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“Mannerless” Young People

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A clip went viral recently where Dr. Reuben Abati referred to one of his junior colleagues, Mary Chinda, as “mannerless” for calling him by name. “Don’t mind these mannerless young people,” he said with a flick of his wrist banishing her and her ilk. What he meant wasn’t just that she wasn’t courteous, he meant to say that was disrespectful.  

I grew up in Nigeria, I know the burden we place on young people to “show respect” which isn’t quite the same as being respectful. The performance of respect is very important to us, but there is a place and a time. Your colleague calling you by first name while addressing you during a reportage isn’t the time and place to scold her. Had Chinda been Isha Sessay  or Stephanie Busari – both of whom are African- would Abati have reacted the  same way?  I doubt it. Ironically, while calling out Ms. Chinda for being ‘mannerless,’ Dr. Abati showed a certain lack of professionalism, but that’s not what this piece is about. I‘d like to, instead of castigating someone who felt offended, ask us to consider what is more important: respect or the performance of it.

The first time I asked myself that question was when my then future parents-in-law introduced themselves to me as Rene and Jose, and expected me to & expected me to call them that.. Choi! My tongue would not come unstuck to allow such 'sacriledge.' I found myself asking it again more recently with the (Dr.) Abati clip. There is nothing in it to suggest that Mary Chinda was disrespectful to her senior colleague. I’ve watched it several times to see what I could be missing. However, if you’re invested in performance politics, then the performance (of an action) itself becomes the essence (of the action). Someone offering you charity with their left hand becomes disrespectful. Someone not wishing you good morning, even if they mean well for you becomes disrespectful. Someone calling you by your first name, respectfully, in a profession and in a setting where that is arguably the norm becomes disrespectful.  

There is a word for societies where performance is privileged above actions that are respectful. That word is hypocritical.  And there are so many ways in our nation, so hung up on respect that we disrespect people daily. Of what use is it to perform respect but to actually not live it? For instance, I cannot think of anywhere I’ve lived where people’s time is as much disrespected as in Nigeria. Folks will invite you to a meeting or give you an appointment (virtual and otherwise) and keep you waiting. They’ll invite you to parties or weddings and the time stated on the card is arbitrary. We’ve even exported this abroad. My husband refuses to turn up for any Naija event at the time stated. His rule of the thumb is to give it 2 hours, and even then, there’ve been numerous times where we’ve still arrived earlier than the celebrants.

Respect is treating others – regardless of their status in life- as humans who deserve to be treated with integrity. How often we see the poor and the marginalized of our society treated like something that got stuck under someone’s shoes. The same people who demand respect teach their children to show no regard for those they consider “lower” than they are- their domestic help, hawkers on the street, their mechanics. The same people who shout “it’s not our culture to call older people by their first name” have no wahala with calling their employees who are older than they are by their first name. I know someone who’s very much into our peculiar culture of politeness whose children call their driver- old enough to be their father- by their first name. To be clear, I don’t care that anyone calls me by first name. Some of the most respectful students I have (had) call me Chika. It doesn’t diminish me to answer to a name I am most proud of. Respect is seeing others and therefore treating them how you want to be treated. You can call every old person Uncle and Aunty , Mommy and Daddy ; take things and offer them with your right hand; prostrate and kneel all day long, if you do not “see” others, if you’re not treating others in the manner in which you’d like to be treated, your “respect” means nothing.  It is utterly meaningless.

Respect is listening to people, realizing that we can always learn from each other. If you are in a position of authority and surround yourself with sycophants who rush to carry your suitcase/handbag, who greet you every time you show your face, who fall over themselves to hold doors open for you, who exaggerate their ‘respect,’ “Saahing” and “Maahing” you with every sentence because their livelihoods are at stake, they may be showing you deference but those acts are not in themselves proof of respect. Respect is earned, it is not foisted upon people by culture or authority. It is not what one does out of fear.

This is not about Dr. Abati and Mary Chinda, but Dr. Abati’s comment is illustrative of how we conflate performative shows of respect with respect itself. Ms. Chinda was just doing her job. If she is a “mannerless” young person, that clip is not proof of it. Far from it, in fact.  Choose ye today which you’d rather: performance of respect or the thing itself. As for me and my family, we shall choose the latter.


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