Tag Archives: language

Is Respect Earned?

Our language carries many examples of respect as a transaction.

“You have to give respect to get respect”

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We phrase it like  a transaction: Respect must be paid. Respect is due. Respect is earned.

And when you have the act of respect as a transaction, then the attitudes of commerce and entitlement follow. “I am owed respect.” “You don’t give me the respect I deserve.” “I gave you respect, now you have to respect me in return.”

I suppose this isn’t a problem if the two parties in the transaction have the same definition of respect. I think most of us though aren’t jumping into a gang or being hazed for pledge week. And maybe we think respect should be something greater than a token payment.

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So what does it really mean to pay respect?

Respect comes from the the Indo-European root spek-, which means to observe 1. You see it it words such as spectacles, suspect, and specimen.  Respect means to look back. In this context, to think about what you’ve seen.

When we ask others to respect us, we may mean to look back on what we’ve done as context for our present actions or attitudes. In this sense, we can respect others because we’ve taken a moment to look at what they’ve been through. We can respect their rights because we are aware of the trials it took to secure them.

We see this in the other meaning of the verb, to avoid interfering with, which is the result of  deference. We respect a person so we don’t intrude upon them, and the pause, if anything, becomes the payment of respect.

We reflect that in the noun form of the word:  regard,  honor, or the time we take to look back. So, we get a moment or a feeling of respect. Silent observation becomes the way we show respect. Therefore, the payment of respect, if anything, is the pause – the moment we stop and think about the other person before we act, speak, or judge. If you respect me, you stop before you violate my boundaries.

We owe that to everybody – our friends, our neighbors, our enemies, our selves. In that respect, it is not something to give or receive, but to demonstrate.

“We are sun and moon, dear friend; we are sea and land. It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is: each the other’s opposite and complement.” —Hermann Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund

1 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. © 2011-2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company [back]

Image Credit: Brett Davies, Buddhist Respect (cropped from original)

Politics of Language

That’s not to say political language. One purpose of this site is to challenge the way we use language and our assumptions about it. The very word, politics, is charged and a good place to start. Because language is never neutral; it is always advocating, even when it proffers neutrality.

You have your pick of resources that discuss the conventions of language – grammar, mechanics, usage. I’m pretty fond of the following resources because they’re for both new and lifetime learners:

Language is Manipulative

But writing that moves, that engenders action or feeling, requires direction and control from the author. Language is always manipulative, in that it wants to evoke something from the audience. Otherwise, why say anything at all? Even in the most academic literature, you want to communicate, clearly and succinctly, the subject matter so that the audience is aware, understands, and applies information all up Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Just as a journalist needs to become aware of their biases in order to avoid writing from their bias, all writers who wish to master their craft must be aware of the bias implicit in language. We study word origins to know their context and how context has changed over time, not only to avoid embarrassment, but also to put ourselves in the best position to use language to make our communication clear.

Clarity is a Choice

My grad school mentor, Stephen Geller, often said that the hardest thing to write is the simple, declarative sentence. He said it of screenwriting, but it applies to all communication. We often hide our charged words in a thicket of other words. Corporate speak is one phrase that comes to mind. Political doublespeak is another where we manipulate ambiguity to hide our true intention.

Politics 1 comes through Greek (citadel) from the Sanskrit (fortress.) From it we get the rules for living together (policy) and the methods of enforcement (police.) Exploring the politics of language gives us the ability to read on and between the lines of communication. It helps us gain perspective not only on what we say, but also how different audiences might hear it. And while we all want to be heard, what we really want is to be understood.

1 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. © 2011-2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company [back]

Image Credit: LastOneIn, Soapbox waiting for your speech (cropped from original)