I recently met a young man who received a legal charge of domestic assault. His girlfriend of one year came to his house and “started an argument” about his unfaithfulness. He admits that he punched her in the eye, causing injury that required medical care. In his opinion, she disrespected him by going to his house to confront him. He also had a couple of previous battery charges, due to arguments with “people who disrespected me.” Yet, he considers himself an easy-going person who ignores people and problems. “I try to walk away as much as I can.” How does he account for his aggressive episodes? “They keep disrespecting me.” This made me wonder about the importance of respect.
Respect can mean life or death in gangs. The issue of respect, or disrespect, can trigger confrontations and violence between gangs. Criminal justice experts say its how gang members prove their loyalty, maintain a sense of belonging, and demonstrate power. If you are challenged, and you don’t step up, you lose status.
Respect is equally important for people who are not gang affiliated. Respect is a positive feeling or action shown toward someone held in high regard. It conveys a sense of admiration for valuable qualities. Respect can be conveyed with a handshake, a slight bow, a smile, direct eye contact, or a fist bump. It is shown differently in different cultures. But we all want it.
Research suggests that how much we are respected and admired determine our overall happiness in life, more so than how much money we have. Cameron Anderson, Psychological scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, found that higher socioeconomic status, meaning higher income or wealth, or higher education, does not boost subjective happiness much at all. Rather respect and admiration in your friendship network, neighborhood, or social teams improves overall happiness. “Having high standing in your local ladder leads to receiving more respect, having more influence, and being more integrated into the groups social fabric” Anderson said. He went on to say “One of the reasons why money doesn’t buy happiness is that people quickly adapt to the new level of income or wealth. Lottery winners, for example, are initially happy but then return to their original level of happiness quickly.” Other studies have indicated that people who reach an income of about $45,000 are no more happy after winning the lottery. Once one’s basic needs are met, wealth alone does not determine happiness. Being respected, having influence, and being socially connected are the sources of true happiness.
Let’s return to the young man who is quick to demand respect by violent means. In my opinion, he is easily slighted. We all feel slighted from time to time, in big and small ways. Maybe someone didn’t return your call, spoke rudely to you, or didn’t invite you to an event with others. Psychologists call slights “narcissistic injuries” that bruise our egos and make us feel belittled. It hurts to feel devalued or disrespected. It can cause us to feel humiliated, with potentially dangerous consequences. Maybe we want to hurt them back. Slights can trigger a violent reaction.
Psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson estimated that two-thirds of all murders were the result of men feeling that they had been disrespected and acted to “save face.” Our ego, our sense of self, is often fragile and easily damaged.
There’s no getting around it. We will be slighted on occasion. Rather than protect our fragile egos in unproductive ways, find other means to be respected, have influence, and be socially connected.