Relationships define who we are
Relationships are vital to human existence. They take on numerous forms in families and partnerships and exist in all systems. We are essentially in some degree of relationship with somebody at any point in time. Much of how we define ourselves and others is through relationships.
Here is an example: I am a mother, wife, sister, vegetarian, painter, swimmer, and writer. Some of these categories describe what the person does. However, all identify her as someone similar to others. At least one other person is like her in some way and sometimes that has more meaning than the activity or classification itself. We even conceptualize and make decisions about experiences and objects with one another, whether buying a consumer product or deciding where to go on holiday.
Hierarchical relationships can lead to injustices
Human relationships can be hierarchal and have certain responsibilities associated with each person or group involved. The level of hierarchy and degree of responsibility is subjective. Outside influences such as culture, race, gender, or tradition usually have a significant influence on this decision as well.
Look at the definition of relationship by Oxford Dictionary. Complications can arise with definition 1.2 which reads as follows:
“The way in which two or more people or groups regard and behave towards each other.”
Herein lies the potential for maltreatment between individuals and groups. How one party regards the other will influence how that party behaves towards the other. Likewise, how one party is being treated by the other will influence how it regards that party. Here are some examples of relationships where hierarchies do or may exist:
parent-child teacher-student employer-employee doctor-patient prison guard-prisoner clerk-customer wealthy-poor educated-non-educated
With real or perceived hierarchy, either party can easily lose sight that both are human and have shared needs. By putting aside how they are perceived through title and status, each is better able to see the other as a person. This makes the obvious visible. Perceived or real abuse of power quickly diminishes the ability and need to relate and understand one another as humans.
Relationships are first and foremost human
We often forget that our most basic relationship to one another is human to human. We tend to make it relational by making it title to title, status to status, or label to label. Forgetting this simple fact puts any individual and group relationship at risk of unjust treatment. Our humanness always exists in any relationship regardless of the nature of the relationship.
A new word like humanship or personship needs to replace the second part of definition 1.2–how we behave towards each other–to help remind everyone that our most fundamental connection is human to human. This is necessary to minimize unhealthy and harmful relationships. How are you humanly treating the other person in the relationship is the more important question. This question minimizes the harmful impact of real or perceived abuses of hierarchy. It can help stop the abuse of power or the mistreatment of others in dysfunctional relationships.
For example, a wealthy person may feel superior to someone of lower economic status, purely because of the definition of the relationship, which differentiates between the amount of accumulated wealth and purchasing power ability. The definition of the relationship alone points out differences of status which can influence unjust attitudes and treatment of one another. Another example could be a school principal seeing her role as more important to the janitor due to the differences in job title, position on an organizational chart, and responsibilities. In both cases, the relationship does not diminish the fact that each person has their value in the system.
Limit the definition of the word relationship
The word relationship should just describe how two people or groups are connected and not describe attitudes and behaviors towards each other. Why? Because of the differing roles and duties—more so when hierarchy exists—inherent in relationships can diminish one’s ability to regard and treat the other as a person. One can be easily consumed by how the roles in the relationship should be played out according to societal norms, disregarding the human element. Let’s revisit some previous examples by replacing the word “relationship” with the words humanship/personship to describe how one regards and behaves towards the other.
Using humanship/personship to clarify humanness
My relationship to Mary is that she is unemployed and begging. I pass by her each day on my way to work. What is your personship to Mary? My personship to Mary is one of acknowledgment and concern as she is a person with the same human needs as me. I greet her and occasionally give her some change.
What is your relationship to John? John is our school janitor. How is your humanship like with John? My humanship to John is appreciative and respectful. His contribution to the school’s maintenance and cleanliness is imperative in creating a positive learning environment. I tell him that often.
For the sake of all relationships, the word we use to define how individuals and groups regard and treat one another needs to stress commonalities and humanness and not denote differences or hierarchy. The word relationship, by its definition, undermines that goal as people and groups are in numerous forms of relationships where differences, not similarities, are highlighted. The words personship or humanship keeps our fundamental connection to one another as person to person or human to human. This helps improve any relationship by ensuring positive regard and proper treatment of one another regardless of the relationship. Using either personship or humanship removes the hierarchical status inherent in most relationships and with it superior attitudes and behavior that may arise.
We are always behaving to fulfill shared basic human needs regardless of the relationship we are in when doing so. Next time you are asked “What is your relationship like with …..?” begin your answer with “My personship/humanship with….” Notice if there is a difference in how you conceptualized the relationship. How did your attitude and behaviors change toward the person or group?