For people who have grown up in a Western country, servants bring a number of images to mind. There’s the Jeeves and Wooster ideas of butlers, valets and chambermaids, the fabulously wealthy lifestyle that would lend itself to mansions, luxury cars and servants or social justice issues where it’s unconscionable to even allow people to serve one another in this capacity.
I’ve never had a servant (my family is firmly lower / middle class and has been for as long as anyone remembers). I’ve never really even interacted with one. I do, however, have a number of friends who grew up in households with servants (or had relatives who had servants). In many developing countries, it’s very widespread to have servants in your house (such that even the middle class has servants). One of my friends from the Indian subcontinent said once “where I grew up EVERYONE had servants” (except the servants I suppose).
I was fascinated by this and kept asking questions until they got sick of them and refused to answer any more. This post is a summary of some of the more interesting facts I gathered.
To clarify, what I’m talking about here is someone who lives with a family and does work around the house for extended hours on an ongoing basis as their principle occupation. I’m *NOT* talking about people who come in once a week for 3 hours to clean your house, a landscaping company or a dry cleaner.
First of all, there’s an important distinction to be made between servants and slaves. I asked one friend if his family ever beat their servants, and he gave me a withering look and said “no, they’re not slaves, they’re employees. If we beat them, they’d quit.” Sometimes families hit the point where they can’t afford to keep the servants around, at which point the servants have to go off and find new jobs. It’s a long-term career, with expectations of loyalty on both sides, but ultimately it is a job.
It’s often more remarkable what servants are (supposedly) INCAPABLE of doing, rather than what they’re asked to do. One Indian family I talked to, who had servants back home, told me that none of their servants would be capable of operating a washing machine. I was incredulous and kept asking, couldn’t they be shown how to operate it, to which the family kept repeating “no, they couldn’t learn and would refuse. If they wash clothes, they’ll do it the old fashioned way by hand.”
Another friend did verify that I was right and servants could be taught more advanced skills, but he said you wouldn’t. He and his brother had lived extensively in Western countries, and he said if they wanted pancakes, they’d make them themselves. He said if he asked the servants for pancakes, he’d get something like naan (which I’d take over pancakes any day, but maybe it wouldn’t taste as good with maple syrup).
He acknowledged that you could teach your servants to cook western style food (or use a washing machine), but he said they’d promptly leave and find higher paying work at a richer persons house as soon as they’d learned (and he said if you wanted a servant with those skills, you’d be better off just hiring one who already knows them). He also said they wouldn’t be the fastest learners: it would take more than just sending them to a weekly cooking class or giving them the washing machine’s owner’s manual. He said the same would be true if you got a servant to learn to give you Shiatsu massages.
One thing that I found interesting (and seems to be fairly universal from the Indian subcontinent to Egypt) is that usually the household has one person who is the servants’ real boss (and it’s usually the matriarch). When I asked one friend if he could send his servants out to run laps around the house, he gave me a pained expression and said their first response would be to give him a “Come on man!” look, then if he still insisted they do it, they’d go talk to his mother (who would then tell her son to be nicer to the servants and tell the servant he didn’t have to run laps).
In another situation, one of my friends had an aunt who was mean to the servants, and occasionally when the servants got upset, her grandmother would ask them what was wrong. They’d reluctantly tell her the aunt was misbehaving, and the grandmother would straighten the aunt out.
Variations of Respect
There seems to be a spectrum of the respect shown to servants. One woman I talked to had an older servant whom she said she and her mother would always talk to using the honourific phrases of speech appropriate for an older person. She admitted that some families don’t follow this convention. Another friend spoke the same language that his servants spoke. His father understood it perfectly, but the son had never in his entire life heard the father *speak* in the servants’ language (he used a higher class dialect that the servants similarly understood but didn’t use).
One really interesting superstition I heard about is that if you don’t share your food with your servants you’ll get sick. The expectation is that the servants eat what the family eats, and if they order something special (like Kentucky Fried Chicken), they order enough for the servants too. One friend hypothesized that maybe the fear is the servants will poison you, but my feeling was that this was more a general superstition that a “poison-avoidance” strategy. I laughed when I heard one friend say that his mother forces the servants to eat small portions of the same food she does, even if the servant doesn’t like that food (so she won’t get sick). I suspect this superstition was started by a clever servant who wanted some of the food his boss was eating.
Do you have servants, or have you ever lived in a house with servants? What was it like? Have you heard experiences that differ from what I’ve described here?
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