Cartoon by Eric Williams in the style of Gary Larsen‘s iconic What Dogs Hear
Reproduced here by kind permission from the very accommodating Eric Williams
This week I have been considering the link between communication and respect.
Just for the record, in the context of this post, when I use the term “respect”, I am referring to a respectful attitude, and respectful treatment.
I had a very good weekend, which consisted of much eatage, drinkage, and partyage therein. A bunch of friends (mostly vanilla, but aware of my BDSM-y predilections) had come in from far and wide (as well as some local ones), and attended nicely by kvetch, I joined in with enthusiasm. (more on this in my next post) Anyhow, a kind of strange conversation happened during that weekend which reminded me of another similar conversation which happened another time, and thinking about those two conversations was essentially what spawned this post.
After considering by myself for awhile, and after considering input from people and other sources for awhile, I have come to the conclusion that respect and communication have an integral link. When people discuss problems with communication, the symptom may be communication, but the root of the problem can often be tracked back to issues of respect.
If a person responds to what you say in a way which seems to contradict something you’ve just said, then that may be considered both a respect issue and a communication issue. Responding in a way which clearly includes what’s just been said indicates the message has been received and understood. Even if the response was in disagreement, it’s still respectful by my definition. Apparently listening, but then responding in a way which excludes any mention of what’s just been said can feel disrespectful, even if there is no such intention.
None of us are mind readers. If something is phrased in one specific way, then a different meaning cannot be assumed without further clarification. Conversely, if a response from one person omits all mention of the previous statement from another speaker, then accurate comprehension of that statement cannot be assumed without further clarification.
In a situation in which person A asks a question and person B declined to answer, consider these possible two subsequent questions from person A:
- “Why was that question offensive?”
- “I wonder why you declined to answer that question?”
If a person declines to provide an answer to a question, then the only facts which have been established are that a question was asked and an answer to it was absent. There is no evidence in this interaction that anybody found anybody or anything offensive. “Privacy”, “discomfort”, and “offended” are three entirely different reasons a person might decline to answer a question, and none of those were demonstrated in the above scenario.
So the first assumes a response or motive which may or may not be present, and the second queries only what is known, with no assumptions. The second, in my opinion, is much more respectful than the first.
When I query this kind of thing with people, they often tell me that the question I was looking for was actually what they meant to say. Yet how can any person reasonably assume a meaning which was not stated? If we all did that we’d be assuming unstated meanings all the time and nobody’s words would ever get heard. Since the first question was clearly stated and the second one was not, I can only reasonably work with the words I was given.
Some of you may consider this to be a subtle difference. Yet such differences can lead to wider misunderstandings, and increase in hostile feelings. And this all began with what may simply have been careless phrasing and nothing more.
As a personal ethos, I maintain a zero tolerance approach to matters of respect. (which I now recognise as an umbrella term under which I now include consent, validation, and carefully inclusive and consistent word choices) I pay vigilant attention to the smallest details of word usage and accompanying tone, body language and behaviour, because I feel that when the smallest infractions are highlighted from the start, then the larger ones are not possible. As a matter of personal policy, I do not, ever “let things slide”, I will always query any word usage or behaviour I think may be transgressing matters of respect.
I find that when I assert my human entitlement to decline to answer a question or be addressed appropriately (for example by my name), then one of three situations may follow:
- My requests are acknowledged and respected without question (very rarely, I’m sorry to say)
- My requests are taken as a personal challenge, as if my personal preferences have anything to do with them personally, and are responded to at best grudgingly and at worst challengingly (most frequent)
- My assertions are taken as a personal attack, and responded to combatively, usually with name calling, (“You’re so defensive”), or unsupported contradictions, (“I did not”), or abdication of responsibility, (“I was only [insert something innocuous and irrelevant here]”) (less frequently than 2, but still quite frequently)
Responses 2 and 3 are usually accompanied by statements minimising the validity and importance of what I’ve said (“you’re making such a big deal out of nothing”), and denigrating me for placing such importance on such things (“you’re so touchy/nit-picky/pedantic/sensitive”). Also, sometimes I can be patronised with inappropriate familiar endearments such as “dear” or “honey”, when in fact I do not know the individual at all.