Respect is Reciprocal, But…

The hallmark of every working relationship is respect. As Amy Grant wrote, “every good relationship…is based on respect. If it’s not based on respect, nothing that appears to be good will last very long”. Basically, respect is tied to worth, in which the object thereof commands a considerable level of attention and empathy from us. Respect stands opposite of disregard, as it brings a person to identify with another on certain terms. The etymology of the word ‘respect’ stretches back to the Latin word respicere, which means “to look back at”. Thus, respect forces us to consider the object of respect with the full admiration and value that is defined in our relationship with them.

Respect, they say, is reciprocal. And rightly so, because it is hard to imagine it not going both ways. However, reciprocity may be misconstrued, and it is easy to fracture our relationships with others because we feel that we’re not held in high regard.

Often times, when people fail to make a relationship work, they cite the lack of respect as reason. Naturally, one party would accuse the other of not giving them enough respect. It’s either both parties have refused to kick-start the process at all, or one party is unable to mirror the respect shown them. 

We already know that there are several basis for respect. The most common is, arguably, the need to respect every person, on account of their being persons, that is rational beings. This basis is captured well by philosopher Immanuel Kant, when he advocates that you ought to “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end”. By this, he means that no human being should be seen or used merely as an instrument/means. Respect, in this sense, simply means that the feelings and plight of every human being ought to be considered. They are deserving of our respect because they’re human beings, like us, capable of developing their talents and potentials.

This type of respect comes with a deep understanding of what it means to be human. What the rule of reciprocity would translate into is that we can expect some level of respect from everyone, just as we also respect everyone. But, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, we meet people who lack the basic understanding of what it means to be human. Even then, we are obliged to respect them—not for their beliefs or lack of understanding—but because they’re humans, and we realize that they’re capable of learning.

We can also deduce from Kant’s statement that self-respect is very important. In fact, many would say that we’re unable to earn the respect of others if we do not respect ourselves. Likewise, it is not easy to respect others when we do not respect ourselves. The way we view ourselves will determine how much respect we are able to give and receive. This back and forth is not merely about reciprocity, as it affects our personal growth and relationships. Laurence Sterne captures this when he wrote that: “respect for ourselves guides our morals; respect for others guides our manners”.

Furthermore, it is necessary to note that true respect is deserved, not forced. This is about us taking initiatives to create values worth admiring. It is an initiative that is inspired by our respect for the human race. And it is only normal that we earn back the respect given. As Paulo Coelho puts it, “respect is for those who deserve, not for those who demand it”.

In our journey through life, we’ll meet a lot of people and we’ll strike up all sorts of relationships. It is imperative that we take the first initiative, and treat everyone with proper respect. Of course, relationships differ, and the values we place on each may vary. For example, married couples owe each other some certain level of commitment that would be tied on the value they place on their union. The respect for the vows made on the altar is symbolic of the respect shown one to another.

Friendship and goodwill towards the rest of the humankind will thrive when we are humble enough to look upon others with understanding and empathy. As Henri Frederic Amiel puts it, “there is no respect for others without humility in one’s self”. The whole beauty of respect even shines brighter when we’re able to respect people regardless of their status and position. To paraphrase William Lyon Phelps, “this is the final test of a well-mannered person: their respect for those who can be of no possible value to them”.


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