Most of the time it pays to be polite, especially when you are dealing with your customers, and I am usually polite even when dealing with complete strangers as I write for instance in this blog post. But like everything else, politeness is a two-way street. A couple of weeks ago I gave somebody a cost estimate for translating 8 certificates (birth certificate, marriage certificate, high school diploma) into English. I told her that I charge 40 dollars per document for this sort of thing. I can usually get this price even from an agency, but this was a direct customer who found me online. When she said that the cost seemed too high. I told her, politely, that if she could not afford me, she could probably find somebody who would be cheaper. She said:”It’s not that I can’t afford you, I feel that your cost is too high”.
I simply hung up on her. She was telling me that although she did have the money, my work was not worth that much to her and therefore, I would have to come down on the price. I think that is really rude. So I was rude back to her. I am not above haggling, I would probably shave off 20 dollars if she asked nicely, but I am not going to let some unknown high school graduate determine the value of my professional services. I know that I am worth much more than 40 dollars per a stupid certificate, I was actually doing her a favor by offering to work at such a low price, but she was not aware of it. Maybe she is now. Or maybe not.
There are also other kinds of rudeness that I think need to be responded to in kind. For instance, a law firm that used to pay in 30 days like clockwork at first simply ignored my two past due reminders. I always number the reminders so that they know that I have a plan of action (“First Past Due Invoice Reminder”, “Second Past Due Invoice Reminder” ….). By the third past due invoice reminder, the office manager finally got back to me to let me know that the firm’s policy was payment in 60 days, not 30 days. “Please don’t hesitate to call if you have any questions”, she said in her e-mail. So I sent her an e-mail that was polite enough in its formulation but contained what I hope was a rude awakening for the law firm’s office manager. I said:”I’m afraid it is my policy to raise my rates to customers who take longer than 30 days to pay on next translation projects”. I did not say “Please don’t hesitate to call if you have any questions”, that would be perhaps kind of rude. But I think she got the message. It is possible that I will not hear from the law firm again, but there are other law firms that I can work for. And if I do hear from this one again, I will raise my rates to them.
I have a different policy for agencies. In response to my “First Past Due Invoice Reminder”, an agency informed me last year that they were paying now in 60 days. I said nothing. I waited 60 days until I got paid. A few days later I received an e-mail from the agency with an attached Japanese patent and a deadline. I sent them an e-mail informing them that I don’t work for them anymore because I only work for customers who pay on time. Sayonara, suckers! (I did not say that in my e-mail, but I think they got the message).
I believe that well designed and well timed rudeness is a useful and time-tested tool that translators and other freelance professionals need to use every now and then to show the world we are not to be messed with. This is in fact a tool that has been used by business owners for centuries. In some European countries, pub owners or chefs, for example, are famous for their rudeness to their customers. A customer sits down and orders a small beer. The pub owner says:”We don’t have small beers here, buddy, here is a large one for you”, and plunks a large beer on the table in front of the customer. Some customers will perhaps get up and leave, but most will laugh it off and drink the large beer if it’s too much trouble to look for another pub. I am not really sure whether it works like this in America too, I don’t really go to pubs here. Like most US taxpayers who still have a job, I mostly work, and work, and work ….
It is interesting that the word for this kind of rude person, often a business owner, that is used in several European languages including Czech, is “grobian”, which is also an English word I believe.
At Grobian’s, the place is jumping. The next bar where the service is exceedingly polite and accommodating is only about half full because the manager does not know how to use rudeness strategically and efficiently to create the right kind of atmosphere in the bar.
I received the following e-mail yesterday:
Would you mind translating the attached file? I would need this in the next hour. Please only get back to me if you are available now.
Thanks so much!
Martha Clueless, translation coordinator, We-Translate-Everything.com, Inc.
The translation was short enough, I could have done it in an hour. I kind of needed a break from German legalese anyway. Had Martha clueless called me and asked me in person, I would have done it. But how could she have called me when she does not know me? The last time I worked for this company was 7 years ago when Martha Clueless was probably still in high school. Instead of trying to get to know translators first to establish a personal relationship with them, Martha Clueless prefers to fire off an e-mail to a dozen warm bodies (presumably, these bodies are still warm since they are in the company’s files) and waits to see who will bite first.
I ignored yesterday’s request from We-Translate-Everything.com, Inc., but I did put their file into the bulging filing cabinet which I keep in my mind for agencies that I really, really don’t want to work for unless I am really, really desperate.
There is a kind of rudeness that may be good for business. As I said above, at Chez Grobian, the joint is jumping. And there is a kind of rudeness that is bad for business.
We translators are kind of like wives. We hate it when we are being taken for granted. Call us unreasonable or even hysterical, but we want some respect and appreciation from people who make money from our work. Otherwise, we may simply find somebody who understands us better.