The rude truth about missing the politeness of the desi service industry

I found myself missing India twice last month. And I haven’t left India long enough – I live in Berlin currently – to be homesick for it. On top of that, as complaining friends will attest, I’m an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ kind of person. Callous, maybe. But zen masters try for ages to reach my level of detachment. So, what triggered my sudden pangs for das Mutterland? If truth must be told, it was interacting with service people.

In the first instance, it was a man who came to install a second-hand dishwasher in the kitchen. Speaking minimal German, I tried to convey to him that I’d like him to also replace the baseboard around the kitchen counter when he was done. He rose and snapped irritably, ‘Make clean! You make clean first!’ Taken aback – and also a bit embarrassed about the rather dirty floors – I let him out and said thank you to boot.

The second time it was a bartender at a karaoke bar. He turned to give the woman at the DJ console something, the bar was crowded and she was right behind him. ‘Could you pass on my request?’ I asked. He looked at me, smirked and said, ‘Don’t be so lazy, bitch!’ Now, in retrospect I understand he was trying to make some sort of sassy familiar banter with me. But in the moment, I was so startled at being called a ‘lazy bitch’ by someone I didn’t even know – the ‘lazy’ bit stung – I just blinked at him, paid for my drink and walked away.

Not to be all Merchant & Ivory about it, but these things would never happen to me in India. I start noticing a shift in attitude as soon as I get off the plane in Delhi. Every other airport has brusque officials rushing people along. Suddenly, here in India, they are full of warmth and politeness even at 2 in the morning when it’s very hard for anyone to be warm and polite.

It’s a nice thing to take pride in: our service industry. No matter who’s doing the job, chances are if you’ve met any rude ones, they’re the exception, not the rule. But it got me thinking: what makes people who work in Berlin so much ruder than people who work in Delhi? It’s got nothing to do with me. The dishwasher man had also installed a washing machine for us and was equally uncharming to my non-Indian husband. The bartender probably gauged his audience every day and figured this brand of backtalk worked well professionally for him.

No, I think it’s confidence. The confidence that workers have in places like Germany, the rights they have, the ease with which they can – and do – say in response to bad online reviews, ‘If you don’t like it, go somewhere else.’ Whereas, I have lost count of the times the

delivery man, on being late begs me not to leave a bad review. Or, even if the Uber cabbie is rude, how we all hesitate before rating him less than five stars because we don’t want him to lose his job.

But those previous two examples were of gig work – which are the most thriving of India’s service industry jobs. And working for an app often means there’s no single employer backing you. But prior to that as well, I think it’s ingrained into the country’s very consciousness: you wait on someone, provide them service, then you have to be servile. So, once you start poking holes into what exactly you miss when you miss people being polite to you, it gets a lot darker.

I still wish I didn’t feel so powerless in the face of rudeness, though. The Germans even have a word for it – ‘treppenwitz’ or staircase wit, that is the retort you wish you’d thought of at the time and only remember later on the stairs back home. I have a lot of that going on.

Oh, and proper seekh kebab rolls. I miss those too.


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