05
Mar
12

Courtesy and respect are independent

It occurs to me that a lot of people mistake courtesy for respect.

If I make eye contact and nod and smile when you join the group; if I refrain from interrupting you while you’re speaking; or if I address you as “sir” or “ma’am”, I’m being courteous.  I’m being proactively polite within a particular set of social conventions.  Courtesy towards others is — or at least ought to be — an assumed default state, one of those little pieces of social convention that makes it easier for us to get along with each other without verbal or physical violence.  Courtesy is not earned — although for obvious tit-for-two-tats game-theoretic reasons I think it makes sense to treat generally discourteous people rudely.

Respect, on the other hand, goes much deeper.  Respect is derived specifically, from someone’s abilities or achievements.  You might respect me as a researcher and a software developer, but not as a lifter (or at least not until I put 225 overhead).  Respect is earned.  And respect is always on the table: If I respect your philosophical insight, and find out that you hold a position incompatible with one of mine, respect demands that I at least reconsider my position in light of the fact that someone I respect holds an opposed point of view.  If I write you off as generally insightful, but tragically wrong where we disagree, I call into question whether I respect you at all.  (Even if I conclude, after deep and thorough examination, that you really are tragically wrong where we disagree, the fact that you hold opposed points of view to my own should reduce my confidence in my beliefs.  Yes, I’m basically regurgitating Aretaevian epistemology.)

With this in mind, we should be courteous towards most people, even though we have no reason to respect them.  Tit-for-two-tats suggests that we’ll still treat with courtesy the majority of people we learn to respect.  (Christopher Hitchens makes a compelling counterexample.)

(File this one under “overthinking it makes easy blogfodder”.)

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7 Responses to “Courtesy and respect are independent”


  1. March 5, 2012 at 18:56

    Courtesy = human agonistic display behavior

    Respect = mindful recognition of your place in a complex, fluid, multiplayer hierarchy

    • March 5, 2012 at 19:13

      Well put!

      (Also, +1 for using “agonist” outside of an anatomical/endocrinological context.)

      • March 5, 2012 at 19:19

        IME thinking of humans as large, hairless apes cab make them easier to understand. Next time you watch a political event, just visualize all the players as naked, hairless apes and really, it all starts to make sense.

        • 4 Not Sure
          March 6, 2012 at 17:45

          “Next time you watch a political event, just visualize all the players as naked, hairless apes…”

          Great- nightmares for the next two weeks, at least. Sometimes, surfing the intertubes can be less than enlightening.

          Gotta go now- is it possible to wash your brain out with soap?

          • March 6, 2012 at 21:09

            Not without trephination, which is another disturbingly sensible-seeming response to watching political events.

            Bourbon works fine for closing the mind’s eye, though.

  2. 7 kbiel
    March 6, 2012 at 10:05

    To twist a movie quote:
    “Don’t think twice. It’s [common courtesy] that makes it possible for people like us to tolerate a person like yourself.”


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