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The Cultural Differences in Haggling

Travel & Leisure

The art of haggling is something that dates back thousands of years; in many cultures it is still what the shopping experiences revolve around. From items of food to clothes, in many countries across the world prices can be dropped depending on the haggling ability of the customer. However, the rules and details of engagement can be different as a result of environment and history. Though it’s rarely good business sense to habitually generalize, here are some of the more pronounced cultural differences in haggling around the globe to be aware of:

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Wherever you are, always think about the average price

One of the main differences in haggling, according to where you are, is price. In every country the value of certain items will have a different price than other, so always ask around a few different vendors to get an idea of a medium. Once you have this medium price, think of how much you would like to cut it down by. For example, in Vietnam you can get around fifty percent off the price tag – where in Thailand and Indonesia you can cut off only up to thirty percent usually.

One main thing to remember is that most items are fair gain to haggle upon, except food (which is considered rude). However, Vietnam is one of the only countries where haggling for food is considered fair game, since (negotiable) price hikes for tourists on anything from drinking water to toilet use are commonplace.  In some countries, such as India, merchants will prefer to haggle slowly over a number interactions or days. For many travellers this is too long a timescale; letting the vendor know you will not be returning can work in your favour.

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In other cultures, one is not expected to haggle the price of an item down (which may result in the vendor losing face), but to allow the merchant to broaden the basket of items on offer for the same price by including freebies. This can of course be frustrating to many travellers who are only interested in purchasing a single item.

The use of Smiling in Different Cultures

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It may seem like an obvious one, but smiling (or not) can be the maker or breaker of many good deals:

  • Southeast Asia – Losing face is embarrassing for both parties in haggling. Always smile when asking for the extra low price and the vendors recognise that you are at ease and just want to do business.
  • Egypt and Tunisia – The vendors tend to be a bit more aggressive here and straight to the point – so showing no smile (alike a poker face) reveals that you mean business, and won’t be taken for a fool. This can save you a lot of time.
  • Vietnam – Start in a smile, but usually the haggling will resort to shouting. Always feed off your haggler’s energy, so if they start shouting; give them a taste of their own medicine. It’s all part of the process.

Learning to say “it is very expensive” and “it is still very expensive” in the local tongue with a playful grin will pay off very quickly.

Playful Haggling in Marrakesh

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When haggling in Marrakech, you must always keep your sense of humour about you; it is vital to the whole experience. The vendors of Marrakesh love Westerners and will make colourful references to your culture depending on what you look like; but don’t take offence as it is just playful. Brush up on your French, and have a few Arabic words handy.

As you can see, the art of successful haggling is dependent on culture and location. From the smallest detail such as the way you smile or how much you ask for, you must remain conscious how the cultural environment you are in and respond accordingly to receive the best bargain. Happy Haggling!

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