My Personal Definition of Respect

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I once got into an argument with a friend of mine who told me that she could never play along with her friends’ silly concerns. “If I don’t agree with what they need, I can’t give it to ’em.”

“Really?” I asked. “So if your roommate’s afraid of having the house broken into, you’re not gonna bother to lock the door when you get home at night?”

“Not if it’s a safe neighborhood, no.”

“But it doesn’t cost you anything to lock the door when you get home. And if it makes your roommate feel better – “

“It costs me having to encourage a behavior I think is foolish,” she snapped. “They want me to lock the door? They need to convince me there’s a reason.”

That’s when I started to devise what I thought “respect” looked like.

Because frankly, being roommates with my friend sounded exhausting. I’m terrified of spiders, and having to justify that arachnophobia on a rational basis would be impossible. If she didn’t believe I had food allergies, I’d have to go to the mat for her, probably with a doctor’s note. Hey, please don’t feed human food to my dog, oh wait, she thinks it’s cute teaching the dog to beg.

My friend basically said – and seemed to believe – that unless I could logically debate her into sharing all of my opinions, she wouldn’t bother to make room for mine.

Admittedly, the reason she was my friend is that she generally held sensible opinions – she wasn’t anti-vaxxer or a flat-earther or anything like that, and honestly, I doubt she’d shrug off someone’s gluten sensitivity. But that whole idea that she wouldn’t make small changes to make my life better unless we were simpatico on a given topic, well…

That felt disrespectful.

Plus there’s a whole bunch of preferences that aren’t necessarily logical, but just make people happy. Which way the toilet roll goes up. How you squeeze the toothpaste tube. How much warning you give someone before having guests over.

Having to convince my friend that all of those were somehow logically correct felt like, well, busywork.

It should be enough to say, “That makes me unhappy,” and have that be sufficient to have them go, “Oh, wow, sorry about that.”

And after a while, I had devised my definition of “respect,” which was:

“The ability of someone to tolerate small changes in their life simply to make the person they respect happy.”

Now, the reason I’m mentioning this is because, well, WORLDWIDE KILLER PLAGUE. And I’m hearing lots of awful stories about roommates going, “Well, I don’t think the risk is that bad” and sneaking out to bars or lovers or both, then coming home carrying potential disease around potentially very susceptible people.

And for me, respect comes in two forms:

1) The Small Change Of Modified Behavior.
If it’s a low- to middling-effort change, then I think things like “locking the doors when you get home” or “wearing masks” are a pretty respectful thing to do. Sure, you don’t think it’s dangerous, but at the very least it’s something that stresses your friend out, so… you modify your behavior so they’re not stressed.

Because the idea that “I can only adapt to your behavior if I agree with it” is a form of solipsism. The world is a big place, and not all of your concerns are rational, even if you think they are.

(God save us from the Perfectly Rational Person, because they’re never Perfectly Rational – they’ve just learned to wrap all their crappy preferences up in a loathsome coating of High School Debate Team Logic.)

Sometimes you look at the toothbrush you left out on the counter last night and go, “Yeah, it’s logically foolish that someone doesn’t want to look at my dirty toothbrush because I’ll just take it out of the cabinet again eight hours later, but… this behavior really seems to bug ’em, so I’ll put my toothbrush away after each time I brush.”

“Respect” is not “sharing those values.” “Respect” is “learning to work with those values, even if you don’t understand them.”

But then there’s also:

2) The Small Change Of Active Confrontation.
Sometimes the change your friends/roommates/relatives want you to make is too big for you to swallow, either individually – “I want you to never see your lover under any circumstances until the pandemic is over” – or as the result of an accreted mass of small changes, like having to put the toothbrush away AND then clean out the sink AND wash the toilet AND straighten the towels AND wave some Lysol around every time you walk into the bathroom.

At which point, you owe them the respect of telling them you’re not going to make that change.

Look, maybe your roommate is being too uptight about this worldwide death-event, I dunno. But “respect” doesn’t consist of “treating your roommate like some inconvenience to be worked around,” where you sneak out and lie about what you did and see your lover in places you hope to God they won’t find out.

Respect is hitting them up, face to face, to say, “Look, I know this stresses you out but I can’t live with those restrictions. So here’s what I’m gonna do. You plan your reactions.”

That’s not always gonna be pleasant for you, mind. Your roommate’s reaction might be, “Okay, find a new place to live by the first of next month.” But that’s an honest, open dialogue, not some bitter volcano of fabrications waiting to explode.

And hey, maybe that can lead to better compromises! Maybe your roommate doesn’t know that your lover’s been isolated for two weeks and you’re actually forming a safe bubble. Maybe your roommate might feel more comfortable if your lover gets tested. There’s other ways to handle conflict, and being open about them allows for changes that “hiding stuff” does not.

But sometimes, you have….

3) You Have To Hide Things Because You Can’t Tell Them.
Your abusive partner will hurt you if they find out they’ve consulted your friend for advice. Your racist uncle will go ballistic if he finds out you’ve gone to Black Lives Matter protests. Your parents will send you to conversion therapy if they find out you’re dating that boy.

These are perfectly acceptable protective behaviors to take! You need to make sure you’re safe, and it’s not always possible to disclose behavior, particularly to irrational people.

But the danger is that, in adapting to this dysfunctional environment, you come to believe you’re still respecting these people.

You’re not. You’re concealing portions of yourself from dangerous people. That’s good. But if you continue to believe that your deception is, in some way, respect, then you’re going to fuck up your healthy relationships if and when you find them.

The problem with doing end-runs around people is that it’s a lot easier than being honest or changing your behavior… and it’s also really easy to justify doing end-runs. You’re protecting their feelings! You’re dodging some jerk’s judgment! You maybe should talk to them, but… heck with it, let’s conceal, don’t feel.

Remember those positive benefits that came out at the end of the last section – the one where you can hammer out productive compromises and exchange information so you both better understand how the other person feels?

That never happens if you treat them like an obstacle, like a person.

So. Yeah, if someone’s in a position to harm you, maybe you should treat them like an obstacle. But if you then think you’re respecting your obstacle-person, you’re gonna find that the behavior that allowed you to survive dysfunctional relationships is the exact same behavior that will destroy your healthy ones.

Good luck.

Mad respect to y’all.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous Alex
    Sep 20, 2020

    Every time I check this page, I hear Aretha in my head.


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