Aretha’s Franklin’s song "R-e-s-p-e-c-t" is awesome. Every time I hear this song, and I am home alone, I start doing my Aretha impersonation. I start moving my head from left to right and then, with a hand on my hip and the other hand in free motion, I start pointing a finger at an invisible "guest" in a nearby chair. I really get into it. I start singing "Hey baby (just a little bit), when you get home (just a little bit) mister (just a little bit)…"
Yeah, that’s my way of doing serious soul singing. Further on in the song, Aretha sings "Find out what it means to me." I think that’s a very good starting point. One has to really know "respect" for oneself before it can be extended to others and received from others.
Respect cannot be demanded, it has to be practiced and earned. At one time, there were some really wonderful customs by which people visibly showed esteem and consideration for one another. It appeared in language and behavior. These forms of expressions are slowly disappearing from our culture as it becomes more and more uniform.
The German language infuses the word "you" with more detailed meaning than the English language does. People I know intimately, like family and friends, I refer to in the informal "Du." The formal address of "Sie" (French equivalent of "Vous") in German refers to anybody outside my intimate circle. If people know each other for a while, they would most likely offer "Du" to each other. This is referred to in our language as "duzen." People sometimes make a really big deal about it, and celebrate this turn of event with beer and bratwurst (in my case, make that a Beck’s Bier).
During the time my mother and father grew up, there was another version of "you" in use. In German it is "Ihr" (in English "Thou"). My mother addressed older people, including her grandparents, by the word "Ihr." My paternal grandmother told me that she had to address her own parents with the word "Ihr" rather than "Du." It would have been seen as very dishonorable and disrespectful to address them any other way.
I was really stunned when I learned this from my grandmother. People at the turn of the century were very concerned with such social mores. I think there was good reason for it. It shows an outward respect for elders as being those who have greater experience and wisdom. There was an audible distinction made between youth and maturity. The simple word of "you" clearly defines boundaries in the German language that cannot be overstepped. Although there is already a slight trend in the German culture to disregard these boundaries, they are still very much adhered to by most people, young and old.
When I lived in Germany, it was unthinkable for me to call my boss by his first name. The proper address was the use of "Herr" or "Frau" as the prefix for their last name. I still call my neighbors back home by "Frau Bauer" or "Herr Schmidt" and address them as "Sie." The word "Herr" is a word that also means "Lord." The title can extend to a landowner or nobleman in older times. In its highest form it is used in reference to Jesus Christ in the New Testament. The word "Frau" simply means "woman."
The English title of "Mister" stems from the word "Master" which in German stands for "Meister." A "Meister" is a craftsman who has learned a specific trade. He earned this title through hard work and studies. Every apprentice in Germany will still address his boss as "Meister." It doesn’t matter if he is a baker, a butcher, or a carpenter. His title is a sign of esteem and honor for his specialty in his trade. His knowledge is gained through practicing the trade for years. Next time you are in Germany and you see a group of workers, chimney sweepers, or masons, ask them where their "Meister" is, and they know who you are talking about.
I used to watch a lot of old German movies. The way people spoke to each other was really an art form. Nowhere nowadays does anybody address a woman in Germany as "Gndige Frau" (Gracious Lady), unless it is a very formal occasion. Only in Vienna did I notice this old form of the German language still being used.
Once I received an e-mail from India, and the gentleman addressed the letter as "Dear Madame." I must admit, I was quite moved. All the changes that feminism has insisted upon here have sort of gone over my head. The German language eliminated the word "Frulein" (formal address for an unmarried woman), because it was seen as derogatory. I think "Gndiges Frulein" could sort of revive it again. It does sound nice.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful for a woman to be called "My Lady" (English version) and have her hand kissed out of respect and chivalry? Of course, a woman has to first know to respect herself enough to desire that kind of treatment, and not push it away when it is offered. If one doesn’t respect oneself, it cannot be returned.
Once in a while I encounter an older Southern gentleman who has the courage to actually do this. It happened recently at the secret hangout where I go on Friday nights. The gentleman I encountered is a retired marshal who sports a big white mustache, cowboy hat, and a very stylish Western suit. He is probably seventy-five years old. He actually got up from his chair one night, bowed, and kissed my hand good bye. I was in Heaven. Yes, occasionally I still run across a true gentleman. I swooned for days.
When my brother and I were growing up in the 60s, on Sundays my mother dressed us in our best clothes. When my parents introduced us to guests or friends, my brother bowed and I curtsied. If the town welcomed an official from another town, the girls brought flowers and curtsied. Sometimes poems were read or songs were sung. It was not anything extravagant, but it made the occasion special. I liked it, because it put a festive mood in the air. A little class and style can show that we respected the difference.
Germans are known for shaking hands, which somehow got lost in the English tradition. When I think of American’s saying "Hi," I also see a hand waving at me. It is often awkward not knowing if I need to shake someone’s hand now or not. In my culture I was taught to shake hands with anybody I meet. Here I am never sure, because it happened quite often where my hand was stretched out, and someone else just sort of stared back at me with a blank look. I know it is cultural differences, and it takes some adjusting to understand the gestures of other countries.
My parents taught us that a proper greeting is to say "Gr Gott" (Bavarian greeting meaning "Greet God") or "Guten Tag" (greeting in all other German states) and shake hands. When I do shake hands with another person, I still consider it a great honor. Touching someone’s hands is a very nice gesture. It goes back to many traditions in the old world that showed honor and respect for each other after making a deal or signing a contract.
The custom of shaking hands as a greeting can be a sign of accepting each other’s presence. How many people feel left out, because nobody acknowledges them properly? Yes, such an acknowledgement is definitely a respectful sign that one exists, even in a crowd.
I also like the Asian way of greeting by bowing. There is something very moving and touching about this respectful gesture. It is very humble and yet very endearing to see a greeting exchanged between two people of these cultures.
My religious background is Roman Catholic. Most Protestants know about our custom of kneeling and rising and kneeling again. I curtsy before entering my pew (the correct term is "genuflect") in honor of God’s Presence in the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the Sanctuary. I really never thought it to be strange. It is part of my culture to honor visiting officials with a bow or curtsy. I was born and raised in a former kingdom, and know about traditions and customs practiced for centuries. People bowed when the king came through the country and waved. Besides its religious significance, practicing this custom as a part of my faith is a way of learning to serve a King.
Kneeling in front of someone bigger than myself, especially when that Person is not visible to the outer senses, is a way of recognizing my own smallness and acknowledging the great strength that comes from being in the presence of someone greater. I am glad that I can kneel still, even if it hurts my knees at times and can get very uncomfortable. Who says that life is supposed to always be comfortable? There are growing pains in every aspect of life. One has to go through pain or discomfort to get to the other side. Yet this gesture is slowly disappearing and its true meaning dwindling into a fog.
The only tradition in our modern culture that still reflects such humility and respect may be when a man proposes marriage to a woman. This man is a true gentleman. Even if the proposal was not made on literal bended knee, there must come an inward kneeling to surrender in commitment. Both women and men must submit to that desire for a lifetime bond. Practicing the outward respect of kneeling helps recognize the inward drive to surrender.
Aretha’s song is R&B. It’s sung from her soul. She wants so much to receive acknowledgement and time from her lover. Her soul is surely telling her that she has to find that sense of respect with the help of someone bigger than herself. Without knowing that respect for oneself and others she can never experience it. She is giving her own answer in almost every verse. It will turn tragic if the words are directed to the world. "Give it to me….just a little bit….respect, just a little bit…" The world will most likely "sock it to her" because the world doesn’t really care one way or another, unless one starts caring about one’s own well being first.
One can even apply this rule of thought to a free society. As long as people do not respect the foundation that permits them to be free, they will lose it. Respect comes from within and is passed on through example. A society that is not disciplined by this simple rule will attract hardship just like a person. There is nobody to blame but the one who neglects this rule.
Language and customs are valuable tools in returning us to the understanding of what respect really means. As long as we keep looking to the world to validate us through behaviors and words that don’t reflect our true desire to respect love, individuals will forever fall into a slumber of no return. Respects starts with oneself. There is a sacred part inside every human being to be discovered. If one cannot find it and respect it within his own heart, how can another person be expected to return it? A person disregarding this fundamental necessity, attracts nothing but misery and chaos into their lives. The world cannot fill what the heart desires.
A soul song, like Aretha Franklin’s is a good place to start waking up if one is in the Sleeping Beauty slumber. It takes a little bit of guts and zest to earn that respect from oneself before it carries on to others. Think of it as nurturing a seed that needs constant care so it can grow. Eventually one owns the plant.
When respect is practiced long enough (like my dancing), one earns a Master Degree and it becomes like second nature. Life can run a little smoother that way, a bit more fun and definitely more graceful. The world is powerless against it. It falters in the presence of a soul singer.
Sabine Barnhart [send her mail] moved to the US in 1980 and lives in Fort Worth, TX with her three children. For the past 15 years she has been working for an international service company.