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The Corrosive Nature of Respect Culture on Relationships

Posted on the 23 March 2013 by Smudger @ChristopherSm73
The Corrosive Nature of Respect Culture on RelationshipsI think it is fair to say that I have had a lot of negative things to say about respect culture.  I have my reservations as to whether there is anything at all that is good about it, except for maybe teaching young children to be polite to their elders (something that can be achieved without an engrained culture of respect).  In adult life it is not only unnecessary but poisonous for a variety of reasons I have mentioned in previous posts, but in this post I will deal with one of the most important of all, the effect it has on relationships between people.
Let's start with a rather large gripe I have when dealing with some Korean people and that is the lack of honesty within groups, e.g. family and work. When you are forced into respecting someone an atmosphere is immediately created. This feeling is one of inequality, one person is superior to the other.  This inequality has deleterious effects on all people involved because there is a forced submission and lack of freedom on the younger person and because of this the younger or lower-ranked person is likely to placate their superior for fear of offending them.  The person receiving the respect can then be withheld information about the thoughts and feelings of other people.  The problem is a lack of freedom of expression which harms everyone.
From this, illusions and delusions can be created.  Those who give the respect can feel the illusion of not be cared about; their feelings and thoughts are not respected often by people who are closest to them, like their own family members.  Children can get the feeling that their parents don't really know who they are deep inside and don't want what is best for them, something that my students often complain about.  Conversely, parents can be deluded into thinking that their children are happy or agree with everything they say and will behave accordingly, this can have adverse effects on important family issues.  If children of Korean parents have failings or problems I have noticed a general trend of denial of these issues and much of this is a combination of respect culture and the status element of saving face in the eyes of others.
The Corrosive Nature of Respect Culture on RelationshipsThe failure of free-expression can result in being dishonest in many ways.  In my Korean family I can't believe how much dishonesty actually goes on.  Family members lie about what they are going to do, where they are, who they are with, what they did, and how they feel all the time.  When you think about it this makes sense to avoid any confrontation and therefore disrespect.  The amount of politics that goes on between family members is exhausting, mostly in the name of keeping elders happy.  The lack of an open dialog means that elders are always to be listened to on the surface, but that changes nothing deep inside and resentment builds in the young.  I believe this causes strained relationships in Korean families to a point that goes beyond the norm.  Difficult family relationships exist everywhere but in Korea the culture at large is the main cause and not just personal differences and history.
Resentment is a common theme I see in all areas of life here.  People are told what to do by superiors, often in an unjustifiable manner with an air of superiority and they can't dispute it openly so they do it internally.  The irony of it all is that making sure you appear to respect people on the outside actually causes the exact opposite to occur inside.  A deep disrespect forms and the result is that people lie and deceive.  What could be a greater sign of disrespect to anyone than lying to them; it says I really don't respect your opinion and I don't respect your ability to handle any criticism.  If you have ever been lied to by a friend or loved one, you will know how this makes you feel.
Deceit is rife in almost all situations I find myself in the company of many Korean people where I am part of the group.  People pretend to be having a good time at staff dinners, they pretend to find elders jokes funny, they pretend to be somewhere where they are not, they pretend to listen to advice, they pretend that the gifts they give haven't broken the bank, they pretend they are happy to pay for a meal, and they pretend to respect their elders.  I see no evidence that respecting their elders is really what Koreans do, what I see is that they placate their elders, there is a difference.
What results is a failure to understand others and also - rather counter-intuitively - any genuinely good advice can end up going straight through one ear and out the other of the young.  Parents don't understand their own children and children don't understand their own parents.  Bosses don't know what is troubling their employees, and employees are alienated from their companies and cease to care about their jobs unless their motivation comes from fear of losing their positions or not getting promoted and earning more money.  In my experience, fear of losing jobs is the main motivator of hard work.
What I find extremely interesting is that honesty is markedly improved when it comes to strangers.  Lose a wallet in Korea and it is likely you will get it back with all it's contents still there.  Petty crime, generally, also appears much less prevalent here than back home.  While honesty is good with strangers, courtesy is not and I think both have to do with the respect culture.  They don't have to deceive a stranger because they don't have to worry about offending them, just as they don't have to show courtesy to them for the same reason.  This leads me to think that the vast majority of Korean people want to be good, moral, not lie and do the right thing (of course) and respect culture often gets in the way with the people that matter to them the most.
All this respect nonsense even gets in the way of making friends.  The vast majority of people in Korea would not dream of being friends with anyone significantly older or younger than them, what a shame this is.  Having friends that are older than you is something that does breed genuine respect.  They can inform you in ways merely an older acquaintance can't because they know you and you know them.  They respect you for who you are and you naturally respect them, the relationship is not forced and it is also not one-way in nature.  In fact, older people can learn almost as much from the young.  The older you become the more prone you are to becoming close-minded and stuck in a rut, afraid or less enthused about trying new things.  Being around young people and respecting them can be a tonic to break these sometimes bad habits.
The Corrosive Nature of Respect Culture on RelationshipsI am certainly not saying that my own culture in Britain is perfect, a healthy dose of respect in young people, for example, would certainly be beneficial.  Young people in Korea are often fantastic because of their respect culture but I do also think it can greatly affect their development into adults that are free to explore their own ideas and aspirations.  Equality comes into its own as a principle just as people come to adult age and I believe it should be encouraged in high school aged students.
I have often been accused of reasoning from the perspective of my own culture in this regard; valuing principles of freedom and equality over respect for authority.  Now it should be clear that valuing freedom and equality does not mean having a total disrespect for authority, I am not advocating having no respect whatsoever and favouring anarchy.  But shoot me for saying this, I genuinely objectively believe that prioritising freedom and equality over respect is a good thing.  Having a society where people are treated fairly and equally, who are valued for how they behave rather than their status or age, and a society where people have freedom of speech and expression trumps a society that fears to offend those in authority every single time.  Throw in a healthy dose of respect on the side and this might be the perfect balance.  In a country that values respect over anything else, the scales can become unbalanced and possibly a worse place to live as a result.
The principle of respect is not a bad one, we all need it to have ordered societies but I think it does become a problem when it is a core value that is prioritised over everything else.  It is my belief that - in countries that do prioritise respect - you can find an ordered society, free of things like petty crime but a society that is repressed and unhappy.  The extreme example is, of course, North Korea, a country that I am sure is relatively free of petty crime and in fact any crimes by the populace.  The government, on the other hand, is another matter entirely.  You then get a gradual lessening of respect of authority in Far East Asia, China being next, South Korea, Taiwan, and then Japan.  It is interesting to note that the countries at the end of this list become increasingly more appealing to live in, with Japan being top. 
However, none of these countries come close to being the best places to live in the world, despite how rich they are.  Those league tables we always see listing the most desirable places to live are still dominated by Western countries and I think the freedom and equality Westerners have in relationships is a large factor in this.  Even as a foreigner in Korea, all my relationships with Koreans are obstructed by respect.  The only Koreans that I am comfortable with, and are comfortable with me, are those that reject and despise the respect aspect of their culture as much as me and this is because without it, open and honest relationships are possible, and most importantly, desirable.

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