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What I Wonder When I Wander: Why is bargaining so hard for some?

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The idea for this column came about a few months ago when Dani and I created a scene in Battambang, Cambodia. Even though everything went in our favor, neither of us felt very good about it.

After a treacherously long 22-hour journey from northern Thailand, we crossed the Cambodian border and arrived in Battambang late, tired, hungry, thirsty and grimy. At the hotel, a boy of 16 whisked our bags inside and as we tipped him, he presented us with his business card. Would we be interested in a tour of the countryside the next day? Knowing we would be too tired, we accepted his card just in case. On our way downstairs the next morning for a late breakfast, there he was again, his eyes sparkling. What about tomorrow, he asked? I trusted him instantly, based on instinct alone.

Some boys his age already act like men, with a flirtatious swagger and too much hair gel, but he seemed sweet, unassuming, and very much still a simple 16-year-old boy. Without much bargaining at all, I convinced Dani to agree to a countryside day tour for $25.

cambodian tuktukThis is ‘the’ tour in Battambang. A tuk tuk driver takes visitors around to six sites throughout the countryside, some more interesting than others. Like many provincial cities like this, there are dozens of drivers laying around in the their tuk-tuks ready to take tourists at any time. Normally we walk around and gauge the price of this tour based on offers from various drivers and finally accept one with the right price. We quickly found out that the going rate for the tour we just booked was $15, not $25.

We had to hand it to the kid – he was smart. He got us before we had even been out in town and squeezed $10 extra out of us. This might not seem like a lot but in Battambang, Cambodia ten dollars is easily like 50 or 60 extra dollars for a cab ride back home.

We broke our bargaining rules 

Despite having gone against our own bargaining rules, I was disappointed at having blindly trusted him. The next morning we tried to re-work our price, and he was instantly fuming and as disappointed in us as I was in him. Within minutes, a circle of people had surrounded us, high-pitched fast-paced talking in Khmer, the boy’s face red under his baseball cap, smoke practically shooting out of his ears. The hotel owner came down, assessed the situation and, taking the side of the driver over his guest, told us in English that the price was $25. After more colorful sounding sentences back and forth, he agreed to $15, but pouted for the first hour.

I have felt guilty about this ever since, but not because of the money. Paying fifteen was more than enough for the tour, and his tuk-tuk was in terrible shape. We could have ridden in a batmobile for the same price.

battambang batmobile tuktuk

Gimme the sticker price so I can get outta here 

The guilt comes from knowing that we should have known better. Had we followed the rules to bargaining, the day would have been all smiles for $15. This is when we were reminded that this is exactly the type of situation gone pear-shaped that keep many travelers from ever wanting to bargain at all. In fact, so many foreigners choose not to bargain at all, ever. But just what is it about bargaining that makes Europeans and North Americans feel so nervous and uncomfortable?

In countries where it is the norm, bargaining serves as a social oil. gets people talking to each other. It is no coincidence that these are also usually collectivist cultures, or cultures that focus on the needs of the group as a whole over the importance of the individual.

Like Dani and I, many travelers arriving to these collectivist cultures come from an individualist culture, where an individual’s needs are more important than the group. Thus, the emphasis is not on the relationship between the buyer and seller, but just covering your own back and getting the best deal possible.

We do dabble in bargaining, but because the vocabulary used is to ‘put down an offer’ on a house or car, it seems entirely different and 0n a daily basis, however, our cultures operate on the idea that time is money. We want the price up front, on a sticker.

Bargaining for everything from a new shirt or bracelet to cucumbers or even a hotel room is much more foreign of a concept. This makes for a lot of opportunity for ‘failure’ or frustration on the part of someone who doesn’t understand that bargaining is an art, and can enjoyable one at that.

palolem souvenir vendor
We bargained hard with this lady in India until we got her down from 1200 to 400 Rupees (from $21.50 to $4.50) for a large leather-bound notebook.

Bargaining is all in a day’s work: no hard feelings

In fact, doesn’t bargaining allow us to experience the true culture of a place and interact with locals in a way that simple sightseeing never will?

I have often wondered if tourists dislike of bargaining comes from some sort of post-imperialist guilt, whereby on a subconscious level tourists from Western countries feel guilty about having so much more than the people they are bargaining with? As if they and their culture played some sort of role in the level of poverty of certain nations? When these pennies or a few dollars make no difference to the buyer, but a substantial one for the seller, does this evoke feelings of shame for the buyers?

Whether or not this is true, which I readily admit I may be far off the mark there, there is an additional sentiment of anger, or frustration, which bubbles underneath surface at the thought of getting ripped off at all.

The taxi driver will start at $5 even if the price is 50 cents, and if you agree to that, it’s a great day for him. If you get him down to the right price, fair is fair and he will say hop in, no hard feelings.

Desperation rises, but rarely

There are times where guilt can creep in to the equation. In a post on his website, Nomadic Matt relates a story about just handing a vendor $30 while in Bangkok. Uninterested in purchasing any of his pitiful trinkets, Matt could not help but hear the desperation in his voice each day as he walked by. The man needed to eat, and rather than beg, had been entrepreneurial about it. So eventually he just gave him money.

We have had similar experiences, most notably in Guatemala, a country with a strong market culture and enough handmade Mayan handicrafts to fill them all. Dani really cut her teeth here on her way to becoming a bargaining expert and got some amazing deals that were fair to both the buyer and seller. However, other times, some of the ladies were practically giving things away, and we felt this was just to have the cash to feed the family that day.

Panajachel Maya girls Lake Atitlan
These situations are entirely different to the normal everyday commerce that takes place around the world between buyers and sellers, both local and foreign. In these situations, if the price is too low, the seller will just walk or say no. Case closed. The guilt should not be a part of the equation – unless you break the rules, as I did with the boy from Battambang.

I guess what I wonder is why some people feel so uncomfortable with bargaining, while others jump right in and name their price. Is it guilt? Insecurity? And is it lazy for travelers NOT to engage in such an essential part of many cultures?

If you feel unsure about bargaining, too, make sure to read our rules on how to bargain with success.

 

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Tags : battambangTravel ReflectionsWhat I Wonder When I Wander

31 Comments

  1. Bargaining always makes me uncomfortable, too – and I have no idea why. I have no problem saying, “no” to a service I don’t want or need, but bargaining….agh!

    You bring up some pretty good points here for sure. I don’t think I have any kind of imperialistic guilt, so it’s maybe likely that I know locals that I’m bargaining with probably wouldn’t make that much money anyway – so guilt in that sense.
    Tom @ Waegook Tom recently posted..Multibanging, Or Where I Rule All At Mario Kart

  2. To me, there’s nothing worse than the feeling of getting ripped off. I try to make myself feel better by thinking that its going to support the community but it still burns.
    They are professionals at haggling and we just aren’t. It’s easy to forget your bargaining principles and give in. It’s just what comes with traveling in the developing world.
    Leif recently posted..The Secret to Learning Languages

  3. I’m one of those people that hates bargaining. Mostly because I have a very non-confrontational personality, and I don’t like arguing — even if it’s not really arguing. I usually end up agreeing to a much higher price than I probably should, just because I always feel so awkward.
    Amanda recently posted..Rila Monastery, In Photos

    1. Definitely understand that feeling, sure. So interesting how strong someone’s feelings are against it though! Because it’s their culture to bargain, and they’re not going to ever let you rip them off! Especially with gringos, they’ll get their money’s worth 🙂 You should do a bargaining episode on your show 🙂

  4. My major problem with bargaining is that I find it hard to walk away from the point of sale after engaging the seller for more than a few moments, which haggling certain does. It’s the same reason I shy away from sales people in stores – I don’t want to be cast under the magic spell of sales magic and wind up with something I don’t really want.

    Also, as an American woman, I’m pretty bad about talking about money at all. My bargaining usually takes the form of asking the price and walking away if I don’t like it. Sometimes that leads to the seller negotiating against him or herself, which is the best case scenario.
    Susan Sharp recently posted..Dealing with Food Allergies in Thailand

    1. Susan, definitely understand about not being good talking about money. When I first moved to Germany and got work, people were always asking me how much I was getting paid, per hour, per month, etc. and I was like hey I don’t talk about that kind of thing. Now I will, of course, but only in the right context (not in America!). It is a delicate balance of how long you engage them in the bargaining, that’s why the key is to know you really want the item before you start trying to get their price down. The initial question is okay, but once you engage them, then it’s hard to walk away. Well, for me. Dani is a hard-nosed bargainer and isn’t afraid to walk! 🙂

    1. Hi Arti, so glad to see you agree! We bargained our booties off in India. The best was watching Dani and our friend Jaime together – the theatre, the surprised looks at the ‘high’ prices, walking away, being beckoned back – and if we didn’t buy one day, the vendors would remember and talk to us all week until we left, lowering the price, etc.

  5. Hi Jess,
    Excellent article, and I like your academic analysis of collectivist v/s individualist cultures. Coming from a bargaining and negotiation culture, I was amazed by the efficiency of the western world and it took me a while to get used to it. The first time I went to a farmer’s market in Toronto, I actually tried to renegotiate the price with a vendor, much to their puzzled reaction.
    cheers, Priyank
    Priyank recently posted..The curious case of collapsing volcanic craters

    1. Hi Priyank – I can imagine the vendor in Toronto must have been puzzled! I didn’t think to use the word efficient, but you’re right, we in the west are focused on efficiency and bargaining would feel like a waste of time or some sort of trickery. Thanks for commenting! Love the perspective of the ‘other side’ 🙂

  6. I think it’s sometimes a mixture of laziness, guilt and generosity. It takes effort to find out what price you should be paying so that’s the first hurdle to overcome. Then, when you realise you’re haggling over a £1, which is little to you but lots to the other, guilt, or perhaps generosity, sets in. I try to find a balance. I hate being taken advantage of simply because I’m a tourist. I don’t think that’s ever a good relationship to encourage. It creates a false economy. But equally, I defiitely wouldn’t want to get an amazing bargain because someone was desperate to feed their family. I guess research is key. Find the going rate and try to stick to that.
    Victoria recently posted..Play Travel Photo Roulette Round #47: Excellent Splendour of the Universe!

    1. Hey Victoria, you’re right. In the end you have to make the effort to know a rough price and then just go for it. But it’s actually really fun once you get good at it, and in the end, both sides usually end with a smile 🙂 Except for those rare cases, the vendor isn’t going to let you rip them off, you know? They’re businesspeople just like anyone else!

  7. Great post. I actually enjoy bargaining sometimes, but am very turned off when I feel like the seller is starting at a ridiculous price designed to deceive the buyer. In Istanbul, we met many honest ceramic sellers who had reasonable starting prices, and were willing to negotiate a 5 or 10% discount, and a little more if we puchased a few items together. All fine and good.

    But I hated when shopkeepers labelled items with prices that were easily double the market rate, and even worse was when they simply quoted us an unwritten starting price that was outrageously high. We were trying to buy a camera memory card, and in shopping around it was very off putting that what some offered for 30 lira was offered as 120 lira to two clueless Americans who happened to stop by.

    And I agree about guilt. In Mexico my wife and I paid about $10 for a set of dominos that wasn’t worth very much because we felt so badly for the little girls selling them.

  8. There’s been many a time I have frustrated my friends and fellow travellers because of my bargaining. All of them born and bred in “the west”, they just didn’t get it that I loved to bargain just for the heck of it.. and being born and bred in sunny India myself, I didn’t get that they got miffed at me haggling for every safety pin along the way. For me it’s more than just having the feeling of getting a “good deal” in the end and not “having been ripped off”. It’s more about a laugh, getting chatting with the local seller, branch off into sub-topics with the shopkeeper and all that.
    OutsideTheGuidebook recently posted..Two things you MUST keep in mind at the Tuesday Fethiye Market

    1. Thanks for this perspective – that’s exactly my theory, too. Westerners don’t like it as a social lubricant but for other people, like you from India, this is a way to get chatting and really experience a place! Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  9. I think Westerner’s reluctance to bargain comes from two things:

    1) The guilt aspect – in many cases the amount you are haggling over is significant to the person you are bargaining with, but for most Westerners means nothing. I get that in Cambodia $10 is a lot of money, but for most tourists, $10 is lunch back home and nothing. And of course, $10 tends to be the high end of the spectrum, as people wind up haggling over $2-$3, which seems even more insignificant in the long run… Obviously for long-term travelers, the money adds up, but for most people on a 1 or 2 week vacation, getting fleeced for $3 here and there isn’t a big deal. In some ways, it’s weird for me to think that people would be willing to pay $1 for a local craft, but $3 is too much!

    2) In most Western places, bargaining is rarely successful, so I think many people may approach it thinking that they are unlikely to get anywhere doing it. My father loves to bargain, and I am willing to ask for deals, but a lot of time, vendors will simply say the price is the price and that is that. I think for a lot of people, we are simply not used to the concept that prices can be flexible and we are primed to expect that asking for a different price will result in failure (and will maybe be embarrassed for having asked at all!).

    I haven’t traveled to places where bargaining is the norm just yet (I sure wish I could ask for places in Japan to lower their prices!), so these are just wild speculation. We’ll see how I feel once I’m in the thick of things!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..A Sunday Spent At Yoyogi-Koen

    1. Steph, I definitely think you’re right on the money with this on both your points. We don’t like the idea of prices being flexible, for sure, and also since it’s not normally successful, we figure why do it. The worst is when you haggle over prices that are so insignificant for us but mean quite a big price difference to them. Can’t wait to hear what you say once you’re in the thick of things! 🙂

  10. I spent some time living with English-speaking expatriate retirees in Ecuador, and we spoke a lot about the effects of foreigners on the local culture. Most people felt that bargaining was necessary, not just to engage with the culture, but to keep from causing inflation and driving locals out of their own market. That being said, many of the expats still struggled with feelings of guilt because an extra dollar meant so little to them and so much to some Ecuadorians.
    Emma recently posted..Tea Tuesday: Teaism

    1. Hi Emma, that is interesting from an expat’s perspective. It’s true though, that you have to keep the prices set at what locals can afford, and if we drive prices up by being to weak to bargain, we’re messing it up for everyone. Great point.

  11. The first time I really encountered bartering was the markets in Istanbul. I felt so uncomfortable, but I think it was more the chaos around me and the fact that I know absolutely none of the language.

    I learned to bargain during my Latin America travels. I was uncomfortable at first, but once I got more confident with my Spanish, it was easier.

    I’m happy to pay a fair price for something, and I don’t want the vendor to just break even. But I really don’t like getting ripped off simply because I’m a tourist, even if it seems like a small amount of money back home. I don’t consider buying goods to be a charitable act.

    1. That’s exactly what I mean Stephanie – a good vendor is a businessperson first. This is not an act of ‘charity’, we are exchanging money in exchange for goods. Just a fair price, round the same price as locals pay 🙂

  12. When I first started traveling, I bargained with everyone, but these days I only bother if I like the vendor. If I sense any attitude or get any other feeling from them that I don’t like, I simply leave.
    I’ve found that policy has done wonders for my sanity. Of course I’ve also ended up not buying many things I had originally set out to buy, but in the end, it turned out I apparently didn’t really need any of them.
    Daniel McBane – Funny Travel Stories recently posted..First Hasselhoff, Now Money Boy: Thanks a Lot German Speakers

    1. Totally, Daniel. We don’t get into it with everyone either. Go with your gut and walk away before you waste time with someone you don’t want to do business with anyway. Going to check out who Money Boy is now…

  13. I know bargaining or price haggling makes a lot of people uncomfortable, but not me! I consider it a personal challenge to not pay the full price or asking price. My mom taught me early on to haggle for things. In some countries, haggling or bargaining is welcomed and encouraged. Locals want to give you the best deals. Know that they are still turning a profit, becuase if they weren’t they would be out of business.

    Sally

    1. That’s what we always say,Sally! They are not going to lose on a deal. They are going to profit, the question is will it be a fair profit or an astronomical one because they are ripping off a tourist…thanks for spending time on our site!

  14. Need I say anything? Y’all traveled with me and y’all know I LOVE bargaining. I know when & when not to do it. I feel so comfortable doing it, because I know that the more money I can save the longer I can travel. Plus I know for a fact that at the end of the day the merchant is selling me the product I want at the price I wanna pay they MUST still be making profit, because NO ONE will sell you something w/o making profit. So I never feel guilty for trying to go low. Plus it’s fun… I love the rush, the arguing, the walking away. Great post as normal.
    Jaime recently posted..I’m taking a break from blogging.

    1. Thanks, Jaime! Having traveled with you we know that you are a great bargainer and you’re really good at it too! I love the stern face you put on until they offer you the price you’re willing to pay 🙂 You’ll enjoy the bargaining in the markets of SEA for sure!

  15. Good Conversations, I love the perspective of both East and West. I think it is not so much about getting a Deal, but engaging one on one. Ideally, It is a process of mutual respect. It is a slower way of living than we are normally accustomed to.

  16. No guilt here–I’m an introvert and sometimes just don’t want to talk to people.

    Even in the U.S., I actively avoid doing business with companies that make me deal with things on the phone. If they don’t let me solve all of my problems via their website or email, I find another company that will.

    I got tired of everything being a fight after a month in Southeast Asia a couple of years ago, and I’m now done with it after just a week in India. Especially after a long, grueling day of sightseeing and walking, I just want to hop in a taxi and have it take me back to my guesthouse for a fair price (i.e., using the meter). I don’t want to come up with the time, energy, or patience to talk to 10 different taxi drivers before finding one who will take us using the meter (or refusing our fare entirely because it’s only a couple of kilometers).

    I can understand why bargaining happens on a rational level and do appreciate that it can be possible to get really good prices for things (and that some people find it a thrill and really enjoy it), but when I’m thrown into a bargaining situation, it just leaves me feeling exhausted and frustrated.

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