RESPECTRodney Dangerfield, gruff sputtering Las Vegas and Hollywood comic and legend, parlayed his catchphrase “I can’t get no respect!” into a very likeable career persona.

That comedic lament made him a spokesperson for everyone with the same complaint, but not always the same humorous give or take on it.

Indeed, far too many among his “constituency” are deadly serious about respect—especially and often only lack of it, sometimes with tragic and fearful consequences.

Some will respond violently on what can amount to no more than the mere suspicion of having been “dissed”, no matter how trivially (parking lots, fast-food drive-ins, streets, sidewalks and other venues that feature cars disproportionately and intriguingly figuring prominently in respect-related violent incidents, such as shootings, beatings and stabbings).

Of course, given the more genteel venues you professionally occupy and frequent, it is unlikely that anyone in them is going to pull out a Glock and shoot holes in your clock because of some lapse of courtesy or other form of real or imagined “disrespect”. But they and you can seethe nonetheless—even without a clue as to how close to “going postal” or becoming a victim of it you have come.

Dissed-Off in the Newsroom

As a real and recent illustration, I can cite boil-over venting yesterday, the day before yesterday and the day before from an otherwise very placid, senior journalist friend of mine with a long, heavyweight resume and a currently very short, now sputtering fuse.

Now he’s stewing (over) his “Plan B” in dealing with what he perceives to be a sabotaging, devious, professionally fraudulent, sexist-nepotistic and incompetent newcomer, overreaching manager, namely, to punch him about five times, or let a wall do it for him—as a response to perceived transgressions and injustices that clearly involve dimensions of respect, no matter how it is conceived.

Of course, nobody, including you and me, wants to be on the receiving or dishing end of that kind of confrontation, or even to merely feel bad about respect issues with anyone. That’s why a clear understanding of the forms, manifestations, prerequisites, boundaries, rights and obligations of respect is critical to avoiding, preventing or managing  trouble and misunderstanding related to it or confusion and miscommunication about any of its many faces and facets.

Like “love”, “respect” is a (conveniently) vague, ambiguous, mostly unexamined, chameleon and accordion, yet highly visceral and emphatic concept wielded as we see fit, including in the middle of a fit thrown over a lack of it.

The 4 Forms and Confusions of Respect

So, to forestall and undo trouble, here’s my list of the kinds of respect—professional and otherwise—to consider when expecting, hoping for, demanding, offering or withholding it. Note that I regard these as “reportive” concepts, not “stipulative”. This means that I take these to be the actual, even if only implicit, operative senses of “respect”, rather than my ideas and advice about what respect should mean.

  • Tolerance: “Putting up with” what someone else wants, needs, hopes for or expects, in the form of forbearance from actions against them
  • Admiration: Expressed or felt esteem for and encouragement of another’s traits, states, behavior, etc.
  • Deference: Submissive attitudes, behaviors, expressions as indicators or acceptance of (claimed or sought) superior status of another
  • Acknowledgment: Recognition of the positive value of the existence of another or his or her endeavors, traits, aptitudes, achievements, etc., with no overtones of reluctance (of the sort that “tolerance” suggests). A simple nod, “hi”, tip of the hat or vague smile can easily accomplish this. Of all the forms of respect, this is the most basic and deserved without having to be earned in the absence of evident Hitlerian negatives.

Now, reconsider my venting journalist friend: What is the respect issue and relevant form(s) of respect involved in his conflict with the manager? I know him well and am certain he is not seeking deference or admiration, or any other indication of exalted status. Instead, he is demanding what he perceives as deserved and earned tolerance and acknowledgement and nothing more (which he confirmed me with after I asked him about this).

These distinctions are not only important; they are also crucial to analysis, resolution, and where possible, prevention of respect-related conflicts like his.
Take the case of a young couple bickering about premarital sex, the young woman more committed to chastity than the guy. When she tells him that she wants him to “respect” her and he declares that he does, there is a real likelihood that they are not talking about the same thing.

She may very well be expecting or demanding all four forms of respect—that he should not merely tolerate her quaint notions and resistance, but also admire her for these, defer to her values, and acknowledge the positive value of her values and (non)behaviors.

So, when he says, “I DO respect you!”, but means only that he will tolerate her vow or ideals of chastity, while persisting in his efforts to subvert it, he will confuse and ultimately quarrel with (if not be dumped by or dump) her over the issue of “lying” (on his part) or “unreasonableness” (on his or her part). Moreover, without a common concept or concepts of respect, “negotiation” becomes more difficult, as does a fair tally of what form or forms of respect have been earned.

Then There’s Aretha
To grasp the range, flexibility, manipulability and forms of respect, compare soulful Aretha Franklin’s diametrically opposite plea for “R-E-S-P-E-C-T“, in the form of boudoir “propers” as she and her chorus sing, “A little respect (sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me…Whoa, babe (just a little bit)” of “respect” from her man when he gets home. (Franklin’s “propers” eventually morphed into hip-hop culture’s “props“—i.e., displays of recognition as respect.)

(Note, like the example of my journalist friend, mine about “Romeo and Juli-Nyet” is not hypothetical; long ago, I “counseled” a woman who eventually married a man with whom such misunderstandings and mistaken expectations about respect were wrecking their relationship.)

A good test of this “reportive” framework of forms of respect is application to the street and to the office. Why do boys in ‘da hood ever shoot those who diss them? What kind of respect, in not being shown, triggered the trigger? To answer this, it is important to distinguish forms of respect necessary to prevent violence from those sufficient to forestall it.

Despite having no personal direct experience, I’m willing to guess that primitive primate submission as deference (earned or not) will suffice to prevent an attack. Tolerance can be too complex for a casual encounter, unless there is a specific behavior, unfolding in real time, that is being challenged, e.g., smoking in a no-smoking restaurant. In that instance, intolerance, in and of itself, can suffice as a trigger, with a lack of deference and admiration being logically implied by it, whether these are also sought or not.

Again, recall my venting friend: Although he professionally could get by with being tolerated and acknowledged without any need for deference or admiration, the failure of the manager to tolerate my friend’s exercise of authority or operations precludes the more robust forms of respect conveyed by deference and admiration, while suggesting that even simple acknowledgement of my friend and his endeavors is also utterly lacking.

Also note that tolerance does not imply acknowledgement. It is behaviorally equivalent to forbearance, for whatever reason, including, but not limited to, fear, cunning or pity. In these latter instances, tolerance as respect shades into tolerance as tactic or charity.

Arranged in a hierarchy of intensity and status, the four forms can be ranked in various ascending orders of value, which may differ from chronological order of being earned. There may, in some instances, also be some forms not only regarded as irrelevant, but also as unwelcome (e.g., deference in a highly equalitarian organizational structure or individual personality, such as my friend’s):

Tolerance—>Acknowledgment—>Admiration—>Deference: For example, imagine a squatter family arriving unannounced at some settlement in the American Wild West; in relations with native populations and other settlers they will plan on this chronological order, since survival depends on tolerance, deference being achieved only after the squatter becomes a rancher with vast holdings and wealth, while acknowledgment without tolerance will be very problematic (which is possible if tolerance is simply unaffordable, despite acknowledgment of the merits of the squatter).

Acknowledgment—>Tolerance—>Admiration—>Deference: Typical office dynamics can embody this sequence, with tolerance coming after acknowledgement, if only because, unlike a squatter, a new employee is invited and recognized from the outset, which provides a base from which to negotiate what will or will not be tolerated.

Acknowledgement—>Tolerance: This is what I believe my friend regard as absolutely essential, the rest being at best a bonus or at worst awkward and inconsistent with his modesty and desire for anonymity.

Deference, period: This may very well be the only form of respect required or effective in the hood—especially when the line between respect and fear is blurred, as it is in any environment, be it the hood or the flinty boardroom, in which the dominant values are dominance and power.

Hence, in such environments, all other forms of respect may not only be irrelevant, but may, in the absence of deference, provoke trouble in virtue of creating interactions, however well-intentioned, that would and should otherwise be avoided, much as imprudently, albeit innocently, saying “Howdy” to a Wild West gunslinger, as acknowledgement-respect could attract the wrong kind of attention.

Closer to the modern office, misinterpreting an employee’s expectation of acknowledgement and tolerance as a demand for admiration or deference is likely to start trouble of the sort my journalist friend is now embroiled in and boiling over.

As for Rodney Dangerfield, given the gap between his trademark lamentation about “no respect” and the broad respect he actually gets, I suspect that in moments of longing for privacy, when weary of paparazzi, autographs and camera flashes, he might have enjoyed a little less of any and all of it, in exchange for some delicious obscurity…

…as respect for his privacy, as much as for his jokes.


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