Quite proud of myself, I again showed my newly bought dress to my roommate to give her the chance to congratulate me for a job well done at haggling. I was then a law student and fancied myself to be a killer negotiator. She was unimpressed.
“You were supposed to drive the price down.” She said.
Well I did, I pointed out. I got the vendor to reduce the price by one-fourth her original offer.
“Just look at her. She’s not happy about giving me the better end of the deal,” I said.
“She’s just acting sad,” my roommate retorted. “She’s actually happy about having made a killing from you.”
Rapid fire, she recited the things that I did wrong: I was in a rush, I went straight for the three things that I wanted to buy, I was obvious about wanting to buy them and, worst of all, my first counteroffers were always too high.
“You are the crappiest haggler I’ve ever met. You don’t know how to do it,” she said.
That scorched me. I vowed to prove her wrong. And proved her wrong I did. I learned how to haggle.
I was a new convert on a mission. I practiced the religion of haggling whenever and wherever I could. I bargained, bartered, negotiated, cajoled and dickered to get the prices down. There were even times when I was practically a zealot. It was like I had to save every dollar’s soul from the fires of wastage.
Air fare? I pitted one travel agent against another and got the price I wanted. I did it even in places that were unfamiliar with haggling. Not even Nordstrom was spared. I once went up to the manager and told him that I liked shopping at his store but was thinking of getting a pair of shoes that my feet were in love with at another store which carried the same brand and same style at a lower price. He gave me the shoes at the price I quoted.
The next lesson I learned was how not to haggle and when to not do it at all. It was taught to me by a person who did not speak a single word of my language. I don’t even know her name, but I will always remember her face.
She came up to me while I was looking at silver necklaces at a night market in Chiang Mai. She was thin, she looked tired and she had one silver necklace in her hand. She spoke to me in Thai, not a word of which I understood.
A bystander told me that the woman was saying that she wanted me to buy her necklace. It was old, it belonged to her family but she had to sell it because she needed to buy medicine for her very sick daughter.
The vendors around hissed at her, trying to shoo her away, but she stood her ground, desperation in her eyes. This was at the end of the day, and I felt as tired as she looked. I was a weary tourist in a strange place and not even sure that I wanted to buy anything anymore. Vendors still hostile towards her, bystanders curious, and her pleading – the raw emotions whirling around me – were too unsettling.
Meanwhile, I was wondering if her story was true or if it was her ploy to get me to pay a higher price for her necklace. Was her necklace even real silver? How much did she want for it? What’s a good price for a necklace like that?
I decided to shut down all the questions except for one. I dragged myself into the game and asked her how much she wanted for the necklace. I think she initially asked for $100 and eventually sold it for $50.
It would be convenient to dismiss her story as a ploy to sell me a necklace or to think that maybe her daughter was not that sick. It would be easy to justify that I was just a young backpacker on a tight budget. It might even be comforting to suppose that she did buy the medicine and that her daughter did get well, but what happened to her or her daughter after I paid for the necklace I will never know.
All I know now is that the drive to haggle and a moment of cynicism from years ago have brought me lessons from those tired, desperate eyes.
Isabel de la Torre of Parkland, an environmentalist and trained but non-practicing lawyer and journalist, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email her at email@example.com.