At ACHIEVE we have a workshop on Respectful Workplaces. At the start of the workshop I often ask participants what comes to mind when they hear the word “respect”. Almost every time I ask that question, someone will mention or even break out in song with a line from Aretha Franklin’s song Respect. This got me thinking about the history of the song and I did a bit of digging.
Respect was originally released by Otis Redding. His version is about a hard-working man who only wants a little respect from his wife when he comes home after a hard day at work. Aretha Franklin reimagines the message: in her version, she entirely reverses the meaning and it becomes the message of a strong women demanding respect from her partner. That it is sung by a black woman in the ’60s makes it even more remarkable. After its release the song became an international hit and an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Rights Movement.
I’ve been thinking about the lessons to take from the song and from its history. Here are just a few that jumped to my mind:
1. Intent is NOT the measuring stick of respect.
If our intent was not malicious but the effect was negative, we are responsible to acknowledge, apologize and change our behaviour, even if we meant no harm. Respect means different things to different people and we may not be aware of others’ personal beliefs, place of origin, sexual orientation or political leanings. It is our responsibility to be responsive to those around us, not just trust our intentions, no matter how well-meaning.
2. Respect includes more than tolerance.
Most of us understand we must tolerate a variety of ideas, people and situations. Our ability to tolerate some of the growing pains is a way of offering support to those around us, but respect encompasses more than just tolerance or putting up with certain individuals or behaviors. Respect means showing consideration of others and welcoming differences. When individuals respect each other, they safeguard the dignity of the other and appreciate the differences, even if they don’t fully understand them.
3. Respect is an active process.
Respect is an active process of engaging people of all backgrounds with the intent to increase our awareness. We size people up very quickly because of their stature, ethnicity, gender, fashion choices, accents and more, and we put people into boxes because of these characteristics. If we are respectful of people, we should lean into and question our assumptions. Let’s work to have a mindset that is interested in our differences and take control of our natural tendency to judge each other.
Whether in our homes, workplaces or communities, respect is not an extra “icing on the cake” idea. In most countries there are laws that guide citizens on their rights and responsibilities in creating and maintaining respect.
Let’s remember to keep reimagining what respect might mean to the other person, move beyond tolerance and actively work to create respectful families, workplaces and communities.
Take a listen to the two versions: