Issue 83. Respect October 19, 2009Posted by Bettina Hansel in Intercultural Education.
Tags: culture, doubt
One of my current projects involves looking at language use in the context of describing a school’s goals related to intercultural education. This started with a small case study I was inventing for a workshop, but blossomed into a fledgling research project. “Respect” is a word that comes up frequently as a value to cultivate in the students in both the US and French cases I selected, and it becomes particularly relevant in dealing with differences: cultural, social, economic, intellectual, or physical. Some type of respect can be commanded through fear, and we also say that someone “earns” respect. If we want to improve the way we deal with differences, we are talking more about giving respect, about respecting as an action. It’s absolutely necessary and sometimes surprisingly difficult.
I recently received a message from someone in reaction to a comment I made on another blog. It was a breezy comment, not terribly well considered, in which I was dismissing the importance of another person’s point of view — a person I didn’t even know. But that was the person who chose to write me to complain about my comment. After offering him an apology and exchanging some emails back and forth, we still do not agree, though now on friendly terms, and we have done some work on respecting each other by connecting with stories of our parents. But respect is still difficult.
Respect isn’t a skill or a body of knowledge; it’s an attitude, an approach, and an action that describes a connection to someone or something. Respect is recognizing and believing in the importance and value of another being, or even of ourselves, and communicating that recognition through our behavior. The absence of respect may be more noted by others than its presence because respect is often quiet. English uses the convention of nouns and verbs, but like many words in the English language, respect is both a noun and a verb, and it always takes an object. I thought of the exercises that I was taught in school so many years ago, in which we diagrammed sentences to give a visual structure showing the relationship of each word to the whole. But words themselves are complex things and contain many concepts and relationships.
I often feel overly academic when I draw a model of a concept like this. Am I taking something simple and making it way too complex? That’s possible. But here’s what I discovered in putting this together: For me, believing is the sticking point. It’s the gut reaction. Intellectually or philosophically, it’s straight forward. Of course every person is valuable and necessary and important!
What happens, though, when I believe my way of doing things is more efficient? Or that my opinions are supported better by the facts? How can I respect when I really believe I have the better idea?
Years ago, my daughter came to me crying because a friend told her that she had given a stupid name to her doll. “Why did you say that and hurt her feelings?” I asked the friend, who answered, “Because I really believe that Kimie is a stupid name for a doll.” Honest, perhaps, but certainly lacking in respect.
I found an interesting discussion of the difficulty of teaching respect in The Journal of General Internal Medicine in an article by Doctors Carla L. Spagnoletti and Robert M. Arnold. Doctors also may find it hard to “feel” respect at times for their patients, but it may be helpful, the authors argue, to start with learning the behaviors, the language, and the symbols of respect that are culturally appropriate, and to practice them even when the feeling of respect isn’t there yet.
I believe this can also be approached from the intention to respect: to suspend your beliefs, to decide to assume that another way may be better than yours, and just to explore what that might mean. This is also an intention to develop your relationship with another person.