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Can too much respect kill you?


I was watching an Indian TV program. A typical singing contest. Several participants were showing their performances. It was being judged by some senior artists. New artists were performing, points were being given and audience was clapping. Good old, run of the mill, show.

What stood out again and again was excessive display of respect, bordering to worship, towards the senior artists. Everyone was coming and touching their feet, singing their praise. Junior artists were mentioning how they have a long way to go before they can become like senior artists. “I am nothing compared to you.” one junior artist proclaimed.

Something in that remark bothered me. I would much rather like someone who is average to say “I am average”, then someone really good to say “I am nothing.” There is such a thing called excessive humbleness. It’s not real humbleness. It’s a big ego taking pride in being humble. It’s an ego trying to feel it’s virtue of being humble.

Hand in hand with that kind of humbleness walked excessive respect.

Respect as a cultural value is as inherent to our Indian culture as curry is to our cuisine. We take pride in respecting others, especially elders. We believe in hierarchies in social situations. The whole respect thing goes hand in hand with our worship culture. It’s great in a way. Makes people feel valued.

But is it always good to respect someone? What is the right amount of respect? And where is the borderline for submission?
And most important question – are there any dangers of showing respect?

Respecting certainly has advantages. It creates good will. It makes interpersonal relationships easier in some cases.

But it also has some disadvantages. Consider the case of FAA investigation of Korean airlines.

Federal Aviation Administration, an American government body, responsible for creating regulations for airline industry and enforcing them. When any accident happens, the FAA literally swarms the accident and digs up everything. Were all rules followed? Did the pilots get enough sleep? Did they get adequate training? Did they have correct weather information? Were all instruments inspected and working?

What they do is called root cause analysis. In their analysis, they not only look for the cause, but also look for what they called “enablers”, the things, or behaviors that not necessarily cause accident, but make it more likely to happen. For example, in one of their investigations, they concluded that two different but important buttons in the plane cockpit were of similar size and color and located close to each other, thus making it likely for pilots mistake one for another. Any pilot who is giving enough attention would press the correct button and that would not be a problem. But the similarity between the buttons could lead pilots to mistake in stressful situations and cause accident. Thus it was deemed an “enabler” and was fixed by airline companies on recommendation from FAA.

For any accidents, there may be one cause, but there can be many enablers. FAA digs into all those enablers and makes recommendations. They deserve a lot of credit for making air travel so safe today.

Between 1970 to 2000, Korean airlines had many fatal crashes and a bad safety record. FAA did similar investigation and pointed out that some aspect of Korean culture was at least partly responsible for the crashes. That aspect was “respect towards seniors”.

In a commercial airline, there are always two pilots. One senior and one junior. The pilots are trained to spot errors, anomalies and point it out, ask questions. It always helps to have another pair of eyes watch over what you are doing when any small mistake can lead to life and death situations. Pilots understand that and do not mind being questioned by junior pilots.

In case of Korean culture, it is generally considered rude to question the seniors because of “respect” issue. Thus the junior pilots were not questioning decisions of senior pilots. Senior pilots are still humans, capable of making mistakes and their mistakes were not getting caught. Many times it was fine, but in rare occasions it led to fatal crashes.

Yes, the fact that junior pilots did not question their senior pilots assertively led to loss of life. Too much respect led to people being killed.

Of course the argument can be made that that’s not how our respect works. We may touch their feet, but we may still question them when it’s right to do so.

The truth is you won’t. When you touch someones feet, or otherwise show excessive respect, you negotiate a position lesser than that person in that social interaction. Now that person already has more authority and more power. That authority will color every part of interaction and will create a barrier for communication. Disagreeing with them and arguing with them can be perceived as sign of disrespect and it will be far more difficult for you to perform that action of perceived disrespect on the backdrop of the action of respect that you already performed.

It will interfere your ability to speak the truth. And when the truth does not come out, everyone suffers. It’s only matter of time.

Am I arguing no respect? No. I am arguing just adequate respect. Just like everything else, respect is good in moderation. If someone is elder, you should be polite, not submissive. Your opinion still has value. If that someone is your parent, especially mother, telling the truth becomes difficult because of all the things he/she did for you. But indeed you may be the better judge of situation even if you are younger.

And if respect gets in the way of truth, respect has to bow out.

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