real life

Sometimes you have to nail the bullies.


So, I got into a fight in a bar. This is not nearly as rock and roll as it sounds because it was a nail bar. You know, one of those cheap and cheerful salons where you can get a manicure or pedicure for $25.

And it wasn’t a physical fight – hey, my nails were wet. Still, it got pretty ugly.

There I was, sitting calmly with my feet soaking in the sudsy water and my nails being filed while I tried to balance my phone between my knees. Degree of difficulty: high.  First world problem: you bet.

I barely noticed the woman when she walked in. Late 50s maybe, dressed nicely but low-key. Nothing fancy. And then she opened her mouth. “Are you very experienced?” she said loudly to the Vietnamese manicurist who nodded meekly. “I need someone who knows what they’re doing. I’m sick of getting bad manicures.”

Oh really?

The background chatter in the salon evaporated as everyone’s attention was drawn by the woman’s aggressive tone. She was also talking in that excruciatingly loud way some people do when speaking to migrants. She’s Vietnamese, I wanted to say. Not deaf. Or an infant. “Tell me something about that new Shallac nailpolish that lasts two weeks, can you?” she demanded as the manicurist, clearly intimidated, stumbled over her words trying to answer her barked questions. “Wait, what are you DOING?” interrupted the woman, snatching her hand back to examine it. “No, look! One side of this nail is higher than the other!” And so it went on. Every time the poor manicurist did one stroke of the nail file, the woman inspected her work and told her she was doing a terrible job. “No! Not like that! What are you DOING?” Now, I’ve had this particular manicurist before. Many times. She does not do terrible jobs. None of the women in the salon do. And you know what else? It’s a MANICURE. And it costs $25.

At one point, the manicurist said something in Vietnamese to a co-worker (as happens often among people whose first language isn’t English) and this caused the rude woman to crank it up a notch or four. “You know, it’s very rude to talk in another language when someone doesn’t understand it,” she scolded at full volume. “You’re being VERY RUDE!”

By this point, the manicurist was practically in tears and I was shredding my tongue, having one of those internal debates about whether to say something. ‘Maybe it will get better,’ I thought in the way bystanders often do. ‘Just leave it a bit longer.’  So I did and the poor manicurist bravely soldiered on.


But when the woman grabbed her hand away to inspect it for the hundredth time and declared, “Oh, this is hopeless, I could do a better job myself,” I found my voice. “Then why don’t you do it yourself?” I interrupted. She turned around, shocked, and started on me. “Why don’t you mind your own business?” she huffed. “Why don’t you go home and do your own nails?” I replied. “You’ve done nothing but complain and be rude since you walked in.” She stood up to face me and said, “I’m just sick of paying for a bad job and not saying anything and going home and not being happy.” I stayed calm but raised my voice to match hers, “Then don’t come! Leave! Nobody else here is unhappy!” “You’ve probably been here before and picked the best person!” she shot back. “Actually no, every woman in the salon has done my nails and they’re all fantastic. You have no right to be so rude to her or to anyone.” It went on a little longer before she picked up her Prada handbag and marched out.

As soon as she’d gone, the other customers congratulated me for speaking up. “Wasn’t she awful,” we all agreed. The manicurists thanked me. And for a little bit, I sat there reflecting on what had just happened, wondering if I might write a column about awful customers. People are forever complaining about bad service but anyone who’s ever worked in the service industry can tell you it goes both ways.

When I thought about it more though, I realised it was more than rudeness. It was bullying. And while I was glad I said something, I wish I’d said it earlier. And I’m ashamed I didn’t. The power balance in the interaction was so clearly unequal. There were language issues. Socio-economic ones. The Vietnamese woman couldn’t stand up for herself because she risked losing her job and the bully knew that.

If I’d had the presence of mind to call her a bully, she’d have been shocked and even more indignant. She would have insisted she was just giving feedback and standing up for her rights as a customer. But I call bullshit on that.

As a parent, I teach my kids about speaking up if they see someone being bullied but as adults, how often do we stay silent so as not to cause a scene, draw attention to ourselves or just not ‘get involved.’ There were half a dozen women in that salon who, just like me were appalled by what was going on and yet we all stayed silent. Never again.

Have you ever stood up to a bully? Or have you ever been a bully?