Posted by: patenttranslator | February 20, 2011

Be Rude to Your Customers When They Are Being Rude to You

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:

Dear Colleagues,

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!

Best regards

Martha Clueless, translation coordinator,, 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, 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.


  1. I’m not sure what kind of pubs you patronize in Europe, Steve–plunking a large beer on the table when the customer asks for a small one sounds like something that could happen in a Czech pub and, pardon me, I think it’s rude, period. Even if Czechs think it is funny.

    Having said that, I have to admit that this has never happened to me, although I prefer to have small beers, definitely not one-liter-steins you get in many places in Germany.

    Don’t get me wrong, Steve; I like the country very much and I go there every three to four months, but as a rule people in pubs and shops aren’t overly polite. Could be that I am just overly sensitive.

    “Grobian,” incidentally, appears to have its roots in German, from the adjective “grob” = rude, coarse, rough. On theory has it that it comes from “grober Jan”, rude John. The German language has a number of words ending in -ian. This suffix usually indicates that something belongs to the realm of the concept of the root word. I’m not sure that it doesn’t have its origins in Yiddish but this is pure speculation.



  2. I think the problem is that Czechs don’t like Germans. Just guessing here. I was once looking for a hotel room in Prague and there was a German couple in front of me asking for the same thing very politely in German. The desk clerk said in German that he was sorry but the hotel was full. But when I asked him in Czech, they did have a room for me.

    Also, Czechs have a very different sense of humor from Germans. I met quite a few Czechs who insist that Germans don’t actually have any. I think that this may be in fact going a little too far.

    But being rude to customers on purpose because it is good for business is not just a Czech specialty. French chefs are famous for exactly the same thing. Maybe the Gallic sense of humor is more compatible with the Czech sense of humor.

    I am really curious about the origin of the word grobian. I thought it was a Czech slang word adopted from German based on grob, just as you explain it (grob = coarse, rude in German), which corresponds almost exactly to hruby (coarse, rude in Czech) because many Czech slang words originate in German. There is also the Czech word “hrubian”, which means exactly the same thing as “grobian”, but in the context described in my post, Czechs would usually call such a pub owner a “grobian” I think.

    This word is also included in some English dictionaries, although not many. And I never heard anybody actually use this word in America.

    You may be right that the word has a Yiddish origin, and since Yiddish has a lot of Slavic loan words, it may be impossible to determine the etymology here.


  3. German etymology dictionary says Grobian is from before 1500 and is a possibly joky combination of Grob and -ian – the -ian may be playing on so many saints’ names with this ending, like Damian and Cyprian.

    I’ve also had the experience of suddenly being treated well in Prague when people realized I wasn’t German.


  4. This information about German etymology is very interesting, thank you very much.
    Have you every heard and English speaker say the word “grobian”? I have not.

    Yes, I think it’s better to speak English with a British accent in Prague these days if you know how to do that, rather than German or English with an American accent.

    Maybe things will change again in another 30 years or so.

    Incidentally, there has been a lot of Russian tourists in Prague recently and they often ask for directions people who look like me (somebody in my age group who has glasses and thus probably some education).

    They were always so grateful to me why I responded in Russian to their questions in Russian. Young Czechs don’t speak Russian anymore.

    Maybe they will be speaking Chinese in another 50 years.


  5. Actually, I didn’t experience a lot of rudeness in the Czech Republic myself, Steve, I just witnessed it. I know that the Czechs aren’t overly fond of Germans, and that’s the same the other way around, so no diff. (BTW, I’m not German, but there’s no love lost between the Czechs and the Austrians, either).

    As far as the Czech sense of humour (or rudeness) is concerned, I think it is in many ways similar to that of the Viennese who, incidently, have adopted quite a few peculiarities of the Czech grammar into their variant of German. Let’s not forget that during the second half of the 19th century, lots of Czechs and Slovaks went to Vienna to work there. Take a look at the Vienna phone book, you might think you are in Prague (or Bratislava, for that matter).

    But back to the original theme:
    >>>I believe that well designed and well timed rudeness is a useful and time-tested tool…>>>

    Whilst I can subscribe to many of your ideas, Steve, this isn’t one of them. I just don’t believe rudeness will in the end get me anywhere. I will be firm whenever my interests dictate it; I will use “clear” language when I think it is called for – but rudeness, never!!

    You never know–someday you might have to deal with these people again.


  6. 1. Czechs don’t really distinguish between Austrians and Germans. The only advantage Austrians have over Germans is that Czechs usually don’t understand their dialect, especially if they are from Vienna.

    2. I did take a look at the Viennese phone book. There are more Novaks and Novotnys there than in Prague. BTW, the most common name in the phone book in the town of Tabor of about 100,000 people about 100 km south of Prague is a Vietnamese name, I forgot what it is, something like Trinh. I have a friend who lives there and who cannot get over it. I talked to an Egyptian in Prague a few years ago who proudly told me that he was a Czech citizen, a black Czech police woman who spoke broken English but beautiful Czech at the Prague airport, etc. The world is becoming a really small place. I also went on sort of a date with a black Austrian girl in San Francisco in the early eighties to show her around town. It was so interesting to listen to her English with a Viennese accent. She was just a tourist who was returning to Vienna next day, so nothing came out of it.

    3. We can agree on disagreeing about the usefulness of well targeted rudeness, which incidentally can be expressed in very polite terms. Personally, I believe in things like karma, including John Lennon’s instant karma.

    What goes around comes around. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Otherwise, things make no sense to me.


  7. You need Kreisler’s polka of the Vienna telephone book:


  8. Sorry, that was a bad video. This is the real thing:


  9. He forgot my name. Ich bin auch “auf der Seite V”.

    There is only one more Vitek here in the greater Hampton Roads area phone book which covers about 1 million residents. When people ask me where I’m from and I tell them that I’m Czech, they say “Oh”! But next time when I talk to them, they don’t remember it any more. They just remember that it’s not German or Polish, but it must be somewhere out there.

    Isn’t America wonderful? That’s what I call successful assimilation!


  10. You were rude to the woman who was not at all rude to you. All she said was that she has the money but thought your fee was to high. It is called capitalism. If you were in a pawn shop and saw something you wanted but felt the price was too high, would you expect the owner to kick you out of his store if you told him theat you thought the price of what you wanted was too high? Most people in his or your situation would just say “Well, that is the price” without the rudeness.


  11. I know.

    Poor woman.

    It breaks my heart!


  12. On rejecting things for price, recently a street marketer offered me a free copy of the Berlin tabloid newspaper “BZ”, and I replied “Not at that price”. At least I got a smile.


  13. I think I know what you mean.

    We have a local “newspaper” here called The Virginian Pilot which contains about 60% of ads, 20% of reprints from wire services and real papers like New York Times and Washington Post, and about 10% of local content. I used to subscribe to it for 10 years because I need my paper with my coffee in the morning. A few months ago, they finally started delivering New York Times and Washington Post here, so I stopped paying for The Virginian Pilot and switched to Washington Post about 3 months ago. So far they sent me 5 invoices. I don’t pay them, but the paper still keeps coming.

    I sort of expect a duly sworn sheriff’s deputy to show up at my house one day to arrest me for failure to pay the invoices for our local paper.


  14. tokoro de, your youtube videos are great. Stacy’s Mom, Peter Gabriel and now Walking on the Wild Side… I come here for the youtube.


  15. This all good!

    I think you need to reserve the right to blow off now and again. It’s part of human nature. A pal of mine ran a pastry shop in Barcelona and told me at least once a month she had to send some ghastly unreasonable customer scurrying or life wasn’t really worth living.

    And then we all have our standards. For me the bottom line is, ‘Am I going to look back and be happy with the way I handled this?’ Less money, maybe. Less dignity, no.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. When you treat customers how they treat you; they automatically think you are being rude but fail to recognize that they are being rude to you and politeness is a two way street; or it can be a one way street if you would like to kill the customer with kindness. Customers can be cruel at times and most of the rude ones are doing it on purpose to try to intimidate you.

    Liked by 1 person

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