A former expat wife confesses: I’m a bad haggler

A former expat wife confesses: I'm a bad haggler

Younger Daughter, getting ready for a haggle session.

Most expats, from what I’ve seen, think of haggling as a game. As long as the players abide by the rules and try not to let the negotiations descend into abject ugliness, it can be a lot of fun.

Or so I’ve heard. For me, haggling is torture.

I know that effective haggling — the kind that ends with both sides claiming victory — is an art. Here’s the thing, though: while I admire haggle artists and am properly appreciative of what they do, I’m definitely not one of them. Frankly, I just don’t have the right stuff. (Nerves of steel? Overcooked pasta, more like. Shopkeepers all across Asia would rub their hands together in glee when they saw me coming.)

My husband, however, is a Master of the Haggle. Watching him barter in a dusty marketplace was like watching Nureyev at his peak. The intricate dance of commerce between buyer and seller was spellbinding, made even more so by the contrast between Chef Boyardee’s inner determination and his outward show of jocularity.

When she was little, Elder Daughter used to do a hilarious impression of Chef Boyardee haggling. She would glance at an item with a bored expression, finger it idly for a moment, then throw out an indifferent “how much?” When she heard the price, she would laugh and say, conspiratorially, “Tourist price! Come on, seriously, how much?” Then, playing both parts, she would quote a high price and a low price, ping-ponging between the two until she arrived at a number somewhere in the middle.

Sometimes, for variety, she would regretfully sigh “Too much!” and walk away, but she always allowed herself to be called back to complete the deal. She even managed to perfectly nail her father’s discreet look of triumph. I was so impressed, I seriously considered sending her out to do all our shopping.

Her impression of Mommy haggling wasn’t so kind:

Me: How much?

Vendor: 750 baht.

Me: Are you sure that’s enough? Here, take another 100 baht. Ah, what the hell — make it 200.

What can I say? I know the rules; I just don’t have it in me to quibble over a couple of bucks. When it comes to haggling, I guess I’d rather be a spectator than a player.

What about you? Haggler? Sucker? Leave your comments below. 

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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23 Responses to A former expat wife confesses: I’m a bad haggler

  1. Anne says:

    Hi Maria,
    I laughed out loud when I read this! It’s so me. With me the exchange would be:
    Me: How much?
    Vendor: 200 dirhams (the currency in Dubai)
    Me: That’s a great deal! (while I reach into my wallet to take out the dough)
    Vendor rolls his eyes…
    When I was doing an immersion program in Guatemala my friends used to make me wait at least four stalls down while they haggled. I always felt guilty as I watched them negotiate with a young mother who had spent months weaving the cloth to make the dress, with a baby strapped to her back papoose-style. I put a much higher value on her time and toil than the $3 they wound up paying. It never sat very well with me. Usually the “tourist price” is still a good deal as far as I’m concerned but I guess, like you, I just haven’t been bitten by the haggle bug.
    Anne

    • Maria says:

      I always apply the latte conversion. I think nothing of spending 4 bucks on a latte (when I’m catching up with my best friend, I have two!) so it pains me a little to quibble over that amount when it means so much more to the other person than it does to me. The haggle bug has passed me by, too!

  2. David Lloyd says:

    I am not a great haggler either, but when a friend of mine came from Canada to visit, I took him to the Old City of Jerusalem. There he saw a beautiful, hand-carved chess set and we began the haggling process. However, half way through he began to have doubts, wondering how he could take it back with him in his luggage, etc. The vendor mistook his doubts for an expert haggling technique and the price kept coming down. In the end my friend said he couldn’t buy it, and this really insulted the Arab vendor. “What! Do you think this is a game!” he exclaimed. I pulled my friend quickly out of there and didn’t show my face in the Old City for years.

    • Maria says:

      It’s a common problem, isn’t it? People who are new to haggling don’t always find out the proper etiquette ahead of time. Some of those vendors work awfully hard to make a sale — I’m not surprised that one was outraged at the time he wasted. (Unless, of course, his outrage is a Jedi mind trick designed to fluster his opponent. In that case, kudos to him on his advanced technique. :))

  3. heide says:

    That’s how I ended up with two carved elephants on my mantle. I went to the market on a quiet Tuesday with a friend. I had no intention of buying anything but my friend wanted company while she bought gifts to take back home. I admired a couple elephants in a stall but really didn’t need them. I asked the price and was given a crazy tourist price ($50 each) so I kept walking. The stall kid followed me all over the market, dropping the price. I liked the elephants but really had no intention of buying them. Finally the kid tells me he’ll give me both for $25. So now they’re on my mantle. I couldn’t pass them up at that price.

    I can haggle just fine if I don’t get emotionally involved with the item. If I really really want it, I’ll pay a higher price because I’m afraid of losing. I remember a woman in a heavily touristed market in Bangkok who just seemed so happy that I would actually play the game with her. She seemed disappointed when people would just pay the quoted price. On the other hand, there are some places where haggling is just not done. In Papua New Guinea, the price is the price and it’s insulting to bargain. I was always kind of horrified at some of the Asian people who would push and push on the price. The cultural norms make all the difference in bargaining techniques.

    • Maria says:

      For 25 bucks you got two carved elements and a great story — what a bargain!

      Haggling is a skill; it can be honed with practice. But I hate shopping at the best of times, and like you, if I really want something, I’m happy just to pay the price and move on.

  4. gwen says:

    Haggling for me is only fun when I have a friend along. Then we can double team the vendor and giggle amongst ourselves. One time in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a friend and I were bargaining for a blanket. We left went to three other stalls and eventually came back to the first one. We left the market with a big warm blanket for under $5 US and a marriage proposal. He said we were good for business 🙂

  5. expatriababy says:

    In your post you mention abiding by the rules of the haggling game. I’ve always found it difficult to determine exactly WHAT these rules are in any given country. It can be exhausting trying to figure them out.
    While I agree with your latte conversion rule – it’s one that I’ll apply in the future, I’m sure – I also find it difficult to have to haggle to simply get a fair price for something that should be standard. Rickshaw or taxi rides, for example. When I lived in India I used to have to go down a long line of taxis or rickshaws before I would find one who wouldn’t charge me double or triple the going rate. Exhausting.
    I’m enjoying living in Japan now where at least I don’t have to haggle for anything, and when I miss-hear a price and hand over too much money, the vendor will never even dream of keeping the change.

  6. Crystal says:

    My mother-in-law taught me to haggle in India. I do okay, but if I *really* want to nail the deal, I need her to come in for me…she’s much more of steamroller. Still, I like it and consider it fairly fun.

  7. Lol, you’d better get your daughter a haggling gig before someone mentions Child Labor laws… Her impersonation sounds priceless!

    • Maria says:

      The only time she ever entered into the negotiations was in Istanbul. She was watching the haggling intently, and suddenly burst in with what we thought was a ridiculously low figure. The vendor was so delighted, he accepted on the spot. Later, we realized we’d been completely hosed… but the experience was worth its weight in gold.

  8. That’s why I leave the haggling to my parents. I’d rather just buy on a fixed price.

  9. Kym Hamer says:

    Oh I do hate haggling…just tell me the price and we’ll cut out all the boring, time-wasting stuff in the middle.

    But knowing life, what’s the bet that I end up living in India/SE Asia at some point? A wise man once said to me that Life will keep giving you A Lesson over and over and over again until you get the point..

    Sigh!

  10. Janet Daghri says:

    I laughed when I read this. I’m such a wimp when it comes to haggling. My husband (who’s Moroccan) hates it but is actually fairly good at it. I’ve actually seen a car salesmen in the U.S. sweat heavily when dealing with him. He learned from his mom who’s the queen of haggling. She haggles over everything — from eggs and spices to furniture!

    I’m blond so I stand out in Morocco when we go to the Medina. I actually could hear stall owners call out “Amerikan” to each other as I was walking along. My husband tags along behind and notices when I find something that I like. Then he send his mother in to haggle for us and I walk on. It’s amazing how the prices drop for her when it wouldn’t budge for me.

    So far our expat excursions haven’t included places where I would need to haggle. I’m thankful for that.

    Thanks for the laugh! The tale of your daughter’s dramatization is priceless!

    • Maria says:

      You’re lucky to have a secret weapon! My husband works in procurement, so he pretty much haggles for a living. I send him in to do the heavy work. It’s amazing what you can get — even here, far from the dusty marketplaces — when you simply ask “what can you do on the price?”

  11. bookjunkie says:

    I am pretty lousy at haggling too….especially if the seller is someone who is depending on the sale for their daily meals (e.g. in a village shop in a remote part of Indonesia or India). Always feel guilty about it if in the exchange rate it means only a difference of a few dollars or cents. But if I know that the price quoted is 10 or 20 times what they hope to sell it for than I feel less guilt. In the cases where the seller expects us to bargain.

    I would say my cousin is the best haggler.

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