What respect really means

2009-07-24 00:00

MANY people demand respect not knowing what it is that they are asking for. Husbands demand respect from their wives, parents from their children and superiors from their subordinates. Newsflash: respect is not requested and given, it is earned and deserved.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary describes the word “respect” as “deferential esteem felt or shown towards a person or quality; treating with consideration; refrain from offending, corrupting or tempting a person or a person’s feelings …”

Any other dictionary would give a similar description. If you read carefully you will notice that words like “richer”, “prettier”, “more popular”, “well educated” or “male”, “female” and “older” are left out.

Respect has nothing to do with how much money you have in your bank account or how beautiful your mirror says you are. It has nothing to do with your gender, how old you are or even how well known you may be. Rather, respect is defined by the little things that we do in our everyday lives, such as the way we carry ourselves, interact with one another and how we treat those who share this world with us.

I was sitting in a taxi the other day with my cousin, who is coloured, and we were having a conversation in English. I kept hearing unhappy whispers from the grown-ups sitting just a seat in front of us. They did not appreciate the language we were speaking, it seemed, and they were discussing how “today’s children lack respect for their elders”. I was totally baffled. I found myself wondering if maybe English was a forbidden language in a taxi. Or maybe because we are black we should only speak English in certain areas? So I was classified as very disrespectful and rude. I wonder if that woman who labelled me as such, knows what respect is?

I also remember some time ago when I was working for a dairy company up in Howick, and I stood up to a troubled colleague who was taking out his frustrations on me. Once again, I was called a disrespectful human being. Are we supposed to let people trample all over us even when we know we are not in the wrong? What happened to standing up for ourselves? Are we no longer supposed to fight for what we believe in? No, you can earn three times more than me, have 13 diplomas and be the president’s brother-in-law but when you disregard my principles, I will tell you where to get off.

To a parent reading this, I may come across as ignorant or impolite but that is not who I am. I still greet people when I walk down the road near my house, I still help carry their groceries if I see them struggling and I would offer someone my seat in the last bus home that is already full, not because he or she is older than me (I will also be expected to pay), but because it would probably be a lot more comfortable for me to stand than it would be for him or her.

And then you find unhappy women stuck in unfulfilling relationships because it is no longer love that is keeping them there, but fear and, wait for it, respect for their partners. I had a friend who practically licked the ground her husband walked on. She took it as far as kneeling down on all fours when giving him his food. Now I am all for loving your man and catering to him but turning him into a quasi-god — never.

And just in case you are wondering, no, insolence is not what we are being taught at schools. Our parents send us to the best schools, so we can express ourselves fluently in English, be it in a taxi or a meeting. They send us to the best schools so we learn to recognise when our rights are being violated and our values trampled on, and we can take a stand and solve our own dramas independently. They also send us to the best schools so that we can be proud of who we are, know where we come from and where we are headed, and thank them for it at the end, because we respect them.

• Lungi Dladla is a freelance writer based in Pietermaritzburg.

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