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R.E.S.P.E.C.T. and masks: whose wishes deserve respect?

R.E.S.P.E.C.T. and masks: whose wishes deserve respect?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the widespread use of signs that organisations have displayed to remind us of the rules regarding mask wearing, hand sanitising and social distancing. Many of these signs evoke the notion of respect; asking us to respect one another, and the staff working there by following the law and guidance.

In the UK, from 19th July, most of the laws requiring mask use and social distancing will be removed and so individuals will decide for themselves what behaviours they wish to continue, including: to mask, or not to mask. It will depend on personal choice. So, who deserves to have their wishes respected, those who feel vulnerable to the virus and therefore want others to continue to wear masks and socially distance indoors, or those who no longer want to? Organisations like pubs, shops and restaurants may feel relieved that they no longer have to manage these difficult-to-police laws, but now, instead, they will have to manage the conflicts over whose personal choices and wishes should be respected.

What does the word ‘respect’ here mean? Let's look at 4 possible ways that people might interpret what respect means in this context - all taken from the Cambridge English Dictionary.


Meaning 1:

When I was growing up, the word respect was almost always used as an instruction, and almost always in connection with school teachers, bosses, elders, and generally those perceived to be authority figures, as in: “Show some respect”, or “Respect your elders”. Similarly, there appeared to be almost a rank order of those who commanded respect, and most ‘ordinary’ folk were not positioned particularly highly in the ‘respected member of the community’ league table. Indeed, the word respect is defined in the Cambridge English Dictionary as follows:


“To feel or show admiration for someone or something that you believe has good ideas or qualities”.


“Respecting someone”, therefore carries the implication that the person being respected has achieved something worthy or has inherently good qualities deserving of admiration.

So, if people read the sign about respecting others with this definition of respect in mind, it is understandable that they might have some ambivalence about a request to respect someone they don’t know, or whose behaviour or beliefs they might oppose. It also calls into question what behaviours, or roles made these people worthy of respect, and who decided this? Significantly, how might it feel to always be the person expected to do the respecting, and not be the person receiving the respect. Certainly, one common grievance from those who do not want to wear masks, for example, is that they have had to wear masks for others for a long time already, it’s time for their wishes to be respected.


Meaning 2:

The alternative meanings of the word respect focus more on the recognition of each other’s humanity and basic needs. Respect can also be defined and interpreted in this way:


“To accept the importance of someone's rights or customs and to do nothing that would harm them or cause offence”.


With this definition in mind, a sign asking patrons to respect staff and each other could be interpreted as asking them not to do anything to others that they would not want done to themselves. Often called The Silver Rule, this type of respect is also known as the ‘bare minimum’ and requires some degree is acknowledgement of one’s own triggers (what things I do not like being done to me) and the awareness of when we act in that manner towards others. This is sometimes easier said than done – we tend to always think that we are acting in a reasonable and appropriate manner. With this definition in mind, if I don’t like being told to wear a mask, I will not tell anyone else that they must wear a mask. But, this leaves too much conflict remaining – and the wishes of those who want others to wear masks are disregarded.


Meaning 3:

The definition of the word respect can go further to mean:


“To treat something or someone with kindness and care”.


Here, we are asking people actively to behave in a kind and courteous manner towards staff and fellow customers, clients or service users. What would this mean in the context of mask wearing? This may mean wearing masks etc. would continue in an organisation, as wearing one would not harm anyone around us, and would ensure that those who want others to continue to wear masks feel safe. The problem arises for those who want to stop wearing masks. We are asking for their wishes not to be respected – and therefore they are not being treated with kindness and care.


Meaning 4:

A final definition of the word respect is:


“To do what someone has asked to have done”.


Again – this definition has problems in application and relies heavily on the nature of the request and the authority with which the request is made. What if the request is in direct opposition to my own wishes or needs? Why do I need to comply with mask-wearing, when the government (for example) has now agreed that I do not have to?


Alternatives:

So, this all demonstrates that appeals to ‘respect’ is a problematic strategy. ‘Respect’ means different things at different times and to different people, and respecting one’s own needs and wants are often at conflict with respecting those of other people. Asking customers, clients and service users to respect staff and others generates ambiguity over what respect means and how it is interpreted, which can swiftly lead to conflict (see previous blog!). Instead, remove ambiguity and contentious notions of who should be respected.


So, what are possible alternatives messages? Here are some possible examples which might work for you or provide a basis for you to adapt.


“We would like all customers to continue wearing masks so that those who are vulnerable can also keep on shopping here.”


“In this restaurant, we do our best to treat you with kindness and make you feel welcome, please join in with this by continuing to wear mask wearing so we can all feel safe.”


Good luck – and let us know if you’d like us to help you and your organisation in this new, untested phase. You can contact us here.


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