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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  Do-it-yourself society

Do-it-yourself society

The reasons for our do-it-yourself mentality are both economical and cultural

IKEA has almost everything you can think of to build the interiors of your own home yourself, and quite affordably. Photo: BloombergPremium
IKEA has almost everything you can think of to build the interiors of your own home yourself, and quite affordably. Photo: Bloomberg

The moment I returned to Delhi from Europe last week, a rather plain observation was made clear to me once again: Europe has a do-it-yourself society, unlike India. The moment we landed at the very decent Delhi airport (much has been said about the carpet, but let’s leave that for now), people offered to care for our luggage or intermediate on our behalf to get a taxi. Our gut reaction to such initiatives, even after having lived here for a good many years, is to say, “Thank you, but we can do that ourselves."

In Europe, we have no full-time maids, drivers or cooks on the family payroll. If the middle class in Europe has domestic staff, it is a help in the household who comes to help clean the house at most once a week for a few hours. We must drive ourselves—which we find doable if you do not live in the centre of a large and chaotic Italian city—or take pubic transport. We have a washing machine to do our laundry. We have a dryer to dry the laundry. We have a dishwasher for the dishes. We have a vacuum cleaner to dust off the floors. In short, we have mechanical maids. And while we still have to operate these tools ourselves, even that is increasingly mechanized with the advent of vacuum cleaning robots, for example, that clean the floors at their own guidance. With the Internet of Things, your refrigerator will soon talk to your grocery store to order supplies on time, which are then credited to your bank account and delivered at your doorstep.

The reasons for our do-it-yourself mentality are both economical and cultural. First of all, we simply cannot afford staff the way the Indian middle class can. Seen from that perspective, we are relatively poor souls. For example, if we would pay a maid the equivalent of 6,000 a month, we would violate a few laws, among others the law on minimum wage. If we would hire full-time staff and pay the minimum wage, most middle class families would go bankrupt quite rapidly. But the reasons are also cultural. If we would hire the entire entourage that the average middle class Indian family is used to, the neighbours would suspect that we have royal ambitions or simply want to show off our status. It would be the topic of gossip among parents at the school of our kids and people would watch it with a mix of amusement and disapproval.

Why? Because doing things yourself affirms our independence, which we cherish. It gives us a sense of freedom that many Westerners find hard to give up when moving to India, even despite the undeniable comforts of domestic staff. That is why a huge billion dollar do-it-yourself industry has been established in Europe, where moms and dads buy their tools, equipment and supplies to do all sorts of weekend repair work in and around the house. IKEA has almost everything you can think of to build the interiors of your own home yourself, and quite affordably. Chefs like Jamie Oliver teach us how to cook fast yet great, so that we outshine every cook we could afford to hire in the house.

When a task is too big, we do-it-ourselves together. No family moving to a new house does that alone. There are always friends and family, to help pack and unpack the boxes or clean and paint the new house and help do the basic maintenance work. When we organize a small party at home, family, friends or neighbours often help to make some of the food and bring it along. No hired help is involved.

In short, our entire society is organized and structured to empower us to do a great many things so efficiently and effectively ourselves, that it is much more costly and frustrating to hire somebody to do it for us. It has tremendously increased our individual productivity. And hence, we are locked in our freedom and have less time to relax and do nothing. But it gives us a sense of control, thrift and satisfaction that makes up for it.

When we returned to India, this do-it-yourself system broke down again. We were back in the care of drivers who not always drive carefully, maids who do not show up, pretend not to understand English and cheat the living daylights out of us, and plumbers who do a lousy job at fixing a tap so that you call them back again the next week.

But, of course, the do-it-yourself system also has its limitations. This is seen clearly in the hospitality industry. Go to any restaurant or five-star hotel in Europe and you will find that you are expected to expect less pampering and service than you would find in India. The level of support and dedication one finds at the average local restaurant or at the Taj, Oberoi or Leela hotels can simply not be easily found in Europe, and certainly not at that price level. You will be hard-pressed to find a sign saying a guest is God. In fact, you might more easily come across a sign saying, “In God we trust, all others pay cash." It explains why our parents prepare us, almost from the moment we are born, to leave the nest and stand on our own. We are groomed to become part of a do-it-yourself society. And yet, we like it. Because to us, it does not feel cold and lonely, but freed and empowered.

Tjaco Walvis is managing director of brand consulting and advertising agency THEY India, and a speaker at the Outstanding Speakers’ Bureau. He writes a fortnightly column on the softer cultural aspects of marketing that often tend to be ignored by marketers.

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Published: 21 Jan 2015, 12:14 AM IST
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