Respect is a two-way Street

“The way you treat people shows your respect for them. In turn, you earn theirs.”


‘Invisible’ help: We need people like street sweepers and garbage collectors, who deserve some respect and recognition, too.

ONE morning as I was driving to work, the radio was on and one particular comment by the host of a programme caught my attention. The host said that you can judge the type of man a CEO is by the way he treats a waiter.   I guess, to some extent, it is true that how we treat others reflects on our character. Do we accord due respect to street sweepers, garbage collectors, toilet cleaners, waiters and the like?

I was reminded of an encounter I had at a food court some years ago. I used to visit this place at a shopping mall when I wanted a change for lunch. During one visit, I browsed the stalls one by one before deciding on my favourite dish – prawn noodles. After collecting my food, I looked around for a cosy spot.   I do enjoy having my meals alone, and this is something many people find difficult to understand. I consider it quality time – with myself – as I have the chance to savour my food, and enjoy its colours, smell and taste. Ah, the bliss of solitude!

As I sat there quietly enjoying my noodles, I noticed a few cleaners clearing the trays, bowls and glasses left by the lunch crowd. After I had finished eating, a cleaner came and quietly took my tray away. I looked at him, smiled and thanked him. He seemed too shy to respond. As he continued to wipe the table in front of me, I thanked him again and went on my way.

A week later, I was at the same food court and went through the same ritual of ordering my food and looking for an empty table. I ate my meal and the same cleaner came to clear my tray. Again I smiled and thanked him. This time, he smiled back.

A couple of days later, I went back to the same place for a bowl of assam laksa. As I was walking towards the food court, I could see a man waving at me from afar. He was indicating that there was a vacant table. It was the cleaner I had greeted and thanked!

As I neared, he started wiping not only the table but the seat as well. I felt so undeserving and humbled by that simple gesture of a stranger whom I had done nothing for except smiled at and said thank you to. I looked at him and he smiled shyly. I said thank you to him once more and he quickly walked away.

(By the way, after that day, I never saw him again. My regret was not asking his name and affirming him for a job well done. My hope is that God will bless him and that his life will be better because he deserves better.)

That day I learnt a valuable lesson about respect for another human being. No matter who a person is and what kind of work he does, he deserves respect and recognition. Not only will it make his day but mine as well.

We always forget that a simple smile or nod or even friendly eye contact can communicate respect and recognition. These are basic things we have been taught since young. They give dignity to every human being. Because I smiled and thanked the cleaner, he did something for me which I never expected.

But nowadays, things are very different. Many adults do not show simple manners like smiling or saying “thank you” when someone holds the lift or opens the door for them. They just walk out, as if the door was being held by an invisible person.

My sister and I tell ourselves to perform an act of kindness every day and it has become a habit. Once she helped the supermarket workers push a long line of trolleys.   Of course, they were surprised and other shoppers wondered what she was doing. I was proud of her because that started our day on a positive note.

I was also very proud of what my niece, then six years old, did. We were in the washroom when she noticed a lady throwing tissue on the floor, instead of into the bin provided. She turned and commented about the lady. Embarrassed, the latter picked up her tissue. Did it really need a child to point out the adult’s irresponsible act?

Once I told my niece to express appreciation to the “kakak” who helped keep the washrooms clean – and she did, by thanking her. If you were the kakak, wouldn’t that have made your day better? I think that sort of affirmation and appreciation made her feel that her job was important – which it is indeed.

Do we take for granted people who take on jobs that most others don’t want? Without these wonderful people, we would not have clean toilets, clean tables, clean roads, and garbage-free homes. Without them, our lives would be chaotic. Do we give them the respect they deserve? Do we give them the respect that we believe we deserve?

We are all CEOs and how we treat a waiter reflects our attitude. I have deliberately taken jobs washing dishes, served and worked in community service, and have learnt about people’s attitude and my own. Lots of people think their money can buy everything, including respect. Wrong! Respect really has to be earned!

I still have lots to learn about respect but these lessons I encounter every day are my best teachers. Who knows, the waiter, toilet cleaner or that stranger could become a CEO or someone who might even save your life one day – all because you smiled at him/her. I believe what goes around comes around, whether you ask for it or not.


 “Everyone in society should be a role model, not only for their own self-respect, but for respect from others.” – Barry Bonds


Catherine Lim

Published in The Star
Thursday July 19, 2012


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