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What is respect?


Respect is a feeling of good opinion, honour, or admiration.[1] Respect always has a target or object that is respected, and a human being or a subject who respects. Respect is a fundamentally social feeling. If you are hungry, it only involves you. If you get food and eat, the feeling of hunger goes away. Similarly, feelings of thirst, tiredness, joy, excitement, and many others are individual feelings: they only involve yourself. Respect is fundamentally different.

Respect is closely related to gratitude or thankfulness. Respect comes with a need to express it. It is often expressed specifically to the person who has done something respectful. You thank the cook for a meal, and a friend who brings you a present on your birthday. Importantly, you pay attention to the response. You expect the cook to be pleased for your compliments. But if he instead uses a Finnish proverb "Only cats live in thanksgiving", you feel discouraged to thank him the next time. On the other hand, your mother may remind you that it is the right and polite thing to thank anyway, and then you feel a bit less discouraged.

The basic unit (atom) of respect seems to consist of five inseparable parts ("protons" and "electrons" of the atom): the subject (the person who respects), the object (the thing that is respected), the expression of respect, the response (someone's response to the expression of respect), and finally, the subject's feeling about the response. In the previous example, you are the subject, cook's meal is the object, your compliments is the expression, and the cook's and your mother's comments are the response. It is important to notice that the thing respected and the response may or may not come from the same person. The latter was the case with the cook's meal and the mother. Although the mother may look like an outsider in this case, her response is actually more effective than that of the cook in justifying the your compliment. The purpose of the response is exactly this: to justify the expression of respect. This is why respect is fundamentally a social feeling.

The response is an expression of feeling, which can be called pride. Pride is a difficult word because it has several different interpretations, but from the different Wiktionary definitions, this is the closest to what I mean: "A sense of one's own worth, and abhorrence of what is beneath or unworthy of one; lofty self-respect; noble self-esteem; elevation of character; dignified bearing; proud delight; -- in a good sense." [2] The cook is proud of the meal he prepared and shows this pride as a response to your compliment. Other responses are also possible but lead to awkward situations. The cat proverb send a message that the cook does not care about the compliments, whether or not he thinks the complement was truthful. This response discourages from new compliments. On the other hand, the cook may think that the meal actually was poor and the compliment was untruthful. The response is ambiguous to the subject: it encourages to give more respect to show that people really like the food, but it also discourages from giving respect as the cook was shown to be insensitive to positive feedback.

The atom of respect is personal. The point of view is that of the subject. It is the subject's feeling about the thing, the subject's expression of respect, and the subject's perception of the response. This is natural, because respect is a feeling and feelings cannot exist outside the (human) brain.

However, respect is a social feeling. The social aspect grows from the interplay of an expression of respect and the response. Actually, a response is an expression of respect by another person. If the original subject responses to this expression of respect with respect, it fulfils the other atom of respect. The outcome is a "molecule" of two atoms of respect bound to each other. It forms a mutual bond between the two individuals. These respect bonds actually describe an important feature of social life, which is full of mutual respect bonds between people. It is possible that the explication of these bonds enables us to predict many phenomena of social life and thus helps us understand the most difficult thing in the universe: human relations.

Respect can also be negative, showing that the subject feels bad about the object. Negative respect can be called disrespect. However, the same atoms and mechanisms also work in this case although the message is the opposite. The response can be said to be shame, instead of pride. Because the respect theory aims to describe the actual thought processes and feelings of humans, also these negative feelings should be included.

The object and the response don't need to belong to a particular person. You may respect a political or religious ideology, and you feel that you get a positive response from other people in the party or congregation even if nobody explicitly says that to you personally. In addition, the expression of respect does not need to be personal. It may be expressed in general, e.g. by wearing clothes or other signs that reveal your respect to a pop star. Usually, you don't expect the pop star to ever find out which clothes you use; it is a sign to the society around you. Also, the response typically comes from other fans and not directly from the pop star. But the subjective process is the same: you express respect, and as a response, your respect is respected.

In general, human beings are very good at recognising the respect by others. Even babies are able to understand that someone is happy about something the baby did. And small boys are happy that their dads are proud of their skills in football. The nature of respect is bidirectional. Someone gives respect to a person, and the person respects the respect one receives.

Respect is a very strong motivator of human life and endeavour. Actually, Robert Baden-Powell has stated that the true road to happiness is to help other people[3]. This is bidirectional respect, assuming that other people give value to your helpfulness (which is, usually, a reasonable assumption).

Interestingly, many of the individual feelings are such that you can buy goods to relieve or enhance them. Food, beverage, music, and film industries all aim to affect individual feelings. Of course all of them also have social aspects, but the main frame of reference is the individual oneself. In contrast, the market of respectable deeds is much less developed.


The respect is a feeling of an individual, and it has a strong social aspect. For a full description of respect, several aspects and their relations must be understood (these are jointly called the atom of respect):

  • the subject (the person who respects),
  • the object (the thing that is respected; it can be anything, e.g. an act, a personal skill, a feeling, a valuation, or an object),
  • the expression of respect (the act of giving respect) based on the feeling of respect of the subject,
  • the response (someone's response to the expression of respect), and
  • the feeling of the subject caused by the response (respect theory is especially interested in whether the response causes a feeling that stimulates or inhibits further expressions of respect).

See also


  1. Respect in Wiktionary
  2. Pride in Wiktionary, meaning #2
  3. Robert Baden-Powell: Aids to Scoutmastership. Stevens Publishing (May 1992); originally published 1919. ISBN 0963205420