English Phrases Decoded: Respect Is Earned, Not Given

Aside from the idioms we try to decode on Typing Adventure, we know that some phrases and sayings on the English language (whether they come from British or American English origins) can also be confusing. So, to help people unfamiliar with certain phrases or are non-native English speakers, we’ve also expanded our decoding articles to phrases and sayings that aren’t necessarily idioms.

To recap, idiomatic expressions are proverbs or even phrases that require context to understand. Taken literally, they may not make so much sense, but in some cases, the idiom is used very often that plenty of people fluent in English don’t realize they’re saying an idiom. This could be a problem for people who aren’t fluent that hear and don’t understand these expressions, so we’ve made it our mission to try to explain what they mean and why.

But even when some phrases or expressions don’t even require idioms to be said, there’s still the problem of understanding what it means. Take, for this article, the saying “respect is earned, not given.” Respect is a universal concept: be kind and courteous to others. But some people may not understand the difference between respect that is earned and respect that is given, as respect for certain kinds of people may vary according to different cultures.


Decoding “Respect Is Earned, Not Given”

For all intents and purposes, I’ll assume that this saying is American, not British. Not only does this fit more with America’s assertive culture over the UK’s well-mannered stereotype, all instances of its use point to an American setting.

Its origin is unknown, though it may have come from the media. One source points towards the character Harvey Specter from the TV show Suits. Specter puts one of his clients, Logan Sanders, in his place by establishing the rules of his practice.

Some photos on the internet point the saying towards the film The Godfather and claim that it is Don Corleone who created the term. However, apart from a few memes using his photo and the said quote, there’s no part of the film where Corleone says this line.

Either way, both Suits and The Godfather are American films, so it’s safe to say that the idea is more American than British.


What Does “Respect Is Earned, Not Given” Mean?

“Respect is earned, not given” suggests that if you want to be respected, you cannot force people to respect you just because you want them to. People who adhere to this saying recognize that not everyone is born equal and they aren’t obliged to love or respect anyone just because they exist. To earn their respect, you need to prove that you are worth their time.

In a school setting, it means being able to keep up with everyone else and not relying on others to do your work for you. In the office, it means being a competent co-worker who can show that they don’t have to kiss anyone’s butt just to get ahead. Even in a prison, it means knowing how to handle different types of people without disrespecting anyone. “Earning” one’s respect isn’t always something you can prove in a physical sense, but when it is, it means proving that you are capable of being on the same foot as everyone else.

At the same time, you aren’t obliged to respect someone if you feel they don’t deserve it. If you think people need to earn your respect, you aren’t automatically going to respect someone unless you know something about them that’s worth revering. It means you aren’t going to respect an older person because they’re older than you (and it’s customary in many cultures to respect the elderly), a higher-ranking person in the office (especially if they’re not even competent at their job), or a neighbor (if they prove to be a bad neighbor).

And since you don’t respect these people, you are unlikely to feel remorse or guilt when you don’t treat them the way they feel you should be treating them. If an elderly person in a bus is rude to another passenger, you don’t have to politely tell him to stop. You can be as rude as you want because he clearly is someone who does not deserve your respect.


Should You Make People Earn Respect?

You’ll find that plenty of people adhere to this belief that respect is earned. These are usually people in the US who are aggressive, no-nonsense people who value their time. But at the same time, there are also people think respect is not earned, but given regardless of the circumstances.


Let’s imagine that you’re walking down a street and you see a stranger in need of help. They’re trying to enter a shop, but their hands are full and they cannot free either hand to open the door. No one else is around, and the only solution is to open the door for them.

If you strongly believe respect is earned, then since this person is a stranger and has yet to do anything to earn your respect, then this person does not have your respect, then. As such, you will feel that you aren’t obliged to do anything even if they ask for your help and you will walk away without helping at all and not feel guilt for it.

But if you’re the type of person who believes everyone should be respected without having to earn it, you would open the door for them because you know they need help and it only takes a few seconds to do the respectable thing.


A Different Perspective on Respect

However, there is also a third option to look at things, and it’s not always looking at respect as black and white. You could still be a person who believes respect is earned while still be a person who opens doors for random strangers. You know that respect needs to be earned, but you aren’t going to be a rude person to people you don’t know.

What a lot of people get wrong is that respect does not always equate to kindness, politeness, or courtesy. It does sometimes, like when you respect the wishes of a person to remain private about some things about their life. But it’s also possible to be kind without having to respect a person. If you see a person in need of help, you can be polite and do the courteous thing, but it’s something that will never cross your mind again. The person will thank you for it, but a simple kindness like this does not need to be a big deal.

At the same time, your show of respect can be towards other people in your life. You can choose to respect your co-workers, superiors, and the people who are a constant part of your life. Admittedly, there are just some people in your life who don’t deserve to be revered because they aren’t worthy of the awe. You can still choose to be polite to them in everyday conversation, but when it comes down to the big decisions, if you don’t respect a person, it will be difficult to follow their idea if it clashes with yours.


How to Earn Respect from Others

Regardless of whether you are a student, a teenager, a new member of your company or team or an entrepreneur starting out in the industry, you can be well-respected by other people. Here are some suggestions to help you earn more respect:

Listen Well

Look at listening as an active, not passive, process. Listen actively by taking your thoughts and opinions out of your mind, and take the time to hear what the other person is trying to communicate. Having effective listening skills will make others around you feel validated and important.

Avoid Making Excuses

You base your actions on your choices. If you mess up, own your actions and avoid constantly passing the blame to others. If you wrote a misspelled statement on your e-mail, such as typing bare with me instead of bear with me, it’s probably because you didn’t allot time to proofread your content before hitting the send button.

When you make mistakes, own up to them. Rather than dwell on them, learn from these mishaps, look for opportunities to move past them and make a firm commitment to doing better.

Refrain from Badmouthing Others

Badmouthing people, whether in a social or professional setting, is completely inappropriate. You definitely won’t earn respect this way. If you’re unhappy with the actions or behavior or a certain individual, don’t talk behind their back. Instead, talk to them in private, bring up the issue and work things out. If the person is a social loafer, for instance, talk to the individual privately and be transparent and honest about the problem.

Be Open to Change

Stubbornness won’t get you anywhere. You have to realize that change is necessary to grow as a person. This means re-evaluating your negative behaviors, trying new activities and learning new skills. Also, remember to pat yourself on the back on the progress you’ve made along the way to becoming a better person.


Whether you choose to be aggressive in general or polite to everyone, many people are either going to be kind and show respect to all, or only to a select few they have deemed worthy. What’s your take on respect?

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