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.

Not Slaves

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.

Limited Skills

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 Boss

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?

13 replies on “Servants”

This is fascinating, but I’m left with, “What do they do?” I understand they wash clothing by hand, but beyond that, what did the servants do? What tasks did they accomplish for their master/employer?

Very informative articles about servants.
…For the contest:
Thanks for the opportunity!
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Ron: Good question, I should have elaborated on that a bit more. In fact, some people I talked to had that attitude (“you think servants are so great? They can’t do as much stuff as you think they can…”).

Some examples I’ve heard of what they’ll do is: make tea / snacks, help with meal preparation (chopping vegetables and whatnot), serving food at meals, driving (like a chauffeur – these are considered high skill servants), fetching things around the house (like slippers) or from a store (going to pick up milk or something), cleaning, that sort of thing.

Apparently it’s pretty well a full-time job managing the servants.

My husband grew up what we would think of as lower middle class or poor but his family have always had girls working in the house. They are from very poor families (well beyond our spoiled canuck conception of poverty). When he goes home he pays the youngest one several cents per cockroach/whatever other horrible insects they have there killed. She’s delighted with the extra cash and his western-sensitized fears of bugs and beasties are allayed. The girls that work in his house do go to school too on a sort of limited schedule and are well cared and liked by their employers; But of course as an emigrant culture the sons/daughters of his mothers friends living abroad wouldn’t allow it any other way. They are not mistreated or cowed, more like a junior member of the family, who will chat albeit nervously to my husband on the phone when he calls for example. They do seem to move on when they get a bit older and marry.

And yes, his mum is firmly the absolute boss in the family. Always cracks me up to hear people pontificate about how all muslims mistreat women – go to some muslim homes in south asia and watch the men cower in front of wife/mum!

Ron – wash clothes, clean, make tea (you cannot make a cup of tea yourself in my MIL’s house or the girls working there get upset – very offputting to a paddy and tea addict like me), help serve dinner (which is a far more involved meal than we’re used to), help entertain the manymanymany guests, make breakfast, accompany the boss when she goes on trips from the city back to her family village, go to school when not “on duty”, help their own parents out if they live nearby, the very occasional dinner cooking and shopping.

Hey Guinness: Thanks for the additional information! I wouldn’t have thought of the effect expat sons / daughters would have on how the family treats servants, but it makes sense.

Thanks – that was interesting and a post out of the ordinary. When all the blogs talk about the same thing at the same time, this is a breath of fresh air.

To me it is weird to have servants. I get to see life with servants when I stay with some of my friends in Latin America. It makes me a little uncomfortable even though I understand that the servants and the boss (family) win out. The servant gets to stay in a nice place, and the boss family gets some cheap labor taking care of mundane household chores. Still, all these servants are disenfranchised and have really no way of breaking out of their lot in life. I find such a situation a bit depressing which is why I probably feel uncomfortable.

I read your posts from India and I have servants in my home. Being from Canada, it was a really weird experience to hire so many people (we have 3 full time and 2 part times employees, as both my spouse and I are working full time) and then have them around the house all the time. We are never really alone as a family.
People have to realize that everyday life might be very different in developping countries. For instance, all fresh food has to be soaked in iodine and washed to avoid all sorts of diseases, worms, bacterias… It takes a lot of time to do this, so a cook is very useful. They know the washing processes, know where to buy quality meat (and do not get scamed on prices because they are foreigners).
Drivers are also very useful: traffic in India is mad (in Delhi, imagine 4 times more the number of people on the roads than in Toronto and add cows, rickshaws, pedestrians, the occasional pachyderm, all of them considering they are entitled the way over each other) and it can takes hours to go from one point to another. A skilled driver is a real blessing.
We could have limited ourselves to a cook/maid, a driver and an ayah (nanny) for our 1.5 years old, but we considered it was our way to contribute to the local economy to hire also a part-time gardener and a dobbi (someone who comes to iron everything in your house). And before people start to think I’m a millionaire, all those employees, eventhough we pay them very well for Indian standards (that guarantees good work and honesty) are still cheaper than a maid once a week for 3 hours in Canada plus daycare.
Two points in your post I want to add to:
– some servants do have servants: our ayah has a full time maid/cook/ayah of her own and I know others domestics who do as well;
– good care of domestics is not universal at all. Eventhough a lot of people are good employers, we hear numerous stories of maid sleeping on the kitchen floor, being beaten (or worse) by their bosses. A lot of domestics work also 6 or 7 days per week. There is some problem of child labor also and it is heartbreaking to see little ayahs sometimes of nearly the same age of the children they look after.
Last point, in a country like India, healthcare and employment insurance do not exist (1.2 billion people to take care of!!). So if people do not work, they die. A lot of domestics would not be able to feed their families if they did not get those jobs. In India, the middle class starts at $2,000 income per year!

i am east african and when i was small we had them(they are not called servants in the neck of my woods but maids). it was nice having all the work done for me because i do not like doing housework and stuff. and truth be told there is nothing even remotely glamorous about having a maid since they are not even that well paid

We lived in Brazil for several years, and while there, had a cook, a live-in maid, and a gardener/driver. The servant-family thing is a two-way street: they’re hardly helpless, have civil rights… One thing people have to remember is that–they know pretty much everything about the family they work for after a while! Be an asshole to your servant, perpare to have the entire neighborhood know everything about you. Even if they have to make it up! Our cook once told me she was avoiding the woman who worked for the family next door, because that woman was mad at the family and would talk her ear off about the family. And when I asked her about the details, she was like “no, I’m not one of those who gossips. I might get back to them and I might need a job from them someday.” She also had servants, herself–she was a widow with two kids and had a cousin she paid to look after them and a guy who took care of her (vegetable) garden.

One thing about servants not “being able” to learn to use modern appliances–you’ve got to remember, it’s not in their best interest! Servants started disappearing from Europe and North America because of “labor-saving devices”. It’s job security not to “now know how” to use a washing machine.

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