While I generally don’t listen to morning shows on the radio, I happened to catch one in which the fellow was talking about rudeness. He mentioned a survey that indicated most people thought that people are too rude. Interestingly, those surveyed agreed that they had been rude and that politeness would actually encourage people to behave better. I had been thinking about doing a post on rudeness and respect and what happened today provided that last bit of motivation.
During my office hours today I was involved as something of a mediator between a student and another faculty member. The gist of the dispute was that the student had accused the professor of being disrespectful and simply refused to leave her office. My involvement began when the professor came to my office and asked me to help out.
I try to practice what I preach in regards to ethics and critical thinking, so I carefully and politely listened to the student and the professor. What I found interesting was that the student admitted to skipping class, to studying for other classes during her class, and to going to the department office manager and chair to ask about whether the professor had to give him a make up exam or not. When I found out that he was openly doing work for other classes in her classes, I pointed out that was a clear sign of disrespect and hence her reaction to him might have been motivated by his own disrespectful behavior. I used an analogy to a person on a date who spent the whole date openly calling someone else to talk about dating that other person. His reply was that going on the date and talking to the other person was more respectful than simply standing up the first person. That might be true, but taking that approach is rather like defending spitting one someone’s shirt by saying that spitting in his eye would be worse. That is true, but rather misses the point.
This incident, though a single event, did give me new insight into the notion of respect. As this incident shows, people tend to have rather different views of respect. The general principle seems to be that people are rather inclined to interpret their own actions as being appropriate while holding others to higher standards. That is, a person can see an action as respectful if he does it and the very same behavior as disrespectful if it is done to him.
The student seemed to honestly believe that he was showing respect by doing the work for other classes in her class. After all, he said, it would be less respectful to simply skip class. Obviously, the professor did not see this as a sign of respect but rather of disrespect. Based on this and other behavior that she regarded as disrespectful, the professor made it clear that she did not have respect for the student. He, of course, could not understand that. She, of course, did not accept his professed outrage at the perceived disrespect. Rather, she believed that he had earned the level of respect she had shown him, that is none at all.
As a professor, I have also observed similar situations. For example, I have seen students chatting away in classes and annoying the other students. I have then seen the same students chastise other students for being disrespectful to them for doing the same thing. I have also seen students that are very badly behaved in classes complain about faculty being rude to them. Often this “rude” behavior involved the faculty telling them to stop disrupting the class. Outside of academics, I have seen people outraged at the rudeness of someone who dared to ask them to stop talking on their phone during a movie. Ironically, the same person later chastised someone else for talking to the person sitting nearby. Again, this seems to support my theory that people interpret their own actions rather favorably while condemning the same actions taken by others. This meshes nicely with the fact that people generally both condemn and engage in what they regard as rude behavior.
As far as what people should do, the answer is easy: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So, for example, if a student wants respect, then she has to act in ways that are respectful. Rude behavior does not merit respect. Likewise, a professor who wants respect also has to act in a respectful manner. Naturally, the same applies outside of academics as well.