We start teaching children about respect at a young age because it’s important, helping to foster feelings of trust, safety and well-being. We tell kids to “treat others the way they want to be treated,” generally meaning that accepting others for who they are will allow the same to happen to them, no matter our differences as individuals. This is a vital life lesson; we want children to feel safe in their own skin and show their ideas and opinions matter.
However, an issue can arise when we take this idea to the extreme, with the phrase, “respect isn’t given, it’s earned.” It’s pretty common, generally meaning that you have to work to be respected by others, essentially proving your worth. And this is true for when we think of respect in terms of admiration for someone, their personal character, their values, or their work. Obviously, you need to do something worth reverence if you want others to look up to you. But this is clearly a higher level of respect.
Beneath that, there is a baseline level of respect that people tend to forget about. It’s the level of courtesy that you give other people, simply because you recognize that other people are equal to you. Not everyone has to automatically have your admiration without working for it, but everyone deserves basic courtesy. Respect needing to be earned does not apply to the smallest amount of human decency that should be present in your daily interactions with others.
A lot of times, this “low-level” respect is also taught to us from a young age, in the form of manners or politeness. You say “excuse me” when you accidentally bump into someone. You learn to pronounce someone’s name correctly, especially if it’s an uncommon name. You acknowledge someone’s pronouns and correct yourself nicely if you get them wrong initially. You say, “Hello, how are you?” when greeted by a store employee. These all seem like common sense, but if we adopt the attitude of respect always needing to be earned, these niceties go out the window, thus creating an even crueler world.
Essentially, there’s two sides to respect. You can respect someone and because of that treat them like an authority, and you can also respect that other people are your equals and treat them like people. Everyone deserves enough respect to be treated like a person. Some people deserve additional respect, and can also be treated like an authority in certain situations. But expecting everyone else to treat you like an authority without having done anything, while also refusing to treat others like people, is ridiculous. You can be both respectful and respected without having a superiority complex.
You can’t go through your daily life with such a sense of entitlement, expecting other people to prove themselves to you by serving your every need while you simultaneously ignore them or refuse to acknowledge them as human beings. After all, we’re all just that. Human beings, born equal. You’re not better than everyone else and you certainly don’t need to command more respect than everyone else.
And you can recognize that other people are your equals without losing any of your own status or rights. You having respect for others just because they are also human beings doesn’t mean they’ll have less respect for you; it’s not a “respect pie” where if they get more, you’ll get less. In essence, be respectful, always.