Informal Observations On The Principles of Respect

Someone really famous once said, “Follow me”.

I have had the experience of two kinds of respect. Respect earned by fear, and respect earned by demonstration. I know the difference between the two because I know how I feel like as a giver and a receiver of both kinds of respect. I have learned from experience that it’s far better to demonstrate respect than to demand it.

I have been on the receiving end of demands for respect. My father demanded respect. His demand for respect was backed up by the threat of punishment. That punishment ranged from the silent treatment to spanking. He was always very clear about his demands, and his demands struck fear in my heart.

So I showed my respect for him out of fear. My experience with him was that he was unavailable for intimacy. I couldn’t just talk with him to talk. We never went to movies together. We never went for walks together. He was not there for me, because he lacked the capacity to be there for me. Walking and talking with someone is one way to earn respect. My dad used fear as a way of earning respect from others.

He tried to teach me how to earn respect through fear. He had a book called, “Winning Through Intimidation” and suggested that I read it. I read it, followed some of the suggestions, and found that it wasn’t for me. That’s not how I want to earn respect. I don’t want to earn respect through intimidation. Not that I couldn’t. I know that I could if I had the mind to do it. I just don't like how I feel when I earn respect with fear.

I’m a middle-aged man how. I’ve tried many different ways to earn respect and settled upon one way to earn it. I demonstrate it to other people. I give everyone a certain minimum amount of respect. I give simple courtesies, pleasantries and I observe physical boundaries. I demonstrate basic courtesy to everyone every day. That’s respect.

I’ve found that by demonstrating respect, I get it back. I like the way this works because it’s completely voluntary. I model respect, I don’t demand it. The beauty of modeling respect is that humans are natural imitators. If I smile at someone, they almost always smile back. That’s a very simple form of imitation.

I learned respect from the kids in school who used to tease me. I learned respect from the bullies in school. I saw a contrast in respect between the boys who teased the deaf kids in my school and the girls who learned sign language from them. I marveled at how those girls mystified the bullies with sign language and how they found friendship with the deaf kids.

I learned respect from my teachers and school staff. I learned respect from some of my friends. I learned respect from other adults around me. Some of them used fear, some of them demonstrated respect. I knew the difference in how I felt between them.

In contrast to my father, I learned respect from my mother who was always interested in my needs growing up. She always made sure there was good food on the table (my dad earned the money, my mom made sure we clothed and fed). My mom respected my privacy, my autonomy, and she was generous with her time with me.

I am a father of two young children. My wife is from Vietnam, a culture with authoritarian child-rearing practices. This is something I did not prepare for. I did not do enough research to figure out that this could be a problem. But our differences set up a natural experiment that would demonstrate to me how respect is earned.

In this experiment, I proved to myself that respect is not something you demand. You earn it. The kind of respect I want is not earned through punishment and reward. Respect is earned by demonstration. It is earned by modeling.

Humans are very good imitators. Anyone who has ever seen Rich Little or Darrell Hammond do impressions of famous people will know what I’m talking about. When we learned to walk, we imitated our parents. When we learned to talk, we imitated our parents and other people around us. Most of our survival skills were learned from others modeling those skills for us. As we grew up, we made a conscious effort to imitate those skills by watching others. With practice, and if we’re lucky we get some mentoring, we mastered the skills we saw demonstrated by someone else.

Often humans imitate other humans unconsciously. Talk in conversation with a group of people and observe what happens if you fold your arms. Those who are sympathetic to you will fold their arms, too. Lift one hand to touch your chin and others will do the same. Relax your arms to your side and see who relaxes. This is called, “postural echo”. I’ve done this a few times and it’s uncanny how it happens.

We often learn the rules of respect unconsciously. We become familiar with the feelings of respect and how it is earned. If we learned that respect is earned by demands and fear, we normalize that experience, imitate it, and impose fear on others to get our needs met. If we had people who were models of respect in our lives that were generous to us with their time, possessions, and teaching, we learned how to earn respect without fear. We learned respect through generosity, compassion, and collaboration. We learned respect by demonstration.

There is one defining contrast between those two ways of earning respect, and I learned this with my own children. I learned that I have greater influence with others by modeling respect through generosity than by demanding respect with fear. My kids respect me because I’m firm in my commitments to them. They know that I will be there for them. They know that I will not punish them for their mistakes. They know that they can come to me for help with their mistakes. That is how I maintain some influence with my kids.

If the people around me know that they can ask me for help, that is an invitation for influence. If I want to change the world, then I make myself available for help. When people ask for help, they are open to influence. They are open to new ideas. I have found that I can influence the world by being the change I want to see. Without saying or demanding it, I am transmitting the message, “Follow me”.

A person who is confused is teachable. A person who thinks he knows everything is not. I admit to being confused. I admit to not knowing. Sometimes I say, “I don’t know” as a signal to myself to open my mind to new information. I have found that whenever I admit to being ignorant or confused, the universe will happily oblige me with new information, better information, more accurate information. The universe is a reflection of everything that I’m thinking and feeling right now.

If I make demands of other people, the universe tends to make demands on me. If I model respect to other people, the universe tends to respect me. It’s uncanny how this works. If I’m generous with my time, people tend to be generous with their time with me. If I’m forgiving of others, people tend to be forgiving of me. If I’m respectful of others, people tend to be respectful of me.

The tendency of people to imitate me while I’m being respectful, being generous, making requests instead of demands, well, that tendency is inexorable. I have seen this cycle repeated over and over again. Even my wife, who is from a very different culture, is picking up some of my habits.

I have lived for more than 20,000 days. I’ve spent 10,000 of those days trying to figure this out. I think I have the hang of it now.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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