What happens when we talk about dignity?

Cait Lamberton, Sakshi Ghai, and Tom Wein

Most would agree that when dignity is denied, no one feels very good. But what do we really know about what happens when our dignity is denied? Do we simply become white-hot flames of pain and rage, such that anything we say about it might be more emotionally-driven than rationally thoughtful? How do we, and the people who experience disrespect – cope with such experiences?

In a January 2021 study using the Prolific panel, we tried to gain some insight into these questions. We asked about 800 US-based participants to write about a situation in which their dignity was affirmed, denied, or simply to write about their prior day. People wrote between 3 (for example, “at my job,” or “with my family”) and 200 words – and it wasn’t only what they said, but how they said it, that provided new insights into the experience of dignity affirmation and denial.

When happens when dignity is respected or denied?

On the denial side, stories were heartbreaking, believable, and all-too-familiar, spanning a range of contexts and levels of intensity. A few examples:

I am Jewish and my close friends make culturally insensitive remarks when discussing a popular television show. (21 year old male)

A time I was not treated with respect was when I had joined weights class, everyone besides me and one girl was men. There was a guy in the class that didn’t have a issue with me, until he found out I wasn’t a guy. I have short hair and present a mix of masculine and acrogenous. He started saying rude stuff once he realized I wasn’t a guy. It shouldn’t have been a issue. (19 year old female)

I was working as a bartender in a restaurant. I was treated badly by some customers. One man said I was the ugliest woman he had ever seen! I complained to my manager who said it wasn’t important and to shrug it off. I was deeply offended and hurt by both the man’s and my manager’s actions. (48 year old female)

The time that I have felt like my dignity was not respected the most was in college with a questionably non-consensual sexual experience. It felt like the person didn’t recognize the worth that I have outside of just having a body, and that they didn’t respect me enough to take the time to ask if everything they were doing was okay. A less intense scenario when I felt like my dignity wasn’t respected was when I worked in the foodservice industry. It frequently felt like I was simply standing between the customer and something they wanted, and they didn’t acknowledge that I was a human with feelings and prefer to be spoken to with a kind tone and words. (29 year old female)

I worked a year as a hotel maid in two different hotels. The first hotel is well-run and I enjoyed it even when I was overworked, however, my company moved me to a second hotel. That hotel was badly ran and we were treated very bad. We were forced to clean things that were above our paygrade. We were also overworked till we were exhausted. I felt they insulted my dignity when I was pressured to skip cleaning areas to save time, like leaving bathtubs dirty, or carpets unvacuumed to save time and complete more rooms as less quality. Some of my co-workers were even leaving dirty sheets on beds to make their quota. It was wrong, and I didn’t like how customers, or us workers were treated. I quit for the sake of my dignity, because I did not like being forced into the position to lie and cheat just to make quota for the company. (31 year old female)

As a child I was teased a lot for things out of my control, such as the condition of my clothes and how my family acted. Children dehumanized me by calling me names, putting gum and other objects in my hair, and throwing things at me. (25 year old male)

And when dignity was affirmed?  While some participants’ stories cut as close to the bone, other respondents recognized that they both expected and received respect from others:

In my job serving customers, I’ve had instances where I felt my dignity was affirmed and I was treated with particular respect. This tends to be when I can tell my customers are much better off than I am. There’s an unspoken understanding that I am on the lower end of economic chain just based on my occupation. But I can think of a time recently when a wealthy family treated me with great warmth and humanity, spoke to me as an equal and not beneath them. They also tipped quite well at the end which I was appreciative of. (33 year old male)

Being treated as a human being while working at my retail job is the best example that I can give about feeling dignity.  When people don’t want to take up your time and respectfully ask their questions without over intruding is when I felt dignity.  Sometimes, people want to push you around like your a slave and not seem to notice that I am also a human being.  When people treat others like people, that is the best example of dignity. (21 year old male)

When I saw a specialist for a chronic health condition.  He listened, was engaged, and respectful.  It was the first time I saw someone for my condition where I felt respected and taken seriously. (46 year old female)

I am in the process of quitting drinking and all of my therapists so far have been nothing but nice.  They’ve not once shamed or looked down on me for my problem. (36 year old male)

When my daughter was diagnosed with cancer I felt the doctor respected me in the situation. (60 year old female)

This is probably a very privileged thing to say, but I feel like in general my dignity is always at the very least respected. (29 year old male)

Dignity denial makes us angry, less likely to trust, and less likely to hope – but also more sophisticated in our thinking.

We also conducted linguistic analysis of these stories, to see what happened to peoples’ cognition and emotions in these narratives. Here’s what we found:

  • Any discussion of dignity – whether affirmed or denied – tended to cue thoughts about some emotions: disgust, fear and sadness all played equivalent roles in dignity-related stories.
  • But the denial of dignity was linked with more mentions of anger, less trust and less hope than the affirmation of dignity or the discussion of one’s past day.

Did the denial recollection of these intense negative emotions lead to less careful thought? We found no evidence that this was the case. In fact, we people who shared stories of dignity denial wrote in significantly more complex ways than those who wrote about dignity affirmation, as indicated in their Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level (Kincaid, J. P., Fishburne Jr, R. P., Rogers, R. L., & Chissom, B. S. (1975).

Being denied dignity makes us feel worse about ourselves and makes us less likely to help others.

After these open-ended responses, we also randomly assigned participants to complete a follow-up measure. Here’s what we found.

Controlling for employment and income, people who wrote about their dignity being affirmed saw their overall status in life as marginally higher than those who wrote about it being denied.

And sadly, people who wrote about their dignity being denied were slightly less willing to donate any of their time to researchers in need of input on subsequent surveys. Given that the opportunity to help others has been shown to be a powerful means of restoring well-being, this suggests that people may get stuck in a cycle of indignity, where their psychological state interferes with their ability to contribute to the world around them, thus recognizing their own worth. 

This finding calls us to think about what Jonathan Sacks wrote about dignity in his book, The Dignity of Difference: “Giving is an essential part of human dignity. As an African proverb puts it: the hand that gives is always uppermost: the hand that receives is always lower.” If we truly want to restore dignity, maybe we should be more creative about helping people who receive assistance feel empowered to help others by sharing the resources in which they may be wealthy: time, emotional support, a listening ear, wisdom, creativity, kindness, experience, and the deep stocks of cultural and practical knowledge that may be both incredibly important and virtually attainable to others. 

So what did we learn? We learned that when dignity is denied, we feel it – and that recalling disrespect has a distinct emotional profile. If we care about whether people experience less anger, more trust, and more hope, we need to pay close attention to their dignity.

But rather than being overtaken by emotion, we become more sophisticated thinkers when we are disrespected, rather than less. This means that those who are chronically deprived of dignity can offer us incredible insight into their experiences, and that we will do better to listen more intensely to their stories than to try to impose our explanations. Having lived disrespect, they have likely also done the best thinking we could ask for on the topic. People who have experienced disrespect have the voices we should listen to first.

And we find that recalling a time when we were not respected makes us less likely to offer help to others. Not only should we listen, we should learn to be more generous, to recognize the contributions the people who have missed out on having their dignity affirmed can offer, and the vibrant communities we can build. And together, we can build a more dignity-affirming society.

Chart of Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level