On Flirting for Necklaces in Nepal and Sri Lanka


The only reason anyone can go shopping is because everyone has something they don’t want.

In Nepal and Sri Lanka, the tourist has money and the shopkeeper has a wooden mask, Buddha carving, or trinket. Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter that this guy is making this stuff for the intent of selling it. Fact of the matter is, the trinket carver is looking around saying “What am I gonna do with all this stuff?” and decides he’ll sell it to someone else for a token that can be given to someone else to get the pile of extra stuff that they have.

Money is, of course, a symbolic reference to undefined objects. If I have extra money and I give it to you, I’m saying, “Here, have a whatever-I-don’t-actually-care.”

In America, when you go to Wal-Mart for a $200 desk chair, the price is fixed by a collaboration of market forces, based on what other people are willing to pay. The marketplace says, “This is the price that others are willing to pay. Do you agree with them?” If you don’t value the item at the same price other people are willing to pay, you don’t pay that price, and you don’t get the item. I always thought that this was a universal – that this is the way money works. But it isn’t.

How the West Shops
Western economies are huge, and based on massive trades. Western countries have also built in punishments for scams and imbalances. Consider the classic gambling experiment: You and a random partner are given a large sum of money. One of you gets to divide the sum. The other must say yes or no. If you don’t come to an agreement, no one gets the money.

The solution is vaguely straightforward: Split the money, go separate ways. This cuts out the tension of haggling and alienating a friend over free money. But the partner who determines the percentages has an advantage: If they offer the other person $40 out of $100, would they say no to a free $40? It becomes a game of financial chicken, and the other party must determine how little they can pay the other. Will they walk away with $10? $5? $1?

When researchers played this game with real money around the world, Americans turned out to be rather vindictive, with the West in general eventually determining just how much money they’re willing to lose to punish a greedy partner. Our culture has instilled a subconscious sense of determining market value; that is, it has defined fairness in a very specific way, and has created a counterweight – vindictive and occasionally self-destructive punishments – for the people who screw us over. This is a correcting influence to greed; and for a long time researchers thought this was an evolutionary adaptation universal to the entire human species.

It isn’t. Perform the same game in other places, and many countries or tribes will simply take whatever they are given: “Hey, cool, a free dollar!” It’s the same whether the other guy got $99 or split $2 down the middle.

America’s innate sense of fairness should make Americans very good at haggling, but I personally hate it, finding it a violation of the egalitarian impulse of fairness. We are very resistant to situations in which we become the sucker. The price is the price – as much a part of the thing as its name. Alex Gillespie has written a fascinating paper about haggling in Northern India. He writes;

“The most common response to the question, ‘How much is this?’ is ‘How much do you want to pay?’ Thus tourists are denied what they consistently want to know, namely, the attitude of the shopkeeper toward the desired item.”

This is inherently frustrating, because it conceals information that we need to determine whether we are suckers. We’re used to knowing that a fixed price has been determined by a crowd, which reassures us that even if we’re being scammed, we aren’t the only ones. (And notably, if you scam enough people, the price begins to morph, forming a kind of bubble in the market, as more people start accepting higher prices for worthless goods).

Shopkeepers in tourist traps like Thamel in Kathmandu, Nepal, gamble every day in this kind of game, where bartering prices is a given. In Nepal, guys with wooden flutes, violins, jewelry and other trinkets were approaching me with a smile; in Sri Lanka, these same guys were just asking for money for any service they could provide, and getting angry when I refused them.

Tourists in the developing world give off certain kinds of indicators: A deep tan, for example, may express a certain degree of jadedness and familiarity with easy bartering tactics. Small talk like “Where from?” can help establish how much money they have. As my tan got deeper, I was approached less for trinkets. In Nepal, the first question after “Where from?” was “How long you been in Nepal?” When I started saying “a month,” a lot of guys walked away immediately.

As I hung around the more aggressive Sri Lankan street vendors, though, I noticed – as my tan got darker – that salespeople would start tossing out the phrase “local price,” some even arguing that they were the market where locals bought curry (despite that the curry powder was sold in containers with English labels, and that not a single Sri Lankan was seen at the shop on a bustling shopping day). There’s no brands on Sri Lankan farmer’s market curry, of course, but one suspects that packages pre-packed for easy airline travel is not a prerequisite for the locals.

So a Western tourist in a bargaining market is steeped in distrust: That the shopkeeper is hiding the true value of the thing, that we don’t know what price they actually expect for it. We don’t know what other people paid for it in the past. We don’t have access to Consumer Reports magazines ranking the most authentic wooden Buddha carvings in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka. The market information we expect to inform our purchases is missing completely, and when that happens, we have no idea how to buy something.

Most interestingly, for me, is that I was so hesitant to get ripped off, even for paltry amounts that translated into the equivalent of 20 cents. I like to think this is a universal thing, but it might just be me: I’d rather give a guy 20 cents than be suckered out of 20 cents. It seems like pure ego, and maybe it is. Think back, though, to the money-dividing game. An American is more likely to seek out and punish a swindler than other cultures, who increasingly move along toward the scale of being happy with whatever they get.

This raises a question about the nature of shopping in general: What are we even buying?

Souvenirs were a weird thing for me, until I realized that it’s what people do when they don’t take photographs. A souvenir is a momento, and it’s generally intended to provide not just a cheap silk scarf but the story of how that scarf came into our possession, ie, “Oh this? I got it on my trip to Sri Lanka!” But in our evaluation of goods in the West we’re predisposed not toward the price that we, personally, would pay for a pair of jeans, but the yes or no question of whether we’re willing and able to pay the price determined by everybody else.

This explains our entrenched consumerist habits, such as flocking to brand names and relying on the more expensive item to reliably be the superior one. Shopping – even in Japan, for example – is not a matter of determining the value of the item, but to agreeing to the value that someone else has set. It is a socially constructed reality – all money is symbolic – but it is a stable one; and when we use the language of money in ways that other people use the language of money, we are contributing to a harmonious and fair “conversation” between the people who have a bunch of extra stuff and the people who have a bunch of extra money.

You might say that America is prone to chasing brands and new products as a result of the information they provide about the factors we value. But it is also adverse to these things for the same reason. A 16-year-old girl wants to pay $300 for a pair of jeans because it shows that she understands the value of brands as determined by the social marketplace. An 18-year-old punk kid will buy a package of white T-shirts for $3 to show that he is a savvy negotiator of the market, and refuses to accept the value of the $300 jeans. In both scenarios, we say either yes or no to the choice we are presented with by the common agreement of the market. We pick the thing that makes us look good. We just define looking good differently.

Local Price
Shopping for a scarf in Sri Lanka is a different matter. Taking this harmonious conversation to a place where we are supposed to actually evaluate an honest response to “how much are you willing to pay?” feels like bald extortion. I come to the market with the idea that the market has power and will seek to meet me half way between my desire for free things and the market’s desire for all of my money. But the power balance of the market and tourist in Nepal and Sri Lanka – the Buddhist suburb nations of India – is the opposite.

Instead of reflecting the value of the item I wanted to buy, I would start negotiating with the price that I felt was “honest” and the price I felt was inflated because I was American. An honest price paid for a souvenir means that the souvenir becomes a part of a pleasant and harmonious exchange. Pay too much and the souvenir becomes a reminder of being a helpless, manipulated tourist.

In the absence of market data, what do Westerners use to determine value? Gillespie made a study of psychological behaviors used by Westerners to feel better about the souvenirs they buy in emerging economies. Not surprisingly, most of them involved a reliance on determining “authenticity.”

Stuff White People in Nepal Like: Crafts from local markets that we don’t see in 10 or 15 other tourist shops; stuff being sold by people who wear traditional clothes (rather than, say, suits or blue jeans); stuff that looks like it was made by an old woman. We like walking into shops rather than being invited, which is why some shops in Kathmandu advertise that they don’t have pushy salespeople, despite pushy salespeople being the cultural norm.

Which I knew when I went into a Tibetan refugee village and bought a necklace from an old Tibetan woman in traditional Tibetan garb, selling a necklace I had seen some cheeky dude selling in the tourist part of Kathmandu. The dude was selling it for one rupee on the street, but this lady was selling it for 90 rupees. I suggested 75. She said 80. I shrugged. I really didn’t care about the price of the item, I just wanted something from the Tibetan refugee village.

What this says to me is that the value of anything we buy in these places is still, stubbornly, caught up in measuring something far outside of the actual value of the wooden Buddha carving. When we don’t know something’s value, we just price it based on the experience of buying the object.

The Bus 
When you get on a bus in Nepal, a bunch of people come up to the windows selling water, snacks, figs or even T-shirts and toys. This happens on tourist buses and local buses alike. I thought back to Sri Lanka – a friend of mine had said that the men approaching me were like men approaching women for dates. They’d chat with me and then reveal what they were selling.

But in Sri Lanka, the conversation always ended with the street vendor version of “whatever, you’re fat anyway.” They’d get aggressive, insist that I had lots of money and guilt me into spending it on them, implying or directly accusing me of being greedy. Nepalese street vendors are more like the cool chill dude asking a girl on a date who doesn’t mind when she says no because hey, she’s still cool anyway. They shrug, make some more small talk, then get on with their day.

When I watched the Nepalese woman negotiating over a box of figs, it was flirty. The woman would take the figs and the guy say how good they were. She’d look at them like “These aren’t all that.” He’d say they were. She’d shrug a little and look at them again. She really wants figs, she’d say. But look, there’s only six figs in this bag. She’d divide the price. “That’s a lot of money per fig.” The fig man would hone down a bit, like, OK, maybe you won’t come home with me tonight, but how about a cup of coffee?

It was all light, in good fun; nobody got insulted. I thought about how I’m supposed to haggle even when everyone knows that I can afford whatever price we agreed to. I wondered about the flirting metaphor – if, indeed, coming into a village and not even bothering to haggle came off as knowing I was out of their league. Haggling in Nepal felt like a distinct form of social interaction, a personal connection outside of all the abstractions of the Western economy. You want something, you gotta speak the language a little, you have to have a human exchange. The human scale makes things flexible, and it means merchant and seller respect each other enough to come to a compromise.

After that, I stopped being so on edge about haggling for things. I got it. You kid around, you flirt a little, you communicate in the language of people, not just the language of money.

This Japanese Life will stop being This Nepalese Life next week, but I have no idea what country I’ll be in. Like me on Facebook to find out.


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1 Response to On Flirting for Necklaces in Nepal and Sri Lanka

  1. teh says:

    I remember a very unpleasant moment in the Silk Market in Beijing, where while shopping for souvenirs among other widely counterfeit brand clothes, I ended up paying nearly E20 for a single pair of jeans. Admittedly, I looked really good in them, but the way the woman led the transaction was traumatizing.
    I learned a valuable lesson in business, I guess, but the feeling of having been had left a really bitter taste in my mouth, and made me more apprehensive of my next haggling session.

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