Mathematics: Little acts of disrespect add up.

April 15, 2023

A chalkboard full of math-y scribbles

Have you ever seen a hot pepper eating challenge? There’s a popular show on Youtube called Hot Ones, where people are interviewed while eating hot wings. It’s undoubtedly silly, but all of us who can’t pry our eyes away probably watch because…well, it’s relatable. We’ve all been there in terms of our own relationship with spice.

Bite number one is tentative because we know that every pepper packs a different punch than the ones that came before it. It has a distinct flavour, with only a subtle hint of underlying heat – not bad.

The second bite carries the flavour forward and through the palate, but the spice is kicked up a level…manageable, but also beginning to alert you that the spice might need to be managed. Little beads of sweat start forming on your brow.

The third bite: all of a sudden, there is no flavour – only FIRE. Cold water, fresh milk, dry crackers…nothing can extinguish your taste buds / running nose / bodily panic.

Clearly, we have a threshold when it comes to spice and our adventures with hot peppers. Each little bite adds up – but since they’re little, the mathematics of it all can sneak up on us.

Let’s take a closer look at the proof:

Let X = 1 little bite of a spicy dish
Let Y = An individual’s threshold for pushing onward

It follows that:
X + X = 2X
2X + X = 3X

When TOTAL > Y, said individual taps out in a less-than-graceful way
∴ little bites add up in big ways


One plus one is two. Two plus one is three. And on and on in its additive manner…until we pass a threshold we might not even have realized we had – the tipping point where little things aren’t so little anymore.

Now, replace variable X with ‘1 little act of disrespect‘ and you have another additive equation we need to be mindful of. While obviously different, the concept is similar.

Over time, little acts of disrespect add up. Individually they might simply be ignored, but the reality is that they don’t exist in isolation and can compound if disregarded.

Just like regret cannot undo a bite taken, so too an act of disrespect cannot be taken back. Without an effective undo button, the mathematics involve plus signs aplenty.

The running total only ends with the relationship itself, so it’s best to be mindful of the little things to find out what lies on the far side of one’s tipping point and the decisions that come along with it (treating others badly, losing sight of one’s value in a situation, quitting a job / relationship / pursuit, etc).

Here are a couple things to look out for:

  • Micro inequities: moments of disrespect that might seem minor, but over time they erode the trust and the loyalty that one would hope to have in a workplace.
  • Micro aggressions: subtle everyday interactions that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups.

Facial expressions, tone of voice, choice of words…little actions like these can on their own seem minor, but the cumulative effect can be devastating despite maybe even being unnoticed by others. The impact can create an ongoing feeling of being regarded as a second-class citizen and non-belonging.

It’s doubly tricky because respect is in the eye of the beholder, so the person whose behaviour is triggering may not even realize that their action is being received as disrespectful. This doesn’t change the reality for the person affected though, so it’s helpful to adapt a baseline mindset that is grounded in curiosity. With this approach, things can be dealt with openly and with an attentive eye for an unhelpful biologically triggered defensive stance.

Relationships are the spice of life banner with spicy peppers laid out

Procrastination in the face of disrespect only makes the situation worse. We think, "Ah, the issue is not big enough to bother addressing, Plus, it would be uncomfortable to deal with." And so, often we don’t do anything about it. But the truth is that then things build up and we’re suddenly living with unresolved tension or conflict.

Further, we know that if we wait too long to address an issue it’s possible people have already forgotten about it. Or, put another way, the appropriate window of time to address something has passed. So procrastination is not particularly helpful in moments of disrespect.

It’s a safe assumption that by the time we’re being held accountable for disrespect or, on the other side, are consciously experiencing it, there have been some things that have already happened to get to this point.

Little things brushed aside add up to unresolved tension, which is fertile ground for further disrespect to grow from. And so it spreads like a spicy fire through our families, communities, and workplaces if not addressed carefully.

While the variables that go into calculating the limits involved are different for each of us, the point is that we all have a threshold where what were little things add up to a larger struggle. Whether they do so over the timespan of a week or years, they undoubtedly do if we don’t aim to address them.

So, what are our options when we experience a moment of disrespect? And based on those options, what are the possible consequences?

It’s complicated, but there is one key constant across all situations: open communication. If you experience disrespect, it’s important to vocalize and bring clarity to it even if it might feel uncomfortable. Or if you are in another role surrounding disrespect (perhaps an unwitting source, observer, or authority who has the responsibility to manage it), you need to be open to playing your part with care as well.

In our online course Building a Respectful Workplace, we dive deep into each of these shifting roles in our places of work because it is a specific area of need we feel compelled to address head-on. But the drama extends to all of our relationships – the close ones at home and the casual ones out in the world.

We encourage you to cultivate safe spaces for these open conversations in your life, but if the little things have added up to what feels like a divide we can be a resource to help. Consider taking one of our self-study online courses/webinars or fill out a self-referral form on our website to request a third-party mediator for your personal needs (be it family conflict, co-parenting / separation, workplace, or community oriented).

Relationships are the spice of life. Let’s do our part to make sure they are the right kind of spicy.

If you have questions,
please don’t hesitate to call.


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