There are certain words and phrases that tend to shut conversation down. You can’t argue against them. Attempting to do so is considered to be in poor taste. If you’re criticizing someone, and a friend says, “His wife’s in a coma,” you kind of have to shut up. Questioning someone on a particular practice ceases when told, “It’s my religion.” And it seems that the same goes for, “It’s an issue of respect.”
Respect is the most overused and poorly understood word in the English language. As a social worker, I hear it approximately eleventy billion times per day. “My teenage son has no respect!” Um…duh? “Why should I respect my teacher if she doesn’t respect me?” Because you don’t get to grade her. “These girls dress slutty because they have no respect for themselves.” Is that accurate? I dress my trampiest when I feel good about myself. “SocialJerk swears too much, she obviously has no respect.” She obviously was raised in Brooklyn.
It’s always the first thing that comes up when we set ground rules in my teen groups as well. Someone immediately suggests “respect” as a rule. I write it down. Then I ask, “What does that mean?”
You would think I asked them to present me with a unifying theory of physics.
“What do you mean, ‘what does that mean?’ Respect! It means respect.”
So we go over it, more and more. How do we show respect? What does that look like? How do you know someone is being disrespectful? Is it an attitude or an action? You know, annoying social work-y questions.
My helpful dictionary app defines respect as a verb meaning “to hold in esteem or honor.” Basically, to look at someone or something and think that they deserve to be treated a certain way. To treat them the way you want to be treated. To put them ahead of yourself.
How did such a simple, direct concept become so convoluted? I’m not trying to be controversial here, I’m not against respect. But considering how much people talk about it, especially in my work, you would think we’d see more examples of it.
Instead, I see more examples of irony. People screaming and disturbing others in the office, to make sure everyone knows that, “this bitch ain’t got no respect!” A mother telling her thirteen year old daughter that she needs to stop “getting with all these nasty boys in the neighborhood, because people think you’re fast. I want you to have respect for yourself.”
I don’t know about you, but my mother calling me the village bicycle would certainly increase my self-respect.
So many of these admonishments for “respect” are directed at women and girls. It’s an easy way to convey that faux concern. It’s not that I’m being judgmental, it’s that I’m worried about this girl! Those short shorts clearly illustrate that she has zero respect for herself. There is an inverse relationship between the length of your clothing and the amount of self-respect you have. Tube tops and self respect? Mutually exclusive.
Ask any teen girl, she’ll tell you that respect is the most important part of a romantic relationship. Many will then blame other girls for her boyfriend’s cheating, cheat to get back at him, make out with her female friends at a party to get his attention, and not leave immediately the first time he hits her or calls her a bitch.
We’re teaching our girls to talk a good game, but I don’t think we’re really teaching them a whole lot of meaning. Everything is respect or disrespect. It’s so watered down that it’s meaningless. It’s a buzzword. Much like “think outside the box,” “self-care,” or “SJ, this is a staff meeting, please stop coloring,” it seems like the more you hear it, the less it means.
When I worked in a pre-school program, we got a bit nosy and asked a bilingual three year old, “Why is daddy in jail?” She gave us her sassiest look and replied “Porque, no me respeta.” Daddy’s in jail, because he doesn’t respect you. This is a punishable offense, now? Clearly she was repeating what her mother said. But what was the real message there?
That thirteen year old I work with was told that because her boyfriend gave her hickeys, he doesn’t respect her, and she doesn’t respect herself. Erroneous. He did it because he is in ninth grade, overeager, and lacks finesse. What matters is the way he treats her, the way he makes her feel about herself. Not these unwavering, written in stone regulations.
Respect is important, obviously. Of course it’s a crucial part of a relationship. And telling someone that they don’t respect themselves, their parents, or their community because they do something you don’t like or agree with belittles the person and the concept. If something really is as important as we all agree “respect” is, we should probably be able to comfortably define it.
Without a Droid app, that is.