A few weeks into my career in India, my coworker Dipankar and I decided that we needed some beanbag chairs to turn our shared cubicle into the “cool” corner of the office. This was back when MG Road was still apocalyptic, and the only sign of life along the road was those abandoned storefronts where a few beanbag vendors had set up shop.
So Dipankar and I skipped out on work and headed up MG Road, shockingly free of traffic at this time of day. Approaching a vendor sitting by a stack of dust-covered beanbags, Dipankar explained our intention to buy. We followed the vendor through an alley and into the bowels of the abandoned building, where empty beanbag skins were piled in clear plastic bags in areas cleared of debris from the attempted “sealing” of the building. A stairwell rose to the sunlight where a second floor used to be.
Dipankar and the vendor got down to business. The bargaining took place in Hindi I couldn’t understand, a rapid back-and-forth that seemed to be going nowhere until Dipankar said something that made the vendor laugh. Suddenly the vendor clapped Dipankar on the back and agreed to a price. I gaped at the suddenness of the completion to the negotiations. The vendor waved someone over to clean the beanbags of the road dust that permeated even this far indoors, and then we were on our way.
“What did you say to him? What did you say to him?” I asked eagerly, bounding along in Dipankar’s triumphant wake. Dipankar told me his magic words: once they’d reached impasse, with Dipankar pushing for less and the vendor refusing, Dipankar suggested they meet in the middle. He named a price and then made it seem fair by saying, “It’s not your price, it’s not my price.” It was a friendly tactic that made it sound like both parties were making a concession — as if both had an equal stake in the outcome. At the same time, it was so absurd that the vendor couldn’t help but laugh, and then agree.
Jenny and I added it to our repertoire of bargaining techniques. It worked really well on auto drivers.
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When Jenny and I moved out of Brooklyn, we posted our stuff on Craigslist and sold as much as we could. There was very little bargaining involved, because most Americans see a number attached to an item and accept it as take-it-or-leave-it. Our dresser, our Ikea rug, our second-hand couch — we advertised a price, and if it didn’t sell, we advertised a lower price.
Obviously it didn’t work like that in Delhi. Anyone who showed up at our flat to look at our stuff would immediately offer half of whatever price we’d written down. “1200 rupees for that electric heater?” They’d say. “It’s too small to heat my flat, it’s not a name brand, and winter is over anyway. I’ll give you 600.”
With bargaining thus initiated, it was then up to me to make some concession to their offers. They expected me to drop my price by 200 rupees or so, after which they’d probably move up 200, until we met at 900. But I didn’t want to play their game — so instead, I tried to short-circuit it.
“I’m an American,” I’d say back. “Americans don’t know how to bargain. We both know that you’re better at bargaining than me. So can you just give me 1200 rupees so I don’t get confused?”
Believe it or not, once or twice, that actually worked.