Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Respect in India vs. the US

Hubby and I had a discussion the other day about respect. It can sometimes be difficult for me to understand what he feels is respectful and what is not. Neither the India or US is better/worse at this but it is helpful to try and understand the differences between the two.

In the US (at least the southern US where I was raised) respect is dualistic. There's the general respect you have for others that manifests in things like a man holding the door open for a woman (that he doesn't know) and the standard courtesies we bestow upon those we interact with like saying please and thank you.

Then there's the respect we have for those involved in our lives like family, coworkers and friends. We respect our supervisor or boss if they do the job they're supposed to do and don't mistreat us or act like we're less valuable than they are. We respect our parents if they cared for us and raised us. Friends earn our respect by being there when we need them, telling us the things we need to hear even when we don't want to hear them and by accomplishing/overcoming things in their life.

Respect is easily lost in the US if someone hurts us, does something completely stupid or wrong or if they generally do something completely immoral. So we wouldn't respect a parent who beat us, a friend who stole our boyfriend or a coworker who was stealing from work for example. Respect is earned here and not expected. No one is entitled to respect - not even our parents.

You can argue with someone and still respect them at the end of the argument. Someone can make a mistake in their own life and then make amends and you can still respect them (within reason of course). Some people we respect their accomplishments in life even though we don't know them, like well respected actors or the President.

Yelling at someone is not always disrespectful. Raising your voice is not always a sign of disrespect either. You can state your opinion, disagree with someone and it's not always disrespectful. Saying "no" is not disrespectful in US culture either. It's perfectly acceptable and expected to tell someone no when you can't help them or do something they ask you to do, etc.

In India respect is entitled. There is a lot of similarity between the general respect paid to those you don't know in India and in the southern US. Indians don't say please and thank you like we do but their interactions on a daily basis with strangers in the same class level are defined by cultural norms. So for example a kirana shop owner going to purchase goods for the store would be respectful toward the person he was buying the goods from.

When it comes to family, friends and coworkers things are different. Family members have a standard of obligatory respect. So even if you only see your grandmother's brother's son once in your life, you would still respect him because he's an elder in the family. Your parents get respect because of all they have done for you - whether they are good parents or not. The respect is entitled and not earned. No matter what they do, you still respect them.

Coworkers could be seen as beneath you or as friends. If you're friendly with them then they get respect just as someone in the US would respect their friends or coworkers. If you're a manager and you have several lower paid employees working under you, then they may not be respected at all. Looking the other direction, these perceived lower employees may blindly respect the manager because of his education or status in the company. *This respect is not the same as respect in the US, this is the Indian obligatory respect.

Caste system, though supposedly dying out, affects respect as well. Many perceived higher castes do not respect the perceived lower castes. This is thankfully one phase of India that is changing but for now and if you don't already know, research "dalits" and "jatts" or other commonly known caste names. There's even free books on Project Gutenburg about the Indian caste system that will tell you where they came from and explain the hierarchy system that was once in place.

In many cases respect in India is not earned at all. It's implied and given based on someone's position at birth or status in society.Being loud (louder than normal) is considered disrespectful. In our family, yelling for any reason is offensive. That includes yelling from the second floor of our home to the third floor. You can have a horrible look on your face and talk in a soft voice and no one feels disrespected. Disagreeing with people openly also seems to be a sign of disrespect, as does saying no.

This can be quite challenging for a pardesi to get used to. I've notice that my volume increases with background noise. Hubby doesn't not understand this. My voice also raises with frustration lol. His does not. It takes some getting used to for me not to let my emotions raise my voice and for him to realize that me voicing my opinion is not always disrespectful. Likewise I've had to adjust to hubby never saying no, even when he knows he can't reasonably complete a task, and he's had to adjust to me saying no to him and realizing I mean him no harm or disrespect when I say it.

What challenges have you faced in regards to respect with your desi?
Does your desi have difficulty understanding your definition of respect?
Do you have trouble with the obligatory respect some Indians demand?


  1. About parents, Indian culture has always placed parents and teachers above everybody because of the contributions made to a child's development. Atleast, our mythology celebrates it. Valmiki the author of Ramayana, painted the character of Rama, Lakshman, Sita and Hanuman so beautifully that we all got hooked. It set the standard for social conduct. In short, we are always competing with the unrealistic standards set by gods. Our films and TV serials always reflect this Utopia. We all love this "mythical happy family" bound by love and sense of duty. While the west admits that individuals are supposed to make mistakes and learn, we try keep up with the facade of "expected behavior" and miserably fall short every time. However, having respect for parents and elders is a beautiful thing in itself within the realms of reality.

  2. My Kashmiri in-laws & husband are always loud to my laid back Californian ears- it is just the 'tone' of their language. To me they sound like the house is burning down or they truly hate each other's guts. But no, that is their normal 'bonhomie'.
    I was rather surprised when one my SIL's & her family treated me disrespectfully & insisted my husband (her brother) treat me disrespectfully (at least in public).
    According to SIL & her evil offspring treating me disrespectfully showed that my husband was of 'good character' & valued his family members more than his wife.
    I put an end to that nonsense real quick.

  3. Not long ago, I read about Anand Giridharadas and his encounters with caste and respect in his book India Calling. As an American-born desi visiting relatives in Mumbai, he found it strange and almost rude that of the people he lived with, almost none of them would greet or really even look at those who were sweepers or servants, even if they happened to be in the same room. Anand made a remark that he had a hard time adjusting to this custom, but, bole to, over time he noticed that became regard them almost as they did, as practically invisible.

  4. GoriNiqabiWife.blogspot.comApril 24, 2013 at 10:57 PM

    Are you married to a Muslim? Are you a different Ethnicity? Curious to find other interraccial marriages. I'm a White American convert to Islam and my husband is Pakistani Muslim.

  5. One of the things I have a hard time with in India is this notion of respect not only being implied and being a due to certain people but the fact it is a one way street. Respect is something that people apparently owe to those who are above them in age, status and whatnot but the person in "higher position" is not obligated to even have an ounce of respect for the persons "below" them. It end up translating into higher class people treating their hired help badly, not respecting the streets and littering in the worst manner possible without consideration for the ones that will sweep it, it's an in-law that demands feet touching as a sign of respect by their daughter in law but will treat her like garbage and insult her in return (simply because they perceive it as their god earned right to do so simply because they are "above" her). While I have nothing wrong about showing respect to anybody, I consider it a two way street and I just can't call a situation in which one party HAS TO give respect simply because they are "lower" in whatever hierachy respect. When only one party has the obligation to be respectful and not the other it is called servitutde, not respect.

  6. Yeah I don't blame you. That's some seriously twisted thinking. Was she also supposed to be disrespected for the same reasons? Customs like this are just absurd.

  7. That's a good observation. I too began to see after a while how Indians show their respect. It is very different from our culture here but the respect is there.

  8. I consider respect a two-way street as well and I don't give it until it's earned.