Respect. Where has it gone? Why don’t millennials have the same respect that we used to?

I want to tell you a story.

8 or 9 years ago, I was at work. I worked the late shift and stayed hours after everyone else. One of my colleagues, J, worked late regularly, even though she wasn’t scheduled to. She made a habit of talking to me over the dividers that separated us, so that we would speak even though we couldn’t see each other.

One day, a woman from a different department and floor, K, came down to drop off something for me to send out with the mail. K would regularly do this and stop and chat sometimes when she did. J overheard our conversation on this evening and butted in.

I don’t remember now who was talking at that moment. But in the middle of our conversation, K bolted for the elevator. She may have been in mid-sentence. Or J or I may have been in, I don’t remember. K heard the elevator ding (as did I) and ran for it.

J thought that was the rudest thing. “K has no respect”she said. She then ranted about a general lack of respect “nowadays” even though K is probably a decade her senior.

This minor incident has stuck with me all these years because it’s sort of microcosm for how we see rudeness when it is not intended and when it isn’t even there. Had J been chatting while waiting for an elevator to go home, she would have run for it too. Home is more important than idle chit chat. But J couldn’t put herself in K’s position for some reason. Why?


I want to tell you a better story. This one is more personal.

Nearly three years ago, one of my oldest friends sent me this:

Well this past weekend came and went with nary a sign of your availability to meet up. I guess that you weren’t able to take leave from the Boss [my then girlfriend]? I would suggest rescheduling but it’s painfully obvious that making time for your old HS buddy figures low on your priority list, if it figures at all. At the end of the day one makes themselves available to close friends and family, even during busy periods of their lives (after all, we all waste time even during “busy” periods). To indicate otherwise is just to offer a lame excuse.

It seems that given your track record on our correspondence and your apathy on reaching out to me, the 1st of Neverember is a date that you can certainly commit to… I will add it to my Google calendar for quick reference.

That is a “break up” email. He decided to end our friendship. If it doesn’t seem like it, you need context.

Some context:

I met this guy, M, on the first day of Grade 9. He spoke to me, which was necessary, because I was extremely shy. We became fast friends. After high school, when I didn’t see my “High School Best Friend” as much, you could say we became “best friends.” Certainly, there was a long period where M was my closest friend. We would talk about everything and I would tell him things I wouldn’t tell my brother. I told him more than anyone save my parents. And I obviously told him some things I never told my parents. When he sent this email, we had known each other for more than 18 years. 18 years. I can count on one hand the number of people I am not related to that I have known for that long.

But things changed. He had moved away to different cities, including one on the west coast. And over the past 4+ years I had gotten involved with a woman and moved in with her. We didn’t see each other like we used to. He had recently returned from out west.

Some more context:

All of your friends have habits that drive you crazy. In M’s case, he did a couple of things that drove me nuts:

M is a Muslim. For as long as we had been close friends, M would call or email me about doing things on Christian holidays and holiday weekends. I have had two families since I was 6, so I have to visit two families minimum every holiday weekend. So, for example, at Christmas, I would travel to my parents’ two houses and my girlfriends’ parents’ house. There were other visits to other extended family too, of course.

M would always want to do something with me specifically during these times of year because he wasn’t doing anything as his family didn’t celebrate. For years I would tell him I was busy due to had family commitments. Eventually, I stopped. I figured M was M and he wasn’t going to change. Sometimes I’d ignore him, or sometimes I’d just tell him: ‘I can’t do this weekend, maybe next.’ 1

Another thing that drove me crazy was that M would back out of things at the last minute. Not just due to “family commitments,” but because he wasn’t feeling well for whatever reason. He always had an excuse for why he wouldn’t show up. He’d do this pretty frequently, especially in recent years. We, our mutual friends and I, would complain about this to each other, but we figured it was just M being M.

Even more context:

I knew M for over 18 years. In that time he disowned at least four friends that I am aware of before he disowned me. I defended him every single time I learned about this. I would say that he was under a lot of stress, his home life wasn’t happy, what have you. I always had something to say in defense of his behaviour. I have never met another person who has done stuff like this. I’m sure they’re out there, but this was weird behaviour to me and to everyone else I knew who knew M. But I still defended him. Until I got that email.


M was mad I didn’t make time for him over Easter but the last few times we had agreed to get together, he had bailed more than he had shown up. Yet he was outraged that I couldn’t make time with him over Easter. He mentioned the word “respect” more than once in his correspondence with me. “Respect” also showed u pin his correspondence with the mutual friends of ours that he had disowned over the last 5 years. The themes appear to be the same: M felt that we didn’t respect him.


This has struck those of us M has disowned as extremely hypocritical. Each of us could have said the same thing of M: that his last minute cancellations, his inability to be on time, or his decision to priorize literally anything that happened in his family over doing scheduled stuff with us as “a lack of respect.” But none of us did this. Instead we did what friends are supposed to do: we forgave him again and again.

M not only wanted respect from us, he felt he deserved it. I think that’s fair: we want to be treated well by our friends. Why are they our friends otherwise? But M also felt the world owed him something. He kept trying to come up with an idea that would make the world respect him the way in which he felt he deserved it. But the world and his friends continued to let him down.


The Just World Fallacy and Respect

M was let down by us and the world because he believes the world is fair. He believed he had behaved towards his friends in a certain way and that we should treat him exactly how he expected to be treated in return.

J believed that K owed her the end of a conversation, regardless of whether or not K was late to leave work. J believed that, as colleagues, K had to follow a certain code that was clear to J.

I want M to forgive me.

What I find frustrating is that neither M nor J would live up to their own standard. And that’s because those of us who really believe the world is fair believe it should be fair towards us. We don’t really care how the universe treats others, unless those others matter to us.2 We know the rules and we follow them. And that’s why, when someone does something like leave mid conversation or fail to reply to an email in a timely fashion, we get mad and, moreover, we feel self-righteous and entitled to our anger: he or she disrespected us, they failed to follow the rules I follow.


I have some bad news. The world doesn’t owe you shit. Do you honestly believe that, because you were born, some other person is obliged to you to treat you with the respect you believe you deserve? There are 7 billion people on this planet. Who really has “respect” for a fraction of a fraction of those people? We can’t even agree on what respect means.

The universe was here 13 billion years before you were born and it will be here billions of years after you die. The earth was here 4 billion years before you were born and it will likewise be here billions of years after you die. Your society was here before you were born and it will be here after you die. People were “disrespected” before you were born and people will still feel disrespected after you die. None of this entitles you to anything.

We want our friends and colleagues to treat us like they would want to be treated. It’s the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But what most of us really want is to be treated better than we treat other people. When that doesn’t happen, we get mad. So when K runs out of a conversation just as J would have, J is left mad. When M’s friends aren’t available due to entirely predictable family commitments, M gets mad. The hypocrisy is glaring, but it’s natural. It seems to be human (or at least western).

The problem is that this is all in our heads. Yes, every society has certain behaviour norms that are implicitly agreed to and we need to adhere to these norms in order to get along. And yes, it makes rational sense for us to treat each other as we want to be treated. But every single one of us is just trying to do our best. Nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes. Many, many mistakes. To phrase our mostly unintentional mistakes as rudeness or disrespect is to see the world in a false light; to imagine the world as a place where each of us is owed something because the world is fair. But we are not owed anything. The universe is cold and indifferent. If people treat us well it is because they either want to treat us well or because we happen to live in a society where behaviour norms and our ideas of correct behaviour gibe.


Why We Believe There’s Less Respect Now

It’s much harder to forgive strangers who we believe disrespect us. We don’t have the long relationship to protect, we don’t have existing feelings of friendship to make us compassionate. So, usually, when we feel disrespected by a stranger, we think it’s the height of rudeness. “Well I never…” people used to say back when we had more respect.

It feels like there’s less respect than ever because, more than ever before, cultures are intermingling. Each of these cultures has different ideas of behavioural norms, hence different ideas of what respectful behaviour is. So when that tiny, old Chinese lady pushes my 6 foot 4 frame on the subway because she has to be out the door first, it’s not out of rudeness that she does it. It feels like rudeness to me but, to her, it’s normal, acceptable behaviour. In her mind, I would have pushed her if I had been in her position. On the other hand, to a particular generation of people from my culture, the way I eat – fast, talking, messily – is a sign of rudeness and disrespect.

When we think we see a lack of respect, what we are really doing is projecting our own unhappiness on another’s bheaviour.

It may seem to us that our culture’s idea of respect is better than another’s. It seems to me that not pushing people on a subway is better than pushing people. But there has never been a society in human history that completely solved how human beings should treat each other. Never. If there had been, we’d all have copied that


What can be done?

It’s on us. We need to remember Hanlon’s razor “Never attribute to malice that which is explained by stupidity.”[3. You can insert “laziness” or “habit” in place of “stupidity” We need to assume people mean well. We need to truly treat others as we want to be treated. And we need to judge ourselves more harshly than we judge other people.

This last one is nearly impossible. But I try (and fail) to do it every day. But we should try. We should try because we’re all imperfect and all doing the best we can and we need to recognize that everyone feels as we do: we all want to be treated as respectfully, as specially as possible, even though we’re just another one of 7 billion creatures. We need to recognize our common humanity and understand that rudeness is not personal nor is it intentional, most of the time.

So when someone bumps into you, or fails to open the door for you, or walks on the wrong side of the sidewalk, or abruptly ends a conversation, think about what you would have done in their shoes and be honest with yourself, would you really have acted differently?

  1. To our theme: M’s family always came first. He would back out of things regularly due to unspecified “family commitments.” I was never made aware of these commitments ahead of time unless they were on or around Muslim holidays. But there were many times when the family commitments appeared at other times of the year and when they seemed like an excuse.
  2. Even then, we are okay with the universe giving them their just desserts as long as we don’t suffer or are not made unhappy by their suffering.
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