Have you ever seen those memes come around about being spanked with hand, belt or wooden spoon and how it means one learned respect for elders?  Well, that was not my experience.  I learned deference perhaps, but no respect was generated within such encounters.  Respect is either granted or earned not demanded or enforced, at least not in my experience and observation.

According to the definitions of each, deference may be granted respectfully and respect may be exhibited through deference, but there exists a difference, doesn’t there?


                – esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability, or something considered as a manifestation of a personal quality or ability:

                 I have great respect for her judgment.

Respect is esteem granted.


respectful submission or yielding to the judgment, opinion, will, etc., of another.

Deference is the submitting or yielding that may be done in a respectful manner but not necessarily involving actual esteem for another.

                 – deference to a right, privilege, privileged position, or someone or something considered to have certain rights or privileges; proper acceptance or courtesy; acknowledgment:

                  respect for a suspect’s right to counsel; to show respect for the flag; respect for the elderly.

Deference is an outward behavior associated with respect.  But the two, true esteem and outward acquiescence are not necessarily always entwined.

When Confucius observed the respect and obedience of the senior by the junior, he also observed consideration and protection of the junior by the senior.  Elders may choose to respect youth to enhance their self-esteem despite their outward manner revealing a lack thereof and perhaps earn respect in return.  But this seems to have been lost in Western culture during earlier generations where “children should be seen but not heard” was one of several such expectations of the day.  Deference to authority via behavior modification tactics, like spanking and emotional manipulation, had been the norm, and this had cascaded into most authoritative relationships, whether patriarchal structures in business and religion or police and school teachers.  But I will continue to argue that deference is not respect.  It is deference, an outward behavior of acquiescence regardless of whether true respect is involved.

In later generations, parents are learning new ways to treat children as their own people, as emotional beings who deserve guidance and support versus punishment and behavior modification.  We now have the opportunity to model consideration and vulnerability to the enhancement of our parent-child relationships.  Therefore, positions of authority – elders, police, business leaders and management – are less granted the deference to which they may be accustomed or expecting, for all their years of deference to their own authority figures.  They are faced with having to exhibit consideration and protection of their subordinates and underlings to earn actual respect.  And this is a tough space to be.

In social science terms, we discuss personal and positional agency.  There is a greater requirement now for personal agency even within authoritative positions because the position itself does no longer necessarily command deference.  The person in authority is more required to exhibit respectful behaviors themselves so that respect becomes a reciprocal aspect of a relationship based in mutual esteem.  This is where love resides and productivity excels.

If you are one of those in authority – a parent, manager or leader of some kind, it will do everyone well to let go expectations of deference (or in some’s terms, respect) and rather develop mutually respectful relationships.  For despite the agency we may have traditionally afforded positions of authority, is it real or beneficial to keep faking it through mere deference?

I’ve been pondering for some time now, since my Global & International OD class at Benedictine back in March, the first of four key principle’s of Confucius’ “pragmatic rules for daily life derived from Chinese history.”  (Hofstede, Cultures & Organizations: Software of the Mind, p. 208)  It reads:

The stability of society is based on unequal relationships between people.  …[Confucius] distinguished five basic relationships (the wu lun):  ruler-subject, father-son, older-brother-younger brother, husband-wife, and senior friend-junior friend.  These relationships are based on mutual and complementary obligations: for example, the junior partner owes the senior partner respect and obedience, and the senior owes the junior partner protection and consideration.

I have to admit that the concept, what I’ve always known of it and upon initial readings, left me rather uncomfortable.  The word “obedience” leaves me cold to be honest.  So, I’ve re-read and re-read and pondered and soul searched, and something has occurred to me.  But first, let me mention that there are those, plenty I’m sure, and including my mother who will say – something to the effect of – “We had respect for our elders back when I was growing up.  It was the me generation that screwed everything up and now children no longer respect their elders.”

Ok.  So I’m not sure how prolific this disrespect is though it is certainly perceived.  Here’s the thing that has struck me.  Reading the last half of the last sentence is of incredible importance, because like others, I get hung up on the respect and obedience of elders bit.  Let me reiterate:  the senior owes the junior partner protection and consideration.  I really think this should come first because if we think of the parent child relationship, the older should be the wiser and should give the protection and consideration that would stir the respect and obedience Confucius obviously observed in healthy working relationships.  And this, I feel, is where the respect broke down, culturally and in the broadest sense for us here in the US, and perhaps in broader Western societies.

Consider the breakdown of the closeness of our extended families.  With this breakdown toward nuclear families, parents lost a natural source of learning to be a parent from experienced, knowledgeable and wise older family members.  We are left to figuring it out amongst ourselves, by trial and error, over the internet and through reading of books.  As humans, though we have the capacity to learn visually and aurally, we forget that we are foundationally kinesthetic learners who learn at first, and throughout life at the core, through mimicry.  So, without models, we lost what it means to protect and consider our children, or junior roles.  What I get is that consideration is the respect we give our junior counterparts and how they learn what it is to respect.  But when parents who lack this understanding live by “do as I say not as I do”, what other outcome could there possibly be than rebellion and disrespect?!

That said, I’m still not sure about the husband-wife concept.  For me, true consensual partnership is the goal in my relationship.  I just truly believe there is great learning here for a good number of relationships, especially the parent-child relationships.  Elders/Seniors need to realize that respect must be earned and find every opportunity to learn the how of doing so.  If you’re interested, let me know.  I’m happy to share options that have worked for me.

Further thought… It has since occurred to me that senior/junior can merely represent the level of knowledge or wisdom comparatively holds in relationship to another.  With regard to my marriage, there are times when I am more “in the know” on a matter and times when my husband is.  In this way, we compliment one another, drawing on our respective strengths.  So, though this comparative wisdom piece may perhaps be more skewed in age related relationships, it occurs to me that any partnership might be served to recognize the wisdom and strength of both parties.  What parent has not learned from their children?

Until next time, make life marvelous!

Hugs out to ya…