Initially, during my first trip to Asia, I found haggling to be one of the most awkward and draining experiences known to mankind. Asian street bartering seemed infinitely more awkward than negotiating my first squat toilet (footage of that would have made for a ‘YouTube’ sensation) and more draining than a particularly memorable bus trip in Laos - 10 hours along a snaking mountain pass with nothing more to perch on than a broken patio chair in what appeared to be an extremely well lubricated aisle. At least I had a seat, I suppose.
So, why did haggling initially seem like the mother of all evils? Well, I just didn’t know the rules. Haggling is a practice that, as westerners, we are simply unaccustomed to. It’s the embarrassing auntie of western culture. Only on special occasions is she shamefully wheeled out, and even then just because there is no alternative. In our culture she rarely makes an appearance, generally only used in anger on car forecourts and flea markets.
But when abroad, especially in Asia, we must learn the rules and learn them quickly – for haggling is as much a part of daily life there as the inner-city motorbike mayhem, the truly free range chickens, and the pungent whiff of the mighty Durian.
Haggling didn’t come easy for a long time. I was a slow learner and, initially, I got it all wrong. More often than not I would part company with a vendor having not made the deal. I would leave feeling as if they were trying to exploit me as a ‘stupid tourist’, and, after each failed transaction, with a feeling of growing antipathy toward a nation that I felt just wasn’t playing by the rules.
With time, and with each mistake, I began to realise that these people were playing by the rules, but they just happened to be different to those underpinning my previous set of values. I knew I had to change both my outlook on and my approach to this somewhat alien form of negotiation if I were to become a successful haggler.
So what defines successful haggling? By successful haggling I don’t mean grinding a vendor down to the lowest price possible and leaving them with a miniscule profit. We are, after all, comparatively rich – rich enough to spend a small fortune on flights and subsequently sustain ourselves in a foreign land without having to work a minimum of 10 hour days simply to support ourselves and our dependants – it’s a fact worth remembering before blindly pursuing that illusive ‘best price’. To me, a successful haggle is an enjoyable transaction for all involved, one that leaves the buyer with a memorable keepsake for years to come, and the seller with a dollar or 2 in their sky rocket.
Getting to that stage, however, didn’t happen overnight. I blundered clumsily through many an exchange before I finally managed to crack this particular nut and carry off a decent haggle.
My first step in tackling this bartering brick wall was to analyse what went wrong each time, and why it did so. I began paying attention to the smallest of details during each exchange and became obsessed with the mechanics behind this seemingly complex phenomenon. Conscious study of my own actions and reactions during barter became the norm, and, from the comfort and relative anonymity of numerous market side cafes, I watched with intent the locals as they engaged in this merry dance. I became a people watcher and, from the rim of a coffee cup, I swiftly realised that my western social skills would require a much needed Asian makeover if I were to become proficient in these primordial customs. In the knowledge that only after such a radical re-evaluation would a pleasurable, and ultimately successful, transaction finally occur, it was time to start being a savvy tourist and ditch the anachronistic social rulebook.
Only by dissecting my own disastrous barter technique, discarding most of what I thought previously correct, and learning from the masters could I start to shape the new, effective haggler. Initially it was pretty much ‘local see, monkey do’ – but, despite still feeling external to this whole peculiar affair, I immediately started to see a difference in the way the exchanges went. As confidence grew, I began to edge into a newly established comfort zone. The more confident I felt, the more relaxed I became. With a more relaxed approach I naturally felt more positive and upbeat, and this must have been evident – and it was this positive, infinitely more laid back approach to the whole barter process that made all the difference.
I now had a foundation to build upon. Although I now find haggling a comfortable – and generally enjoyable- experience, I am still learning, still polishing those skills. Through trial and error, albeit now on a much smaller scale, I’m still discovering what works for me and what doesn’t. Just like so many other aspects of traveling, it’s a constant learning experience - and one that should not be avoided, but approached mindfully and respectfully.