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What’s The Difference Between Dignity and Respect?

By Cultures Of Dignity | June 26, 2018

What's The Difference Between Dignity and Respect?

Charlie Kuhn is the CEO & Co-Founder of Cultures of Dignity. Charlie was asked to share how we can reframe and better understand what it means to strive for cultures of dignity for Artemis Connection’s blog.

What’s The Difference Between Dignity and Respect?

By Charlie Kuhn


“How could you even think this is a good idea?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“This has to be fixed immediately!”

How do we learn to manage our responses to this? Most of us aren’t in a place where we can handle this quickly and effectively. We react. We get emotional.

Civic dialogue and critical thinking in moments of conflict underpin a culture of dignity. But how do we get there? One way is to understand the reasons why this is so challenging. What is misunderstood? What’s going on that isn’t seen but felt?

We can start with getting clear with the meaning of words and how they’re used.

Dignity and respect are words with profound meaning but they’re also words that are usually heard when we are being lectured at or corrected. So it’s only normal that we struggle to truly understand or internalize their significance.

Here are our definitions at Cultures of Dignity:

Dignity: From the Latin word dignitas, meaning “to be worthy.”
As in: All people have the right to be recognized for their inherent humanity and treated ethically. Dignity is a given. You just have it and no one can take it away.

Respect: From the Latin word respectus, meaning “to look back at.”
As in: showing admiration for someone because of their abilities, qualities or achievements. Respect is earned. You are respected by others for what you have achieved, experienced and how you have handled yourself as you have achieved accomplishments.

The problem is we use respect in two distinctively different ways: Recognizing a power or status difference between people or recognizing the value of a person. When it comes to a relationship, we commonly frame being respectful as being polite, obedient and following the rules. In this context, questioning the rules or challenging the person enforcing the rules is often perceived as defiant, rude, disrespectful and subject to punishment.

The questions then become:

  • Should you respect someone in a position of authority who abuses power?
  • Should you respect someone who doesn’t treat others with dignity?
  • Even if they’re older than you?
  • Even if they have more seniority than you?
  • Even if they have more experience than you?
  • If dignity is a given that can’t be taken away, what does it look like to treat someone you don’t respect with dignity?

If we use dignity as our anchor and ground our work in the belief that every person has value, then we can separate people’s abusive actions from their essential humanity. For example, there may be a boss at work who belittles, bullies, or embarrasses people under them in front of others. The boss does not need to be respected based on their behavior but they need to be treated with dignity. It may look like the same thing—treating the person with respect versus treating that person with dignity but it is an important distinction. Respect acknowledges the behavior while dignity teaches the importance of civility and humanity.

The same concept can be applied to a peer situation. Co-workers get rightfully frustrated when colleagues are undermining or take credit for work they didn’t do. We want revenge or to be recognized for their contribution. We want the right to be pissed at this person. If we give ourselves the right to be angry and not take our feelings away. We don’t have to be friends and we don’t have to respect their actions. We don’t even have to like them, but we do have to treat them with dignity.

This distinction between dignity and respect allows us to not be driven by fear, anxiety, or hold resentment and somehow sabotage the person that acted in a troubling way. Surprisingly, separating respect and dignity enables you to be better at your job and not bring the “How could you even think this is a good idea?” line home with you.