Deference (讓/ràng) literally means to “yield”. Although the term is rarely mentioned in the Analects, the principles that governed it played an important role in ensuring smooth and courteous interactions between people of different walks of life.
Deference was a two-way process that required people at all levels of society, from the ruler on high to the humblest peasant, to show mutual respect for each other. If members of the ruling class ignored this principle and adopted a more dictatorial approach to people from the lower classes, they risked unraveling the bonds that tied society together and creating disorder and chaos.
Deference provided a graceful way for people to show humility when receiving a compliment or when turning down an official position that they either didn’t want or felt that someone else was better qualified for. Naturally, in many such cases such a response would be formulaic rather than genuine, but even if that was the case it would help remove the awkwardness from potentially embarrassing or contentious situations.
As is shown in the example given in Chapter X of Book 1 in which Zigong tells his fellow-disciple Ziqin that Confucius can easily obtain all the information he needs to know about the political situation pertaining in a particular country simply “by being warm, kind, courteous, unassuming, and deferential”, deference can also be a very effective tool when deployed sincerely. People are so much more willing to help you when you treat them politely!