Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Various idiocies


Here I once began to collect write-ups of some of the idiocies that either have annoyed me particularly over the years or are particularly good illustrations of stupidity and incompetence. Due to the frequency of similar idiocies in daily life, this page will likely not be expanded further.


I was highly surprised by similar situations in my youth, as with the CD club below, and saw such events as unusual and remarkable deviations from basic human decency, displays of incompetence, or what else might apply. Today, I have found that virtually every business that I have been involved with in a similar manner, including banks, insurers, catalogue/online retailers, and providers of telephone and Internet services, have had massive problems with competence and/or willingness to fair play.

(In other words, the situtations remain deviations from basic human decency, or whatnot, but they are not unusual in the slightest.)

Even in 2009, when I began this page, the lesson had not fully sunk in, but by now, 2023, it certainly has.

I have a number of separate texts giving some (!) of the more noteworthy problems encountered. These currently are only available on my old Wordpress account, but will be imported in due time.

TODO import and link

The CD club that “looked out” for its customers

In my late teens, I subscribed to a “CD of the month” club. One of its gimmicks was that for each five CDs bought, the right to a 30 % rebate on a subsequent item was earned (with the decision when to exercise that rebate left to the customer—ostensibly). The CDs were priced into two categories at roughly 9 respectively 11 Euros. Naturally, I made sure to buy items at full price mostly from the cheaper category, and to exercise my rebates on more expensive items. However, the first time around, the club automatically used up my rebate on a 9 Euro CD. As I phoned in to complain—after all, this was not the club’s decision to make, by its own T&C’s—the customer service tried to beat me off by explaining how using my rebates made it cheaper for me, and how I should be grateful that they were looking out for me. As I, in turn, explained that using the rebates on the wrong items cost me 60 cents, the woman I talked to appeared insulted—but eventually agreed to rectify the matter. Subsequent rebates were handled without flaw. From the circumstances, I strongly suspect that the order system was set up to automatically use up rebates on as cheap items as possible—unless the customer had explicitly complained. Notably, 60 cents (minus sales tax, etc.) of theft per six CDs could have a non-trivial effect on the profit margins of the club; however, few customers would consider the amount worth complaining about (including, likely, me in my post-allowance days).


I do not remember the exact actual numbers and the original currency was Swedish crowns; however, the general principle should be clear from the rough estimates used above.


The general principle of “a small loss for each customer; a giant profit for the business” is worth remembering, and does explain many of the problems that exist. For instance, a business that cheats a million customers out of a single Euro has a million Euros above its “rightful” profit. (If it is discovered? Well, honest mistake, the computer screwed up, whatnot—no hard feelings! Just fill in these forms in triplicate and we will refund your Euro!)

It is also important to keep the right comparison in mind: an amount that looks trivial relative the overall price of a product/service need not be so relative the (pre-cheating) profit margin on the individual product/service, let alone (after accumulation over all cases of cheating) in the overall profit/loss calculation for the business at hand. The difference between a successful and a failed plumbing business in a competitive climate might be that the first overcharges by ten minutes per visit and that the second played fair.

At a later stage, the club made changes to another loyalty system: Customers were already divided into two categories based on their accumulated purchases, with (possibly) fifteen purchases making one a “power customer” with additional rebates. According to the monthly magazine this would be somewhat revamped starting with the following issue, with new “improved” (but unspecified) rules for new power customers. Old power customers were given the choice whether they wanted the new or old rules to apply to them. Having gained some insight into how companies think, I ordered a few extra CDs to make sure that I crossed the limit before the date when the new rules would come into effect. Lo and behold: I was still, against the formal phrasing of the rules, counted as a “new” power customer—and, yes, the “improved” rules turned out to be anything but. As I complained, I was given a story similar to the above—I should be happy that they were looking out for me: Seeing that I had the “bad luck” of passing the limit just a few weeks “too early”, they “saved” me from the unnecessary trouble of switching from old to new power customer.

Needless to say, I did not remain a customer of any kind for much longer after that.

The Swedish Post in a hurry

In 1997, the Swedish post office (“Posten”) decided to make great changes to the then system of stamps and postal fees. (I am, by now, uncertain about the details, but one of the changes was a massive fee increase. Cf. http://kjell.smult.com/portoguide.htme at 1997-03-01; which shows the fee for a standard letter going from SEK 3.85 to SEK 5.00, and corresponding increases for other letter types.)

There was a minor uproar in reaction to the announcement, including at least one lawsuit to clarify whether this change was at all legal. The response from Posten was a complete disregard of others legitimate interests, the legal system, and reason: They moved the announced changes to an earlier (!) date in order to pre-empt the courts. I am very vague on subsequent events, because this was the year I moved to Germany; however, I note from the cited link that the fees were not later lowered, which implies that the rouse either worked or that Posten eventually won the trial.

Language of government agencies

As we probably all know, government agencies have an abysmal record of customer unfriendliness and incompetence. One particular issue that often goes below the radar, however, is their use of language: Incorrect, insulting, patronizing, stylistically disastrous, ...

Consider the notification that I sent to the German IRS (in compliance with German regulations) that I was starting a freelance business: The response started with “Ihr Finanzamt hat von der Aufnahme Ihrer unternehmerischen Tätigkeit Kenntnis erlangt.”—“Your IRS (office) has acquired knowledge of the commencement of your entrepreneurial activity.” (Beware that this is slightly worse in English than in German, due to problems with accurately translating idiomatic expressions.)

Let us look at this in more detail:

“Ihr Finanzamt”“Your IRS (office)”Use of “your” in situations like this (or, e.g., “John Smith, your partner for used cars.”) can be seen as too familiar or too presumptuous, and is definitely illogical, because there is no ownership involved and the associative form of e.g. “your brother” does not really apply. Further, “Finanzamt” has an unfortunate double meaning (possible caused by an organizational problem) of the IRS as a whole or a concept, and as the local IRS office. This is not an important issue, but should ideally be considered.“Your local ...” might work, but “The local ...” or even just “The IRS ...” would likely be better. If enough context is given “We ...” might be the best alternative.
“hat Kenntnis erlangt”“has acquired knowledge”No—you did not acquire knowledge; I told you. It is true that the formulation used could be construed as formally correct (depending on what degree of activity is required in “erlangen”—“to acquire/to gain”; however, it has connotations that are not wanted in a case like this. The implicit message is “From sources other than you, we have acquired knowledge.”, or even, depending on context, “Despite your neglecting to tell us...”. Generally, communications from e.g. the IRS tend to be filled with statements that are logically allowable, but simply would and could not be used by someone with even a basic understanding of language and communication.“has received your notification”
“von der Aufnahme Ihrer unternehmerischen Tätigkeit”“of the commencement of your entrepreneurial activity”Not quite as bad in German, but bad enough: Too stilted (even by my standards...) and with a very dubious use of a noun instead of a verb—another common problem in writings of civil servants.“that you have become self-employed”

This leaves us with a first suggestion of “The IRS has received your notification that you have become self-employed.”—better, but not good: The level of stiltedness is, IMO, not unreasonable for a formal letter; however, both manners and information are still lacking (and were not provided elsewhere in the letter). Starting from scratch, something along the lines of “Thank you for your message of [date]. We have made a preliminary registration of your self-employment, and [here I include a reformulation of the second sentence] ask you to fill out and submit the enclosed form before [other date]. We need this information in order to [whatever reason].”

Note that letters like these should be more or less standardized—written once by a communications expert (taking into account e.g. diplomacy and the high number of messages that, statistically, go to semi-illiterates), and then modified to accommodate specifics (e.g. due dates). Additional text can added by the individual civil servant, should the need arise (e.g. to answer a specific question asked in the original notification). If an ad-hoc message from a civil servant is sub-optimal, one might do well to think twice before throwing the first stone; however, messages like these must be standardized—if they are not, then an even worse problem is present.

(Yes, the rest of the letter was of a similar quality.)

Disclaimer: I might be off slightly in the exact English translations of specific German concepts; however, not so much that it will affect the principles of the discussion. In addition, there might be some language errors caused by my not being a native speaker (normally, this is obvious and understandable; but in this particular context...).


Would a communications expert have made things better? With hindsight, I have some doubts, as claimed communications experts can be horrifyingly poor at communicating. Take e.g. that standard “Thank you for your cooperation!”, given before the victim has even decided whether to cooperate... This phrasing is presumptuous, off-putting, and likely to do more to cause ill-feelings than cooperation—maybe, even a refusal to cooperate through reactance. A true expert would have had the common sense to ask for cooperation or, even better, apologized for the inconvenience (or whatever might apply).

A common German issue is the constant “für Sie” (“for you”), with overly long, patronizing, and potentially outright misleading formulations like “Wir bauen für Sie um!” (“We renovate for you!”, used e.g. when a store is renovated—not the apartment of the victim). Presumably, the idea is that this hypocritical “für Sie” is supposed to make this-or-that easier to swallow, but the result is, if anything, the opposite. (The problem might be present internationally too, but I can only speak for Germany.)

Package deliveries by the German Post

Typically, when a customer is not present to receive a package, a notification is left stating merely that a package can be collected at the local post office within a certain time frame. (The same applies m.m. for e.g. registered mail.) There is no mention of who sent the package, or any other relevant information, and the notification explicitly states that the post office will not answer any questions concerning the package by phone—doing so would violate the “Postgeheimnis” (“secrecy of post” or similar, a legal restriction of what the post office is allowed to do with the objects that it transports on behalf of customers), by potentially allowing information concerning the sender to reach others than the recipient.

Now, if someone receives a notification, he has but two options: He can spend parts of his valuable time going by and queuing at the post office, or he can let the package be automatically returned after ten (?) days. I do not recall ever receiving an unexpected package, but there have been cases where I have been expecting several packages, and would have gladly gone for the more important alone, but waited until both were there if it was the other. A delivery of an already canceled order would be another case of interest. Further, registered mail is seldom expected, and the sender can be vital for knowing whether the mail is urgent, can wait until a more convenient time, or can even be ignored altogether (although this would rarely be the case).

To a degree, the German post’s stance is understandable: There might well be cases (sex related, sensitive religious or political contacts, communications between someone married and an old sweet-heart) where the recipient has an understandable interest in secrecy. However, combined with the way the postal workers handle every other instance, it can only be considered hypocrisy: Packages are often given to neighbors or near-by stores, or put in the hallway. Letters that do not fit in the letterbox are routinely put on top of it. Etc. Certainly, unless delivery “to the hands of” is requested no postal worker would think twice of giving a package to a family member in the right apartment—yet, when I asked a postal worker about the lack of information on the notification, she claimed that even a notification put in the letterbox has to be free from information—because other family members could have access to it! (But giving them the actual package is in order... And: What about all normal letters routinely put into the letterbox?)


Now, in 2023, I cannot recall the last time that I saw a letter so placed. The difference might be one of letterbox size, the individual deliverers, or new regulations (or that old regulations are enforced more strongly).

Issues with packages remain, however, if typically delivered (or left at some store for the recipient to collect) by separate businesses from the post proper. Earlier this year, e.g., someone had put a package intended for one of the neighbors immediately outside my door, without even ringing the bell. The later adventures of this package involved my pushing it into my apartment with my foot as I left and putting it back outside again, after I got home and saw that it was not intended for me, and the package standing around on the stairs for weeks, with at least three moves to different positions (one by me, to increase visibility; two by someone else). After these weeks, it was finally gone—but whether it had reached its intended recipient, been stolen by a greedy neighbor, thrown away by an annoyed neighbor, been returned by the delivery service, or whatnot, is unknown to me.

The reasons for this are not clear to me: It is for instance conceivable that the legislation is inconsistent or that the post office (or its employees) only follows it when it benefits the post office. Certainly, incompetence and misinformation about the exact rules among individual employees can contribute. However, whatever the reasons, this is entirely unacceptable.

The extreme degree of rule-bending than can occur is demonstrated by the fact that the postal workers often leave a notification without bothering to ring/knock at the door at all (a problem in particular for those on the higher floors of a building). Effectively, this breach of contract forces the customer to go out of his way to compensate for time that the post office saves for it self—never mind the fact that postal deliveries are done at times of day when most are at work or school... A save of thirty seconds for the postal worker can be countered by as much as thirty minutes of times wasted for the recipient.

Related anecdotes:

  1. A package arrived for me when I was away over Christmas. The package was left with a neighbor who moved (!) before I was back. Not knowing this, I went by her old apartment a dozen times over a space of three weeks—to no result, obviously. I assumed that she had been on a prolonged vacation, but had reached the point where I was about demand in writing the immediate release of my package or else..., when her successor moved in and could provide me with both the package (left in the apartment) and an explanation.

  2. As the Packstationw system was introduced, I was originally interested: This would be a good way to gain flexibility at least as far as opening hours were concerned, when a package could not be delivered. The twist: My access code was sent by registered mail, requiring me to go by the post office one extra time, just to be able to use something that was supposed to save me trips to the post office... (I note that banks, in contrast, typically send PINs and similar in ordinary letters—despite these being much more important than a packstation code.)

  3. On one occasion, I was awaiting a book delivery that never arrived. I wrote an email to inquire—the package was already sent, and should arrive presently. Days went by, and I re-inquired—the package was already delivered, and I had signed for it! A lengthy discussion ensued over this incorrect claim, including the book dealer’s sending me a scan of what was manifestly not my signature, nor could in anyway be construed to be my name. A few days later a note arrived from a near-by shop owner “You had a package delivered to us about a week ago. Please come to pick it up ASAP, or we have to return it.”. I went by after work the following day, but, alas, the package had been returned the same day. As the shop owner explained to me, the delivery service routinely left packages with her (despite her dislike, but for the sake of the recipients...)—and had repeatedly failed to actually notify the recipients of this irregularity!

    (This was admittedly a delivery company not, to my knowledge, affiliated with the German post; however, the same lack of respect for customer rights shines through.)

  4. The last few packages that I have received (from the German post) have all been delivered to a kiosk in my building. The notification has been affixed to the outside (!) of the door to my building, where any passer-by (including a child too young to know better) could have removed it. Worse: In the kiosk no kind of identification or signature has been required to get my package—the notification has been enough! In effect, anyone could have stolen not just the notification, but even the actual package...


    This particular problem disappeared with the move to another building, and has not resurfaced since. However, plenty of other problems have occurred, some of which are discussed in the aforementioned Wordpress texts.

Does anyone wonder why I seldom order anything for delivery nowadays?