Sunday, 28 January 2007

5:4 What is respect for other people?

Friendship is based on respect and courtesy. Courtesy and politeness mean putting ourselves into the place of the other person, to ‘see ourselves as others see us’. We practice a form of empathy or sympathy which is impossible except between people who believe themselves to be, in essence, close enough or equal enough to have some sense of the other's feelings or predicament.

Yet courtesy and politeness are also distancing mechanisms, for while they establish a certain common closeness, they then keep people at arm’s length. They can be used to emphasize the other's separate needs and wants, their personal social space. This can be a form of honouring of the other's identity. The Chinese philosopher Confucius alluded to the difficulty of the balance when he said, ‘the most difficult people are women and servants. Getting too intimate to them costs you your dignity, while distancing them causes complaints.’

This idea of the social space surrounding an individual is an important one. It is central to our individualistic concepts of who we are. The trampling on the social space of those weaker than ourselves, making another forgo his own time, space or desires to accommodate our own, is one of the chief devices, in most societies, for gaining power. Wasting another's time, as in the many occasions where people are made to hang around for hours, is just as effective as physical abuse. Yet true courtesy is just the opposite of this; it is respecting that social space, keeping our distance while showing concern.

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