Perception: Respect is in the eye of the beholder.

March 31, 2023

Caution sign - Disrespect possible at all times (illustration)

What would you think if we told you: respect is in the eye of the beholder? That, regardless of your best efforts, sometimes your actions are still disrespectful?

Wait wait wait – this is not a condemnation! Before you roll your eyes and move on with your day, hear us out. This idea isn’t about accepting responsibility for that which you didn’t do. Rather, it’s an invitation to open up to the idea that despite your purest intentions they might not always be received that way.

Imagine hopping on a plane and jetting to the far side of the planet. You and your bestie Bethany dress casually for the flight – getting comfortable in matching sweatpants and tank tops. Glancing around the plane as it takes off, it’s obvious that you aren’t the only one embracing the cozy and cute strategy. But upon landing, you can’t help but notice that you are suddenly the lone ones in the crowd showing your shoulders.

Wrapping a cardigan over your cozy-casual outfit, you point out the observation to Bethany. She shrugs your words off in the blast of heat that greets you as you step outside, and continues to roll her suitcase to a taxi-stand – oblivious to the dirty looks being cast at her sideways.

In some cultures, exposing skin is disrespectful. And although the intention of Bethany’s behaviour did not change between takeoff and landing, the reception of it by others certainly did.

This example highlights how our intentions don’t always match up with others’ perceptions of them. You can be treating others as you wish to be treated and be disrespectful at the same time.

What is considered disrespect is largely in the eye of the beholder. Yet someone else’s experience becomes their reality, even when it doesn’t match your perspective. The consequences are there for everyone involved, and so these sorts of situations ought be acknowledged and worked with in order to avoid unnecessary issues down the road.

Undoubtedly, it is complicated by human diversity and gaps in subjective experience. Most of us go through life believing we are behaving in a respectful way and are simply oblivious to unintended impacts of our actions. It follows then, that a good first step in addressing unseen disrespect is to have a conversation where the target in such a situation can share their perspective. After which, there can be space to mindfully adjust repeated behaviour going forward.

What they thought I meant side-by-side (illustration)

While this travelling example is an extreme one, the same elements play out in all relationships. In our families, our communities, and our workplaces…there is a lot of diversity in terms of ideas, cultures, and generational ideals even in these spaces closer to home.

An action as simple as not looking at someone when talking to them can be interpreted as an act of disrespect. Even if we meant nothing by it, we are intertwined with its existence.

Respect is regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, and traditions of others – something that most of us wholeheartedly will agree that we’re in favour of. The question then becomes: how can we best embody this amidst the evident complexity of subjectivity?

A good place to start is to do our homework in being sensitive to other people’s subjective experiences. In the travelling example, perhaps you could do some research before hopping on the plane to learn the basic cultural etiquette of the people you might meet. In your community back home, it could be fostering relationships with your neighbours to share your experiences with each other. In the workplace, it could be listening to your colleagues on the individual level or enrolling the whole team in our Building a Respectful Workplace online course to tackle it at an organizational level.

Despite our best efforts, it is inevitable that we will sometimes accidentally offend others. It’s healthy to remember this and be open to someone else’s experience – also being wary of our biological predisposition towards defensiveness when facing confrontation!

Experiencing disrespect yourself? You’re not alone, and we’re here to help.

To address the specific needs of organizations, we’ve expanded our in-person offerings to include the Building a Respectful Workplace online course. Read more about all that this includes here or reach out directly for wider advice on facilitating respectful spaces in the workplace – and beyond.

Things can be messy sometimes – and that’s okay. We can work with that, together.

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


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