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May 02, 2006

Comments

Yan

"The thing is, if you are friends with someone, you can't send them out to get the dry cleaning for you."

This seems a better support for the view that hiring servants is morally inappropriate, than for the view that being their friend is professionally inappropriate or just impractical.

I realize, of course, that this is a strong view to take, and there's no _essential_ difference between the relationship between employee and employee in this case and others.

But I can't help thinking the difference if not essential is still profound. I can, in principal, be my boss' friend, since there's usually a relatively clear delineation between work and non work relationship. I am hired to do specific work during specific hours--work I that freely control and work I do in service are distinct. I have a very distinct workplace and home--the two do not easily become confused.

The separation of personal lives is, I think, the critical issue here. I don't have to pretend my boss or employee is not a human being, because I'm not intimate with them for their humanity to interfere with my work. But I cannot imagine having an employee living in my home and being able to function professionally without, either consciously or unconsciously, pretending or acting as if they are not a human being.

I wonder if a comparison might be made to the question of the moral status of sex workers. Defenders say there is not in principle a difference between this form of labor and any other, but it again seems that even if this is true, it is not convincing. There still seems to be a degree of dehumanization (intentional or otherwise) that is unavoidable and ethically inexcusable.

I cannot fully articulate my reasons for this suspicion. It has something to do, perhaps, with the distinction between owning someone's labor vs. owning their person. I cannot help seeing sex work and houseservant work as a kind of renting of the person, rather than of an exchange of money for their labor.

belle waring

Yan, I do see what you mean. I personally think being a sex worker is a degrading occupation, and in my experience many of the women and men who end up in this profession have been sexually abused or coerced in other ways. but I also strongly support legalized prostitution, both because I think it reduces attendant harms and because I think people should generally be free to do what they want. for me to pay four or five times as much money to get part-time help much less of the time, just so that I don't have to participate in a relationship with a live-in helper...that might be the right choice for some people. but it would be a choice that person would be making with respect to her own feelings and preferences, not the interests of some hypothetical employee who, in actuality, would like to have a job. the thing is, Tena is the person best placed to assess her own interests and opportunities. I think it is an indictment of her country that this is the best option for her, but as long as she judges that it is, and so long as we keep paying her triple the average salary and treating her with respect, I think this is a good option for our family and a least-bad option for her. I am complicit in a terrible sacrifice she is making, of time with her own children for money for their education and construction of a house for her to live in when she retires. but it's not up to me to say she is making the wrong choice. still a lot of complex issues, though, not least of which is how to teach your children to do things for themselves, pick up after themselves. also to respect Tena and what she does. one way I try to do this is to give Tena the same deference I give John in the following sense: if Tena says "no you can't do x", even if I disagree, I try to back her up regardless. later I might say to her in private, I actually think it's ok for them to do x, but I try not to undercut her authority in that sense.

dsquared

why is there some big moral requirement against "confusion" between working and domestic lives? This seems like quite a slender reed to bear the weight of a fairly fundamental reorganisation of the world economy.

It strikes me that a lot of the stigma against having servants is the creation of people who've not got much experience of telling other people what to do. It is really not that difficult to think of someone else as a human being who is employed to do what they're told.

dsquared

(I reiterate btw, my own philosophical position that if you end up having to choose between employing a maid, and fundamental principles of human autonomy, what you should give up is the desire to be considered a Nice Person by leftwingers.)

Andrew John

Like Belle, I live in Singapore, and like her family, we employ a housekeeper. My feelings about this tend to vacillate between two positions.

1. As a trained economist, I recognize that we are entering into a mutually beneficial contract. Our housekeeper is an intelligent mature individual who feels that the option of working in this position in Singapore is superior to her previous clerical position in the Philippines. This is a simple employment relationship where part of the compensation consists of room and board. We all do our utmost to manage this relationship with appropriate dignity and respect.

2. Holy cr*p, we have a f*cking servant.

Which is to say, I do experience some dissonance, but more and more I am coming to the view that this is my problem.

Carlos

Yan's comment looks much like what they call on the parenting blogs a "drive-by": some outsider comes in and passes a moral judgment on a parent who has made a difficult but reasoned decision. The outsider's judgment is not intended to help the parent. The outsider's judgment is intended to make the outsider feel superior to the parent.

Yan's confusion is exactly that: Yan's confusion. Yan can't distinguish between slavery and employing a maid. Does this have anything to do with Belle and Tena? Not really.

Yan

Belle, I suppose it's true that this form of work is usually truly advantageous to the employee, and it's certainly true that the person taking the job is best qualified to decide if it's in their interests.

I wonder if the ethical framework applied makes a difference? On a purely utilitarian model, I think one can say that employeeing servants on not only acceptable but morally laudable because it can increase the good of the employee. So perhaps my worries come only with a commitment to a different ethical model?

dsquared:
I'm suggesting that the confusion of work and domestic spheres makes it impossible to know how much of the employees life is under one's authority--thus, impossible to distinguish buying their labor time from renting their person, where the latter seems to me (as a wacky lefty) morally problematic.

As for whether this justifies a fundamental reorganization of the world economy. Well, there's no essential moral weight in the organization of the world economy per se. That is, the fact that the world is run that way doesn't mean it _ought_ to be. So unless you have some moral justification of the present system, there's nothing my moral claim needs to "outweigh." It wouldn't be the first time a moral issue was at odds with economic concerns. Slavery, obviously, was an economic issue for the south. And clearly, the recognition of womens' rights has pretty profound economic and social consequences. This is not to compare the seriousness of these cases, but to point out that it can be appropriate to endorse a moral position that would change the way we do things. Morality is, surprise, often inconvenient in that regard.

I only expressed a suspicion. I'm not by any means certain that employing servants is morally wrong. I am pretty sure it is a _difficult_ case, and thus worth subjecting to critical reflection (by everyone, not just those considering employing servants).

So, Carlos is right, it is first and foremost _my_ confusion. But I do think it's something we should all be a bit confused about. I think it ultimately depends on the issue of ethically problematic forms of "objectification"--the question of how to determine what counts as reducing someone the status of an object, vs innocuously treating someone as a thing. That's an extraordinarily difficult question, even in other issues where the question comes up, such as sexual objectification.

Carlos seems like the kinda guy who would not only have endorsed Socrates' conviction, but resented the fact that Socrates stole from the public the pleasure of executing him.

Cala

Belle, I think you have the analysis correct; a servant isn't just a good friend who happens to love your kids so much she takes care of them. And I think you're right to keep some sort of separation.

The flip side of you not doing her shirts is that you *pay* her. You don't expect her to do it for free, or out of some kind of servile love, but because you have a contract. It's a closer contract than an average job, but it's a contract between her as a person and you.

Yan, I took dsquared's point that most jobs involve telling someone else what to do, and most of those don't involve treating the other person as a means. Undermining that aspect of the world economy seems to be impossible. Maybe we could all be self-employed, but I'm not seeing that happening. And if you accept that people can pay other people and tell them what to do, then your objection to having a nanny or a maid can't be that you're paying someone to tell them what to do.

I can see why Carlos would think it's a drive-by. Paying a maid a good wage and treating her fairly is anything like prostitution?

Tearfree

What Andrew said. I can't really come to terms with the fact that I have a cleaning woman, but I don't really try any more.

One thing I have learned though is never, ever get involved in finding other jobs for your cleaning woman.

I passed my cleaning woman's name on to a friend who actually asked her to do windows (this is not metaphoric) and it all got very, very messy.

Rich Puchalsky

This is probably unnecessary -- but based on a long-ago thread, I feel like I should mention that Yan is not me.

dsquared

I'm suggesting that the confusion of work and domestic spheres makes it impossible to know how much of the employees life is under one's authority

I see. But come on; how difficult is this, really? We can put a man on the moon but we can't talk to our cleaners?

 Thrillah in Manillah

AH don't worry your pretty head, dear. Be a decent Western Imperialist, like Hubby Holbostein: hire maids, but forbid them from turnin' any tricks in yr cabana n' you'll be fine.

Doctor Slack

Yan: But I do think it's something we should all be a bit confused about.

I think the real issue that many have with the idea of domestic hired help is that it puts class stratification on display in a way that we are not prepared for. I'm not totally unsympathetic to your suspicion that the domestic arrangement could uncomfortably blur a line between "employer" and "master," but the potential flip side is that our discomfort might simply signal a desire to remain insulated from the realities of class while still (we hope) benefiting from them.

To put it another way, if the only complaint we can manage about class arrangements in a society is that they're visible, it's not much of a complaint -- especially not when, further out of sight for most of us, "globalization" is driving what could be fairly called the modern equivalent of a large-scale slave trade.

Carlos seems like the kinda guy ...

Not worth your time, trust me.

Carlos

This is a bit tangential, but I find argument via passive-aggressive dictat, as Yan has done several times in this thread, strongly indicates bad faith on the passive-aggressive party. Annoying.

(It's not as annoying as some anonymous goober telling a feminist that she isn't allowed to have opinions he doesn't like about the male sex drive. Doc Slack once did this to Belle -- ten thousand words of rant -- and I enjoy reminding him of it. Perhaps one day he'll apologize!)

But I do like the quote, Yan, especially the modest implicit comparison of yourself to Socrates. Obviously, you entered this discussion to convince, not to feel superior to people who disagree with you.

Phred

AH Doc Slack's annoying, but not nearly as much as thou art Carlos De Goober. Plus he's occasionally capable of producing wit and reason, unlike you. Why don't u head back to like yr Tamale.com site, puto; maybe you can get some more lessons in marxist bitch-assism there. Andale andale!

Yan

dsquared,

It's true that I can talk to my housekeeper and we can agree on the boundaries. But my concern leaves open the possibility that there is a moral demarcation that doesn't depend on what I or my employee find acceptable. We could both voluntarily discuss, deliberate, and enter into a nonetheless morally inappropriate relationship.

Dr. Slack may be right that discomfort about domestic help involves a kind of defense mechanism against confronting the reality of class divisions, but I think that much of the discomfort is instead moral in nature--a (possibly mistaken) moral worry that this practice is inappropriate.

In any case, I think Slack's point brings up a key issue here--to what degree the moral question depends on questions of social justice. My worry was about an inevitable element of objectification that might be structurally determined by the relationship (thus not evoided by the voluntary good will of all participants). It may be that ther real problem is that the fact that such jobs are desirable to many is symptomatic of social injustice on a larger scale. This would explain the moral discomfort I mentioned, while allowing for the possibility that the moral problem is not the practice as such, but the broader economic inequalities that make taking such jobs relatively beneficial and desirable.

Carlos,

I'm not sure where the charges of bad faith are aimed exactly.

The comparison of myself to Socrates was on the relevant point: I initiated a moral inquiry, and was charged with not minding my own business.

I'm alot like Socrates in other ways, too. For example, I initiated the inquiry out of a sincere interest in knowing the answer and out of a sincere uncertainty about what the answer is. I've also worn sandals before and I too am an expert in the art of love.

Doctor Slack

I can live without endorsements from the ToS, but I'm pleased to see we've all found our preferred levels of mutual dislike. That's heartwarming.

Quoth Carlos: Obviously, you entered this discussion to convince, not to feel superior to people who disagree with you.

Unlike you, who so totally entered this discussion to convince!See, it's the rampant projection that makes you so amusing when you get in these little moods.

It's also funny how you assiduously avoid linking to that old thread when you want to blather about its contents. Maybe one day you'll figure out how suspicious that looks.

Phred

It's far from an endorsement, Doc; you're another spineless, effete liberal (SEL) really, regardless of a few gripes against the PC-marxist vermin, but even a fairly rational SEL trumps tamale boy.

Doctor Slack

Yan:

In any case, I think Slack's point brings up a key issue here

That's kind of you, but I think Belle already brought up the issue of "social justice on a larger scale," in fact in almost exactly the same way that you arrive at.

When I mentioned anxiety about confronting class division in an immediate way, I didn't mean to imply that there's no moral reasoning going on here. What I'm getting at is that that class anxiety is probably a sublimated element of the whole process. (And likely not the only one. For example, many of us have negative associations related to received pop culture and popular historical images -- sometimes accurate, sometimes not -- of societies in which servants are common and unremarkable. I suspect that's a powerful element of my own discomfort, over and above my more intellectual engagements with issues like slavery, caste and social hierarchy.)

But yes, I do think that a critique of the idea of the domestic servant is much more interesting in a broader social justice context. I also think we shouldn't get too comfortable in assuming that "objectification" is always either inevitable or unmanageable, as some others have already mentioned.

Doctor Slack

It's far from an endorsement, Doc

Whew.

Phred

Rilly, Doc, your attempts at liberal sensitivity are rather nauseating. Many chambermaids, domestics, houseboys are better off working with the booj-wah-zee than what, in the fields, or garment districts, or in some state school learning their Marxista ABC's. The dirty secret of slavery--even American slavery--is that the slaves were better off in captivity--not for all of course. There was certainly some tragedy; but ah wager life in the west african bush was probably nearly as miserable as life on the plantations. And of course arabs have been trafficking slaves from Africa and indonesia since, what, the pharoahs. I imagine it was horrible for the natives picked up by brit. or yankee or earlier spanish slavers; but then the african tribes--especially on coasts, on congo-- themselves traded slaves. Read some ol' Capn. RF Burton for a few insights into what the powerful african chieftains were like, and the arabs for that matter; nothin' like being honored with a cannibal feast.

dsquared

We could both voluntarily discuss, deliberate, and enter into a nonetheless morally inappropriate relationship.

"Inappropriate" is a bit of a red-button word for me, as I only ever hear it in business contexts, and only ever in the context of someone who wants to say "wrong" but doesn't want to say what's wrong. What's wrong?

Carlos

(I see the whole fan club is out. Wow. All we need is some Xeni-hating and maybe that condescending biographer of Jay Gould.)

Yan, it's possible you might not be aware of your rhetorical pattern. Here are the assumptions I find in bad faith. I'll pose them as questions (non-Socratic) for you to mull over.

a) why should your personal confusion translate into a universal moral problem?

b) why do you think your confusion gives you a privileged position in this conversation?

c) why do you think comparing an actual, complicated relationship between two real people (one of whom is our host) to slavery and prostitution is a worthwhile analogy?

That'll do for a start. I don't expect reasonable answers from you, because your past snark I think pretty clearly shows why you're here, but hey. Prove me wrong.

Yan

a) I suggested the possibility of a moral problem and I expressed personal confusion about the problem. But I did not assert the existence of the moral problem on the grounds of my personal confusion.

b) I don't know where specifically you got this impression, but perhaps there's some purely accidental truth to it. I might have a priveleged position in the inquiry in relation to anyone who sees no possibility of a dilemma. You know, the Socratic "wise enough to know I don't know" bit. But I don't think I implied this anywhere, because I don't believe it's true. Everyone else has responded as though they take seriously the possibility of error, offering counter views and reasons for holding them. Well, almost everyone.

c)This is a misunderstanding of the comparisons and the point being made by them. The comparisons were apt in their context. I suspect you realize that and have made this point in bad faith, but if not, I'll be happy to elaborate.

Gary Farber

I think it's very kind of Belle to provide posts so various other people can snipe at each other. I'm sure it makes her feel warm and fulfilled.

Zedd

Yass it's a bit rude. She should have taken lessons from J.Edgar Holbostein and deleted the bickering-sheet days ago--then put on some kazoo-klezmer pop-muzak and par-tayed like a UC marxist with a stipend.

Carlos

Yan, I'll take your word for part a. But for part b, who here doesn't take seriously the possibility of error? I personally find the culture of service in the Philippines distressing in the extreme. But my opinion has nothing to do with the validity of your assumptions. I also deny the need to reveal my opinions in order to judge your argument.

It's rhetorical gimmicks like those which make me doubt your bona fides.

As for part c, Daniel Davies and Cala were also mystified by your comparisons; and DD has asked for clarification several times.

Here's a thought experiment, which -- for me, at least -- would go a long way at clearing the air. In your first comment, you said:

"But I cannot imagine having an employee living in my home and being able to function professionally without, either consciously or unconsciously, pretending or acting as if they are not a human being."

I would like to see you make the attempt. What is there about the monetary transaction that makes this situation impossible to imagine?

belle waring

can't we all just get along? (ducks thrown vegetables, brickbats, etc.)

Yan

Sorry Belle, my original post wasn't intended to be snide, but I see how it could be read that way--it seems to have set the snarky tone of the discussion, and somehow revived an old rivalry among posters. (Off topic: I keep misreading your post as "ducks throw vegetables," which I like a lot.)

Yan

Carlos,

I think your question goes back to my first comment. It has to do with Belle's point that often neither employer or employee feels comfortable acting like friends--a certain formality is necessay.

That formality works in the average employment situation, because you don't have to pretend there's no intimacy--since there isn't any.

But you cannot live with someone without human intimacy--and to act as if it's not there is, I worry, to pretend that they are not fully human in some sense. It is to pretend ignorance of their human side (this is on both sides, I think, not just the employers').

A human being is someone with whom it is always, essentially, possible to become friends. My boss in a common employment situation is someone I probably won't be friends with--but I could if I were to establish greater intimacy.

For a more specific example. If my roommate comes into the living room and starts vaccuuming I feel morally obligated to acknowledge them in a personal way--to smile, to say how's it going, to make chitchat. If a housekeeper enters to start vaccuuming, I'm inclined to do the same, but:
1. I don't feel _obligated_ to, since I've hired them to do the work not to be my pal.
2. I feel it may be inappropriate to do so--it interferes with their work and they may find it offensive for me not to preserve professional formality.

If on the basis of 1 or 2 or both, I don't respond as I automatically would for any other human being who enters the room, then I think I'm acting as if they are somehow less than a full fledged human being. (Again, I think it works both ways, the same problem exists for the housekeeper in deciding how to acknowledge or respond to my presence.)

I think in the long run the only way I could get used to this, and avoid annoying my housekeepers, would be to, whenever possible, simply pretend they're not there. How else preserve a sense of formality? But to ignore human presence is to pretend it is no different from any other object in the room.

Carlos

Yan, I appreciate your examples. But they seem to me based on a false opposition between formality and intimacy. (Examples of all four combinations come quickly to mind.)

I agree that finding the right balance between formality and intimacy is difficult; but that holds true for any moral relation between two people.

Let me turn your example of chatting while vacuum cleaning into an illustration. Some vacuumers might find the interruption to chit-chat, when there are things that need to be done, to be a form of disrespect of the task at hand, and by implication, towards the person doing the task. Intolerable.

On the other hand, some vacuumers would be deeply offended if you sat there silently.

Obviously, the only solution is to vacuum alone, or to never vacuum at all. Well, no. But furthering this analogy in that direction is very tempting.

Doctor Slack

it seems to have set the snarky tone of the discussion, and somehow revived an old rivalry among posters.

That part was my fault. I apologize.

Doctor Slack

it seems to have set the snarky tone of the discussion, and somehow revived an old rivalry among posters.

That part was largely my fault. I apologize.

Scott Eric Kaufman

She should have taken lessons from J.Edgar Holbostein and deleted the bickering-sheet days ago--then put on some kazoo-klezmer pop-muzak and par-tayed like a UC marxist with a stipend.

I am become LEGEND in this poor fool's mind. (Not to mention Marxist...and on stipend! What a hypocritical life I must lead in his head!)

Phred

You're no legend but probably borderline psychotic or dementia praecox like most English-lit vermin. Was I talkin' about u anyways, bitchmann? Paranoia-stein. Ah doubt you're bright or rational enough even to be a marxist-swindler, puto.

Ted

Hypocritical? Don't flatter yourself, K-mann. Parasitical: like most literary narcissists siphoning off taxpayers' funds in US English departments across the country. And there is a fairly large contingent of people, not all radical rightists, who are working this very minute to end the state-lit. slushbucket. Whoa! Then you and yr fellow comma cronies might have to like review some pie graph skills.

woof

Um, thanks for a good post, Belle. I'm reading that edited Ehrenreich book "Global Woman" as I sit in an Albanian hotel ignoring the chambermaid who is tidying my room. So your post and the chapters on ayahs merge. Also the interviews we've been doing with Ukrainian live-in elder care workers in Italy. What seems important in a live-in job is respecting minimal contract requirements, especially regarding hours, overtime, holiday, etc. This addresses much of the question of buying labour/buying the person herself. It's tough to manage, I see, because employers always end up getting more work out of a live-in. I have no problem buying labour at the going rate, just as these women have no problem selling it. Monetarizing the domestic division of labour (post-fems blame John for not picking up the slack, but I'll let him off the hook since he's fairly neat) isn't immoral.
I really enjoyed reading your posts about the trip to the Philippines and the relationship with Tena. I see so many friends with children trying to deal with the same issues and most discount the role their ayah plays in their own personal liberation, satisfaction, etc. This post has been led far astray but I just wanted to underline how interesting it is to read employer thoughts, esp. knowing the employer.

Adam Kotsko

Did you know that none other than Karl Marx himself had a maid?

I think "hypocrisy" works a little differently when you're waiting for the world to change through a massive, catastrophic event (viz. "the proletarian revolution") rather than through the aggregate result of individual choices.

Julian Elson

"Again, it's stupid to say your maid is "just like a member of the family", unless you have some sort of orphaned cousin staying at your place whom you treat like cinderella."

Thanks for the laugh, Belle. I really want to emote a smiley here, but I feel like this blog is really too high class for that sort of thing.

Dave

How about trying out the patron/client prism on the mam/maid ramble? Seems like it'd be more productive than worrying about objectification. (and also specifically addresses the observation that, while everyone in a household may be like family, some are more alike than others)

Tearfree

One thing I find intresting about the oft-criticized Caitlyn Flanagan is that she makes the point that hiring household help has become much more acceptable now than it was in the heydays of feminism -- back in the seventies -- when everyone was expected to clean their own toilet.

Doug M.

Carlos, acu tetigistus. Formality and intimacy are not incompatible opposites, but they are in tension with each other. You can have both, but you have to work at it.

Liberals tend to be nervous about power imbalances across the board, and doubly so in personal matters. There's nothing wrong with that. But it's a quick and easy slippery slope from "I am nervous about this" to "this is somehow bad".

Yan, Carlos pointed out (correctly) that he doesn't have to tell you his opinions -- or anything else about himself -- in order to judge your arguments. But let me reach over his shoulder and tip his hand a little.

Carlos has seen that system from the inside. Both sides. So when you casually "wonder if a comparison might be made" between house servants and sex workers or slaves, you're talking about people Carlos (and I) know well. Friends and close family members. If I casually wondered out loud if your Mom was, well, maybe not a whore, but sort of /like/ a whore -- you know, with a degree of dehumanization that's ethically inexcusable -- you might get a bit annoyed.

N.B., this doesn't mean that Carlos is wrong. He's annoyed, but he's being IMO tolerably patient and civil with you. And (more to the point) he's mostly right and you're mostly wrong.

To go back to your original point: there's something deeply disturbing about the absolute commodification of labor. Marx had that insight 150 years ago, and he was on to something. (Well, he stole it, publicized it, and claimed it as his own. But he was still on to something.) Sure. But on the other hand, absolute identification of labor with the person is equally dumb, if not more. And, again, "this makes me squeamish" is a very weak basis for an argument about policy.

The vacuuming housekeeper: right, we have a social situation that requires a little thought and attention, where a wrong response could give offense. So that means... what, exactly?

Looping back to Belle's original post: she notes that she considers Tena a friend. Friendship across power imbalances is another thing that tends to make liberals nervous: how can it be /real/? Surely it must be false smiles on one hand, patronizing self-delusion on the other?

But people are more complicated than that; and, yes, it's totally possible to be friends, good friends, with the help. It takes time, and is by no means inevitable. (When is friendship ever?) But it's the real thing, all right.

Mm, probably deserves a post on my home blog. Sometime, someday.


Doug M.


Lindsay Beyerstein

Very interesting discussion.

There's no reason why friendships can't grow between employers/supervisors and employees/supervisees. In fact, it happens all the time. The thing is that it's easier for it to happen when the class and power gaps are smaller. I've been friends with a lot of my bosses--the profs I TA'd for, my shift supervisor at Starbucks, a VP at my first ad agency (whose corner office I ended up sharing because nobody else could bear to work in the same room), my editor.

I found it easy to be friends with these bosses, even though they held my livelihood in their hands. I think that was because the overall power gap was relatively small (due to similar educational backgrounds, SES, age, etc.). Also, we had a lot in common--we did very similar jobs.

Domestic workers and their bosses have a lot of obstacles to friendship because they are virtually guaranteed to have relatively little in common (at least on a superficial level). And yet, if you live with someone whom you regard as a fellow human being, you're probably going to feel some inclination to relate to them on a more personal level. At least with an ordinary employer/employee relationship, there's no pressure to become personal friends. If a friendship develops, that's great, but few people feel like they have to develop a personal friendship (as opposed to merely a good rapport) with their boss/employee. I can see how it would be patronizing for a boss to cultivate a friendship with an employee simply because they were uncomfortable with simply being a boss.

And yet, a domestic servant knows intimate details about an employer that the employer isn't comfortable sharing with other friends. As they saying goes, no man is a hero to his valet. So, I'm sure there's a countervailing impulse for both parties to maintain some professional distance.

I don't see moral problems with hiring live-in domestic help for a good wage--but I'd never even consider doing it because it would evoke way too many conflicting impulses for me.

Noel Maurer

This has been a fascinating thread to follow.

So here's something apropro of nothing. Well, not quite, but tangential.

What, if anything, do the choices that societies make tell you about those societies?

Let me illustrate by describing two different real societies and asking if the differences tell you something.

The first would be middle-class Mexico City around 1990. The "culture" --- e.g., the set of socially-acceptable behaviors --- regarding the employment of live-in personal help was very similar to the one described in Singapore. Of course, the women tended to be Nahuatl-speaking (but fully bilingual in Spanish) women from the states of Hidalgo, Puebla, and Tlaxcala rather than Filipinas, but the mores were almost identical with the brief desciption given for Singapore.

The second would be middle-class Mexico City around 2006. You have a live-in servant? That's a little strange, even if you have children. I mean, how do you have family time in the evenings? I mean, it's not exactly rare, but it's not something you advertise. Plus, waitasecond, you use a word other than "employee" to describe said person? Huh. That's not quite right. I mean, they vote, dude. They're just like the fellow who mows the lawn or fixes your car.

A lot changed in Mexico during those 16 years, of course. Economic opening, economic boom, economic crash, democratization, the Internet, a huge educational expansion, the rise and fall of a guerrilla movement, the appearance of a generation of returnees from the U.S. of A., the arrival and unexpected dominance of locally-made hip-hop, and the slow (but sadly not-yet-complete) disappearance of slicked-down hair on young 20-something males.

But the attitudes towards domestic servants also made a flip that doesn't seem to have been driven by relative price changes.

So, is there any there there, or is the above just a sort of pointless anecdote?

Joel a.k.a Spiderman

I was born in the Philippines...hence I know the feeling of having someone wash iron your shirts -- do the dishes, mop the floor - you name it! When I moved to Canada, (lived there for 31 years -- raised a family, the whole nine yards) my wife and I did all of the above mentioned chores - and yes, got used to it and didn't quite know what to do when I visited my sister two years ago and went through the same thing all over again...her two maids did everything...and once after breakfast when I tried to bus the table - she calmly said - "Don't do that, you will upset the maids!"
Tried to convince her driver not to call me sir - (to no avail)
Here's the kicker...the maids know where to draw the line...and they expect you to know where your line is...you cross it and your relationship with them is over. Respect, the "sir" calling, and everything else that goes with it is out the window. It's the system. Nothing personal. That's just the way it is. In the end, when before I headed back to Canada...I left the two maids and the driver generous tips. It was the least I could do.

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