsplash

R.E.S.P.E.C.T

People always told me I should respect everyone until they show me otherwise. As I’ve lived my life, I learned the hard way following this rule insidious rule has caused my a lot of grief, and hurt feelings. Giving someone respect before they’ve earned it is an easy way to be run over, taken advantage of, invalidated, and unexpectedly disrespected. This includes family and close friends.

Everyone isn’t worthy of our respect.

Sometimes it takes a few interactions with a person to determine whether they are worthy of respecting. Besides, we all have our own personal definitions of who and what are worthy of respect. I don’t want anyone to force their rules on me, as you may have a beef with someone in a group, class or race I’m associated with which immediately puts me in the “No Respect” pile without me even knowing it. I’m disrespected and slightly all the time because the color of my skin and/or gender, yet I’m expected to get up every day with a smile and continue to blindly respect people who may or may not have the same level of respect for me I’ve been taught to have for them.

And it’s not that I was expecting respect at all. The thing is, I was taught to respect and that people will respect me in return. I was taught respect is something everyone is entitled to. That’s no longer true for me. There are enough people in the world who have shown me that no matter how much respect I give them, I’ll never earn theirs in return. So, to hell with respecting all. My politeness with suspicion will have to suffice.

For example, while waiting in line for my plane to depart, a few people will rudely cut in line in front of me and a whole long line of other passengers waiting to board, then they have the nerve to act as if they did nothing wrong. Why should I respect them when they don’t respect themselves or me? Some people are all for self, they aren’t a respecter of persons.

I remember a time when I was in the bank talking to the teller trying to get some information, and the teller was being rude to me. I came in the door with a wonderful attitude, greeted her politely, armed with my respect to get what I needed, and because I believed the person on the receiving end of my respect would appreciate it. Even if she was having a bad day, she surely could have treated me better than she did. I feel as though she didn’t respect me during our interaction because she didn’t know me and I’m sure she figured I’d go to another branch instead of coming back to look in her rude face.

She was right. My need and expectation for respect sent me elsewhere. My expectations were wrong. She didn’t owe me respect, and I didn’t owe her any either. But I gave it to the teller because I’ve been conditioned to do so.

As a decent human being in passing, I have spoken to plenty of people (White, Haitian, Black, Latinx, Indian, Arab) as our eyes meet as an affirmation of one’s existence and an effort to show mutual respect. They stared me down or ignored me as if I didn’t say a word. I went out of my way to speak because I had respect for my fellow human being, and I live in the South, it’s the courteous thing to do. Such rudeness after a little stunned at how people exercise their privilege to be disrespectful to others. I don’t take it lightly. Each time it leaves a little cut, a wound. It leaves us a little colder, a little less trusting of our gut.

Sometimes your kids don’t even respect you. Grown kids calling on us parents as if we are some piggy banks and mop buckets to help clean up all their life’s messes. They take our food without asking, damage our cars, go to college and flunk out wasting our money, talk to us disrespectfully despite all we’ve done for them, and our teen and adult children act as if we are alive only to take care of their selfish whims and needs. Most of us teach our kids to respect others, but we forget to teach them how to respect us parents. At some point, parents learn the hard way some people don’t give a shit about respect, including our own children. In fact, you eventually learn there are many people in the world who don’t care if you respect them. For some folks, everything is transactional.

That’s why I’ve concluded we should be polite to everyone and anyone we encounter.

Being polite and kind is just humane. It doesn’t hurt to ask a complete stranger how they are doing. It’s kind to hold a door for the person coming behind you. It’s nice to give up a seat on the metro to an elderly woman or gentleman. It’s polite to greet senior citizens. It’s polite to speak in your inside voice in a restaurant. It’s polite to consider others. It’s polite to honor people with titles such as the President, the Mayor, the Chief of Police, your pastor, and the head of your office. These individuals have certain jobs and titles, there are societal norms and protocols that dictate how these folks should be greeted and spoken to. Just because they are, and just because they exist, doesn’t mean they are worthy of respect.

I believe we should save respect for those who earn it.

We also need to come up with criteria for respect or leave it alone altogether. We should respect all leaders, not just the ones who look like us, talk like us, and pander to us. You can’t make me respect Trump if you didn’t respect Obama. Don’t ask me to respect all men, when all men don’t respect all women. Don’t lump me in with People of Color when some people of color don’t like Black or respect Black people. Some people of color teach their children not to associate with Blacks, because everyone in the world knows Blackness has been deemed bad by Whiteness. Some people of color will never no matter how well I treat them. Don’t sit me in a congregation where the men believe women aren’t equal. You’re telling me the male leadership doesn’t view women and men the same. The congregation doesn’t respect me because of my gender. Just because someone went to jail or prison doesn’t mean the person is unworthy of respect. I wouldn’t respect Trump. He has done nothing for me to respect him, even if he is the country’s President. Anyone telling me I should do otherwise would be lucky if all they got was a side-eye. I’d be polite to the President if I ever was in his presence, but I’ll never respect for him.

That’s why I believe it’s okay to be polite. We should all be polite. Let’s practice being more polite and kind. Being polite to someone could lead to the same thing in return (unless you meet an asshole who hates you just because _________ fill in the blank). In return, you could receive a random act of kindness, a kind word, compassion, you could even make a friend for life. You could even earn someone’s respect. Keep in mind respect or politeness doesn’t guarantee us anything. At least if we’re polite to each person we encounter, it gives us the opportunity to assess whether the person we’re coming in contact with is worthy of our respect. Some people show us immediately they have no respect for your person, making us glad we didn’t extend a privilege (respect) to someone who didn’t earn it.

Our respect should be earned via kindness, by adding value to a person’s life, by showing compassion, through wonderful experiences and interactions, and just plain old being polite like a decent human being. There are some people in this world who will demand your respect while disrespecting you in the same instance. What we need to learn to do is to keep our composure and walk away.

Racists and bigots have the audacity to demand respect, but rarely display what they ask others for. Respecting racists, overt and covert alike, isn’t about a deep a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements. Racists believe one should be respected based on nothing more than the color of the one’s skin. Giving people like these respect is starting off an encounter, interaction, or relationship with a deficit. So why bother?

Respect to some means they have high regards for people, groups, genders, and/or persons in certain socioeconomic brackets. These people know right off the bat they have no respect for the poor, yet the poor walk around worshiping, having a high regard, and respecting these people who have little if any respect for them. We don’t realize how frequently we give away respect to freely to people who don’t deserve it. Why should White men be respected more than White women, Black women, or Black men?

I can think of a thousand reasons who people individually and collectively shouldn’t be respected, but we do it anyway because we’ve been taught to admire certain people, with certain qualities, and certain beliefs. We’ve been told their being is more important than our own, and we need to hold these folks in high regard.

I am choosing to admire myself first and watching closely the actions of others who say they admire me. Likewise, I don’t expect anyone to give me respect. I need to do something admirable to be admired (respected). Simply “being” shouldn’t entitle anyone to respect. Let’s face it. Some people are undeserving of respect, depending on professional job titles, positions in society, bank accounts, religious affiliation, nationality, ethnicity, race, or educational backgrounds — society believes these are automatic qualifiers of respect. Well, I’m here to tell you it’s not.

Stop giving away respect. People need to earn it. Perhaps if we made people earn respect instead of giving it to them and forcing others to take part in the tradition of worshiping people for no good reason except they exist, humanity would be in a much better position. Earning respect requires us to examine people, but we are often too lazy, too afraid, or programmed not to inquire about a person’s intentions toward us. That’s how we get tricked by people in the short term. That’s how entire societies are wiped from the earth. We trust too much. We give respect too soon. We’ve been taught to disbelieve what we see with our eyes because all people deserve respect.

That’s a lie!

Be polite to all until they give you a reason not to anymore, but please let’s stop giving away respect to unworthy people. Some people need to have the hot air let out of their ballons. Others need to know it’s okay to not respect someone who doesn’t deserve it. Be polite, but reserve respect for those who earn it.

Respect should be earned, not given away. I’m done giving respect to people who don’t respect or value my being. They don’t have to. The feelings are mutual.

©2019 Marley K. All rights reserved.