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Why it is Important to Treat People with Respect

I recently wrote an article about the importance of respect in teams and in relationships. In that article I discussed the importance of respect between what are essentially equals. Teams are made up by peers, which are equals. Much of our relationships however are not with equals. I recently got a request to discuss the issue of respect towards lower working class people. Why should we respect people that have a lower socio-economic standing than ourselves?

The short answer is that we should respect them because they are fellow human beings but I want to say more about this.

If we wanted to know who deserves respect and who does not deserve respect we must know what makes a person respect worthy. Is it by occupying a particular position in a social hierarchy that makes a person respect worthy? Does someone become respect worthy only once they have earned a large amount of money? Is respect only appropriate when a person has become famous? Or does someone need to have achieved lots of important stuff to be worthy of respect?

I think the answer to all of these questions is an obvious “no” because there are many people I respect that have not achieved any of the above. The first thing that we should bear in mind about these things like earning a large amount of money is that they are always dependent on many things other than the person’s own personal achievement. There is a large degree of luck or good fortune that sits between people at the top and people at the bottom. If I was born to different parents in a rural township, my prospects would have been very different from what they are now. I am not responsible for choosing any of the gifts I was born with so I cannot take credit. How then can I claim that I am more worthy of respect than a less well off person when it is largely happenstance that separates us?




Treat people with respect because they have the potential for good character

One thing that I do think makes a big difference to the respect worthiness of a person is the quality of their character. But character is not about what you have or what challenges life hands to you, but rather with what you make of what you have and how you respond to the challenges that face you. Good character, the thing that makes someone truly respect worthy, can be found in the lowest segments of society and in the highest. And, you can’t tell at face value. The person shining your shoes in the morning might have a golden character and you will probably never know.

So, your demeanor should always be respectful, no matter who you are interacting with. This should even be the case with people who have a tarnished character. When you disrespect someone you are saying to them that they have diminished value. Disrespect is about demeaning another. When you do that to a person you are contributing to them realising the worst in themselves.

We all represent the potentiality for noble behaviour and the potentiality for base behaviour.  When you treat people with respect, you recognise and affirm their potential for noble/good character and so you help them to realise the best in themselves. The effects of this on societies can be dramatic. I believe much of the social ills, particularly in my native South Africa, can be traced back to systematic and institutionalized disrespect. Be careful not to treat someone as though they have no value and cannot demonstrate goodness. They might just believe that the way you treat them is their truth, and act accordingly.

Assad holds a Masters in Philosophy from the University of the Witwatersrand and is currently a PhD candidate. He is the editor of the Schuitema blog and is a regular facilitator of the company's Care and Growth and Mentoring for Mastery programs. He also has 5 years experience lecturing and tutoring Philosophy at Wits.

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