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'The Spirit Level': Why The American Service Sector Is All About Servitude

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Scandinavian food is the height of culinary fashion in the USA -- award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit, a Scandinavian restaurant in New York City, was brought in to assist with the Obama's first state dinner. I'm sure the food was delightful and served with all due pomp and circumstance.

Visiting the Swedish city of Malmo just before Christmas, we also had a delightful experience of Scandinavian food and hospitality. Entering a tavern in one of the city's beautiful medieval squares, we were asked if we would like 'soup or lunch'. No choice, no fuss, no maitre d's or hovering waiters, just 'soup or lunch' -- we ordered two 'lunches' and found ourselves a table. We had the choice of sitting on our own or at communal tables. We were told to help ourselves, whenever we wished, to salad, bread, water, coffee and cookies. 'Lunch' arrived -- meatloaf with cloudberry sauce and potatoes -- the same dish for everybody. The food was delicious and the atmosphere was lovely, relaxed, warm and convivial.

In the New Year, we came to America for a tour of six cities, to promote our book 'The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (Bloomsbury Press). Starting out in Atlanta, which was in the icy grip of a dramatic cold spell, we braved the weather to eat superb seafood in an upmarket chain restaurant. There, we were greeted at the door, passed on the maitre d', then to someone who showed us to our seats and took our coats. Someone appeared to pour water. Someone else came to take our drink orders. Then the waiter arrived to 'talk us through the menu'. Later, someone else came to clear the table and sweep the cloth. Every single person we encountered (at least 7, quite apart from the kitchen staff, and we didn't use the valet parking) was friendly but, much more noticeably, deferential.

During all my adult years living in the USA, in upstate New York, in Indiana, in California and in Chicago, I had enjoyed American service, without linking it to servitude. But why do we need to be served so deferentially? To be called 'sir' and 'madam'? To have our taste commended, and our choices flattered? What does this say about us as human beings, as we interact with those who cook our dinners, wash our dishes, and park our cars? It says that we're better than those people, we deserve their deference, we should be served -- because we have more money or more education or more class.

Our research shows that the level of income inequality within society has profound effects on how we interact with one another, up and down the social hierarchy. In our book, we show the impact of inequality on a wide range of health and social problems, including health, crime, and education.

And a key finding is that, in more equal countries, people trust each other more, community life is stronger and people are more public spirited and less out for themselves. In more equal countries, around two-thirds of the population feel that other people can be trusted; in the more unequal of the rich, developed countries, this drops to less than a fifth. Inequality has a profound impact on the quality of social relationships within society, and particularly our need to express our social status relative to others. Are we someone who should be looked up to; or someone not worthy of respect and attention?

This anecdote of how 'service' works in restaurants in Sweden and the USA, reflects the hard data and statistics in our book, that are such a robust demonstration of the adverse effects of inequality. Our quality of life is so much better when we encounter one another with mutual respect and tolerance.

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