Four Timeless Ways to Cultivate Respect in a Polarized World

Four Timeless Ways to Cultivate Respect in a Polarized World

Between social media and news, we’re bombarded with the reality of conflict around us. In fact, negative emotions are at record levels across the globe. Interpersonal tension is inescapable. It’s stressful. Interactions with perfect strangers can have us walking on eggshells.  We’ve all seen how one misstep can set off a firestorm of public shaming.  

I’m not talking about political correctness. I’m referring to basic respect.

Older people

Three octogenarian strangers in a waiting room agreed, and shared some age-old lessons for fostering respect in our polarized world.

87 year-old Barbara struck up a conversation with me in the lobby of a doctor’s office, while my mom had a minor procedure.  A confident and fit woman, she relayed tales of her globe-trotting adventures on every continent.  Barbara, a natural conversationalist, asked what I did for a living.

“I help people in conflict engage respectfully with one another,” I responded.

“Conflict resolution?” she asked.

“Exactly,” I answered.

A few awkward silent minutes passed.  I thought I’d just dead-ended my conversation with this remarkable stranger.

Barbara broke the silence, turned to me with a smile and said, “Respect.  Yes, we need to be talking about that today, more than ever.”

The older couple across from me smiled and nodded in agreement.  Then, the conversation then took a delightful turn. 

These three people, all in their 80s, shared timeless wisdom about respect.


Barbara said life was easier back in the days when she could rely on Dear Abby, Emily Post and Ann Landers for rules on etiquette.  She acknowledged the world isn’t as simple as she wanted to believe it was back in those days.

Clashing ideas of social graces are at the heart of most conflicts these days.

Old picture

I hear this over and over, amongst friends and strangers. One person’s obscenity is someone else’s healthy everyday vernacular.  

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we can be rude, without knowing it.  There are varying opinions about when and how to answer the phone or respond to emailThis infographic shows how etiquette norms vary in different cultures.  Roger Axtell has written a collection of books on “Do’s and Taboos” for world travelers.

The reality is, we all define “respect” differently.

Barbara and I agreed that, no matter where we are in the world, most people try to be respectful, in the best way they know. If we’re offended, it’s often because the other person doesn’t understand our expectations. 

Barbara’s world travels taught her socially-acceptable behavior is contextual.

People’s behaviors are shaped by local social standards, gender, faith communities, families, cultures, generational norms, etc. 

Barbara said, “I always find that if I start thinking to myself, ‘everyone knows that’s rude,’ I got it wrong.  Usually, that person doesn’t know they’ve offended others.”

Japanese woman at shrine

She went on to say that once she took this approach, she started to look at people differently. 

“Americans can be rude in the eyes of others!” She said to everyone in the waiting room.

Gary Chapman describes a spectrum of “languages” to consider.  Despite our best efforts to be respectful, we don’t always get it right.  We can’t always know what the other person expects, any more than we can interpret motives behind their actions.

Another woman in the lobby piped in, “It’s like that Aretha Franklin song, R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me.”

Indeed, we all agreed.


In The Winner Stands Alone: A Novel, Paulo Coelho, suggests,

“How people treat other people is a direct reflection of how they feel about themselves.”

Man with respect shirt

If you feel disrespected, it doesn’t hurt to ask what the other person meant. 

It’s possible they didn’t know you were offended. 

Besides, we’ve all had those days when we lacked sleep, didn’t put on our happiest selves and inadvertently gave off negative vibes.  We don’t always have the energy to be nice. 

Don’t assume the worst in others.  There’s a good chance someone’s bad behavior, or bad day, has nothing to do with you.


Most westerners are familiar with the Golden Rule, “Treat others as you’d like to be treated.”

The Golden Rule is limited, however, because it assumes others want to be treated the same as you.  In his book, The Art of People, Dave Kerpen explains:

"When you follow the Platinum Rule, however, you can be sure you're actually doing what the other person wants done and assure yourself of a better outcome."

Why not treat others the way they’d like to be treated? 

Find out what others need from you, and try meeting them there.


Man offering to shake hands

Our waiting room conversation evolved to confronting rudeness.  This can be tricky. While we may not all agree on acceptable social norms, it’s usually obvious when someone is mistreated. When we witness bad behavior, as attorney Dexter Pierce explains, we should be that first person to call it out and stop harmful actions of others.  This takes courage.

Most people fear confrontation.

That fear is what drives most conflicts. That innate fight-or-flight response is also what motivated me to write this workbook and this article, to help people build resilience to engage productively and courageously through difficult disagreements.

As Pierce conveys in his experience on public transportation of a woman shouting racist profanities at him, until a couple other passengers intervened.  The result was a cascade of relief and empathy amongst other passengers. While grateful, Pierce challenges us to consider the 20 or so silent bystanders,

“They were all waiting for the other person to act; no one wanted to be the ‘first.’ I’m thankful for the two who did act. But to the rest of the passengers, stop waiting for someone else to speak up. Stop waiting for someone else to do something.”

When you recognize that someone is the brunt of rudeness, be that first courageous person to disarm the offender. Consider training to build and practice your conflict engagement skills.


One of the women in our waiting room conversation pointed to the TV and said it’s hard to listen to all the political bantering. We’re all walking on eggshells, afraid of insulting or being insulted. 

It’s hard to know who’s the offender and who’s offended, she said.  

Listen better

It can be a struggle to know if we’re conveying acceptable body language, eye contact, social media missives, jokes, political messaging, etc.  Even the term “political correctness” has become politically-charged. We all nodded in agreement.  

Listening is really a gift, the woman asserted.

It can go a long way when you don’t agree with someone, she added.  It costs nothing.  It forces you to calm down.  Her husband piped in, “If people would just listen to opposing opinions, they may learn something, too.”

Indeed, listening is one of the best pathways to managing conflicts. 


I shared with them that my grandmother taught me the words silent and listen have the same letters, for a good reason, as I shared in this article.  It’s not always easy to listen when we disagree with others, but it costs us nothing.  In fact, it can buy us time and help us respond with respect.

After years in this field, I’ve been building this listening skills checklist which I keep handy to help me get better at this.

Before I left the waiting room, Barbara said, “Please keep doing what you’re doing.  Help people learn how to be more respectful.”

Thanks for the encouragement, Barbara!