Friday, February 3, 2012


I've had occasion recently to think about a complex of emotions with which I have limited experience. Disrespect is not something I've paid attention to for the first four decades of my life. Before the last few years, I doubt I could have articulated what disrespect feels like, and what it means.

But now I've witnessed disrespect at close range in various settings, and it's a very interesting phenomenon. Disrespect happens when a person is performing their role or duty, and another person either interprets that performance as a personal attack, or treats the performance as illegitimate. What's most intriguing about disrespect is that it's a public matter. It requires the witness of other people. The whole point of disrespect is that there is an audience. Just as the according of respect is a performance that communicates roles to a broader public than the two people involved, so the enacting of disrespect shows others that the recipient's authority or position is not accepted. In that way it is an attack, or more properly a rear-guard action.

Disrespect feels like a blindside. Here we are in a group setting, doing our jobs, and somebody's decided not to play the game.  And in a public setting, it can be jarring, and difficult to decide how to respond. Do you draw further attention to it by noticing or calling it out?  Do you take the high road and just go on doing your job?  What if you weren't present for the public disrespect, but found out later that people didn't feel like you deserved honesty about their intentions? How do you react next time you see them?

We can all understand disrespect because we've all been in situations where we are annoyed, frustrated, or impatient with someone doing their job. We feel like we'd do their job differently, or we find that their way of doing their job rubs us the wrong way. We have the impulse to roll our eyes or mutter asides to our neighbor or otherwise act out our disapproval. Normally we save it for the next venting session with friends or spouses. But sometimes we take it public, and it shades into disrespect. It can be impulsive, like a moment of annoyance, or calculating and thorough.

I don't think we deserve respect because of the positions we occupy, or even because of our simple humanity. We deserve respect if we haven't foregone it by failing to be worthy of trust. I think if we're trying to do our jobs, we deserve respect. And when we don't get it, the hurt is quite singular. We don't know how to fix it, since doing our job isn't the answer. How does one demand respect if others are clearly and publicly on record as unwilling to give it?

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