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Superiority of Our Inferiors

The satirical reader introduced himself with a gleam in his eye which kindled apprehension in the unreal editor's breast, and perhaps roused in him a certain guilty self-consciousness.

"I didn't know," the reader said, "that you were such a well-appointed arbiter elegantiarum."

"Meaning our little discourse last month on the proper form of addressing letters?" the editor boldly grappled with the insinuation. "Oh yes; etiquette is part of our function. We merely hadn't got round to the matter before. You liked our remarks?"

"Very much," our visitor said, with the fine irony characteristic of him. "All the more because I hadn't expected that sort of thing of you. What I have expected of you hitherto was something more of the major morality."

"But the large-sized morals did not enter into that scheme. We deal at times with the minor morality, too, if the occasion demands, as we have suggested. You should not have been surprised to find politeness, as well as righteousness, advocated or applauded here. Naturally, of course, we prefer the larger-sized morals as questions for discussion. Had you one of the larger-sized questions of morality to present?"

"I was thinking it was a larger-sized question of manners."

"For example."

"The experience of one of those transatlantic celebrities who seem to be rather multiplying upon us of late, and who come here with a proclamation of their worship of American women ready to present, as if in print, to the swarming interviewers on the pier, and who then proceed to find fault with our civilization on every other point, almost before they drive up to their hotels."

"But isn't that rather an old story?"

"I suppose it is rather old, but it always interests us; we are never free from that longing for a flattered appearance in the eyes of others which we so seldom achieve. This last, or next to last, celebrity—in the early winter it is impossible to fix their swift succession—seems to have suffered amaze at the rude behavior of some dairymaids in the milk-room of the lady who was showing the celebrity over her premises. I didn't understand the situation very clearly. The lady must have been a lady farmer, in order to have a milk-room with dairymaids in it; but in any case the fact is that when the lady entered with the celebrity the maids remained seated, where they were grouped together, instead of rising and standing in the presence of their superiors, as they would have done in the hemisphere that the celebrity came from."

"Well, what came of it?"

"Oh, nothing. It was explained to the celebrity that the maids did not rise because they felt themselves as good as their mistress and her guest, and saw no reason for showing them a servile deference: that this was the American ideal."

"In the minds of those Swedish, Irish, English, Polish, German, or Bohemian dairymaids," we murmured, dreamily, and when our reader roused us from our muse with a sharp "What?" we explained, "Of course they were not American dairymaids, for it stands to reason that if they were dairymaids they could not be Americans, or if Americans they could not be dairymaids."

"True," our friend assented, "but all the same you admit that they were behaving from an American ideal?"


"Well, that ideal is what the celebrity objects to. The celebrity doesn't like it—on very high grounds."

"The grounds of social inequality, the inferiority of those who work to those who pay, and the right of the superiors to the respect of the inferiors?"

"No, the politeness due from one class to another."

"Such as lives between classes in Europe, we suppose. Well, that is very interesting. Is it of record that the lady and her guest, on going into the milk-room where the dairymaids remained rudely seated, bowed or nodded to them or said, 'Good-day, young ladies'?"

"No, that is not of record."

"Their human quality, their human equality, being altogether out of the question, was probably in no wise recognized. Why, then, should they have recognized the human quality of their visitors?" Our satirical reader was silent, and we went on. "There is something very droll in all that. We suppose you have often been vexed, or even outraged, by the ingratitude of the waiter whom you had given a handsome tip, over and above the extortionate charge of the house, and who gathered up your quarter or half-dollar and slipped it into his pocket without a word, or even an inarticulate murmur, of thanks?"

"Often. Outraged is no word for it."

"Yes," we assented, feeling our way delicately. "Has it ever happened that in the exceptional case where the waiter has said, 'Thank you very much,' or the like, you have responded with a cordial, 'You're welcome,' or, 'Not at all'?"

"Certainly not."

"Why not?"

"Because—because—those are terms of politeness between—"

Our friend hesitated, and we interrogatively supplied the word, "Equals? There are always difficulties between unequals. But try this, some day, and see what a real gratitude you will get from the waiter. It isn't infallible, but the chances are he will feel that you have treated him like a man, and will do or say something to show his feeling: he will give a twitch to your under-coat when he has helped you on with your top-coat, which will almost pull you over. We have even tried saying 'You are welcome' to a beggar. It's astonishing how they like it. By-the-way, have you the habit of looking at your waiter when he comes to take your order; or do you let him stand facing you, without giving him a glance above the lower button of his poor, greasy waistcoat?"

"No, the theory is that he is part of the mechanism of the establishment."

"That is the theory. But it has its inconveniences. We ourselves used to act upon it, but often, when we found him long in bringing our order, we were at a loss which waiter to ask whether it would be ready some time during the evening; and occasionally we have blown up the wrong waiter, who did not fail to bring us to shame for our error."

"They do look so confoundedly alike," our visitor said, thoughtfully.

"We others look confoundedly alike to them, no doubt. If they studied us as little as we study them, if they ignored us as contemptuously as we do them, upon the theory that we, too, are part of the mechanism, the next man would be as likely as we to get our dinner."

"They are paid to study us," our visitor urged.

"Ah, paid! The intercourse of unequals is a commercial transaction, but when the inferiors propose to make it purely so the superiors object: they want something to boot, something thrown in, some show of respect, some appearance of gratitude. Perhaps those dairymaids did not consider that they were paid to stand up when their employer and the visiting celebrity came into the milk-room, and so, unless they were civilly recognized—we don't say they weren't in this case—they thought they would do some of the ignoring, too. It is surprising how much the superiors think they ought to get for their money from the inferiors in that commercial transaction. For instance, they think they buy the right to call their inferiors by their first names, but they don't think they sell a similar right with regard to themselves. They call them Mary and John, but they would be surprised and hurt if the butler and waitress addressed them as Mary and John. Yet there is no reason for their surprise. Do you remember in that entrancing and edifying comedy of 'Arms and the Man'—Mr. Bernard Shaw's very best, as we think—the wild Bulgarian maid calls the daughter of the house by her Christian name? 'But you mustn't do that,' the mother of the house instructs her. 'Why not?' the girl demands. 'She calls me Louka.'"

"Capital!" our friend agreed. "But, of course, Shaw doesn't mean it."

"You never can tell whether he means a thing or not. We think he meant in this case, as Ibsen means in all cases, that you shall look where you stand."

Our satirist seemed to have lost something of his gayety. "Aren't you taking the matter a little too seriously?"

"Perhaps. But we thought you wanted us to be more serious than we were about addressing letters properly. This is the larger-sized morality, the real No. 11 sort, and you don't like it, though you said you expected it of us."

"Oh, but I do like it, though just at present I hadn't expected it. But if you're in earnest you must admit that the lower classes with us are abominably rude. Now, I have the fancy—perhaps from living on the Continent a good deal in early life, where I formed the habit—of saying good-morning to the maid or the butler when I come down. But they never seem to like it, and I can't get a good-morning back unless I dig it out of them. I don't want them to treat me as a superior; I only ask to be treated as an equal."

"We have heard something like that before, but we doubt it. What you really want is to have your condescension recognized; they feel that, if they don't know it. Besides, their manners have been formed by people who don't ask good-morning from them; they are so used to being treated as if they were not there that they cannot realize they are there. We have heard city people complain of the wane of civility among country people when they went to them in the summer to get the good of their country air. They say that the natives no longer salute them in meeting, but we never heard that this happened when they first saluted the natives. Try passing the time of day with the next farmer you meet on a load of wood, and you will find that the old-fashioned civility is still to be had for the asking. But it won't be offered without the asking; the American who thinks from your dress and address that you don't regard him as an equal will not treat you as one at the risk of a snub; and he is right. As for domestics—or servants, as we insolently call them—their manners are formed on their masters', and are often very bad. But they are not always bad. We, too, have had that fancy of yours for saying good-morning when we come down; it doesn't always work, but it oftener works than not. A friend of ours has tried some such civility at others' houses: at his host's house when the door was opened to him, arriving for dinner, and he was gloomily offered a tiny envelope with the name of the lady he was to take out. At first it surprised, but when it was imagined to be well meant it was apparently liked; in extreme cases it led to note of the weather; the second or third time at the same house it established something that would have passed, with the hopeful spectator, for a human relation. Of course, you can't carry this sort of thing too far. You can be kind, but you must not give the notion that you do not know your place."

"Ah! You draw the line," our friend exulted. "I thought so. But where?"

"At the point where you might have the impression that you respected butlers, when you merely loved your fellow-men. You see the difference?"

"But isn't loving your fellow-men enough? Why should you respect butlers?"

"To be sure. But come to think of it, why shouldn't you? What is it in domestic employ that degrades, that makes us stigmatize it as 'service'? As soon as you get out-of-doors the case changes. You must often have seen ladies fearfully snubbed by their coachmen; and as for chauffeurs, who may kill you or somebody else at any moment, the mental attitude of the average automobilaire toward them must be one of abject deference. But there have been some really heroic, some almost seraphic, efforts to readjust the terms of a relation that seems to have something essentially odious in it. In the old times, the times of the simple life now passed forever, when the daughter of one family 'lived out' in another, she ate with the family and shared alike with them. She was their help, but she became their hindrance when she insisted upon the primitive custom after 'waiting at table' had passed the stage when the dishes were all set down, and the commensals 'did their own stretching.' Heroes and seraphs did their utmost to sweeten and soften the situation, but the unkind tendency could not be stayed. The daughter of the neighbor who 'lived out' became 'the hired girl,' and then she became the waitress, especially when she was of neighbors beyond seas; and then the game was up. Those who thought humanely of the predicament and wished to live humanely in it tried one thing and tried another. That great soul of H.D.L., one of the noblest and wisest of our economic reformers, now gone to the account which any might envy him, had a usage which he practised with all guests who came to his table. Before they sat down he or his wife said, looking at the maid who was to serve the dinner, 'This is our friend, Miss Murphy'; and then the guests were obliged in some sort to join the host and hostess in recognizing the human quality of the attendant. It was going rather far, but we never heard that any harm came of it. Some thought it rather odd, but most people thought it rather nice."

"And you advocate the general adoption of such a custom?" our friend asked, getting back to the sarcasm of his opening note. "Suppose a larger dinner, a fashionable dinner, with half a dozen men waiters? That sort of thing might do at the table of a reformer, which only the more advanced were invited to; but it wouldn't work with the average retarded society woman or clubman."

"What good thing works with them?" we retorted, spiritedly. "But no, the custom would not be readily adopted even among enlightened thinkers. We do not insist upon it; the men and the maids might object; they might not like knowing the kind of people who are sometimes asked to quite good houses. To be sure, they are not obliged to recognize them out of the house."

"But what," our friend asked, "has all this got to do with the question of 'the decent respect' due from domestics, as you prefer to call them, to their employers?"

"As in that case of the dairymaids which we began with? But why was any show of respect due from them? Was it nominated in the bond that for their four or five dollars a week they were to stand up when their 'mistress' and her 'company' entered the room? Why, in fine, should any human being respect another, seeing what human beings generally are? We may love one another, but respect! No, those maids might, and probably did, love their mistress; but they felt that they could show their love as well sitting down as standing up. They would not stand up to show their love for one another."

"Then you think there is some love lost between the master and man or mistress and maid nowadays," our beaten antagonist feebly sneered.

"The masters and mistresses may not, but the men and maids may, have whole treasures of affection ready to lavish at the first sign of a desire for it; they do not say so, for they are not very articulate. In the mean time the masters and mistresses want more than they have paid for. They want honor as well as obedience, respect as well as love, the sort of thing that money used to buy when it was worth more than it is now. Well, they won't get it. They will get it less and less as time goes on. Whatever the good new times may bring, they won't bring back the hypocritical servility of the good old times. They—"

We looked round for our visiting reader, but he had faded back into the millions of readers whom we are always addressing in print.

William Dean Howells