#835 – Peter Barus: Syrian Peace Haggles.

Too infrequently, good friend Peter Barus weighs in on issues from his home in Vermont. Agree or disagree, his postings always make sense. Here’s his latest, about how negotiations work, as he learned it in West Africa, and how it is in many places, but not so much in the U.S. Peter always has interesting perspectives.
The big news the other day was that the “Syrian Peace Talks” were a spectacular failure, because the belligerents were taking intractable, incompatible positions, loudly insulting each other, and giving Ban Ki Moon and our poor John Kerry a hard time too. It may no longer be so these days, but I think there are still traditions in play here that most of us here in America don’t understand.
I though back to my youth in a West African country, where there were no Wal-Marts or Home Depots or Ikeas. We had two ways to get stuff: go to the market, a vast, stinky, sprawling, brawling, noisy, colorful assault on the senses and sensibilities of we newly-arrived expats; a total multi-sensory delight, in other words. Or, the traders would come to the door.
Word got out before we actually arrived at our new home, and a line of bicycles festooned with baskets waited patiently as we unloaded and found our bearings in the pleasant, shaded, stone-walled and asbestos-roofed house. Then some mysterious signal or change in the pheromones in the air occurred, and goods were spread all up and down the gravel driveway and onto the verandah.
There were incredible bargains. Not just bargain prices, but the actual process of bargaining. We had been instructed briefly in this art and science. We had not been prepared for the theatrical lengths to which these savvy gentlemen would go.
The rule was, you, the purchaser, take the price you are willing to pay, and divide by three; the trader, meanwhile, jacks up his price by a factor of at least three; then somebody starts the game by making an offer.
The first offer elicits dismissive laughter, and (did we but know) a long diatribe concerning our ancestry, our education, and the congenital deformity of our foreign brains. Then there is a counter-offer, which we greet more sedately, but with total disdain, both parties now clearly abandoning any possibility of a deal, and going off to other prospects to start other battles. But everyone knows this is just for show.
Returning to the (actually) coveted item, if the trader has not already told you in English about each of his children, all of their diseases, and the sizes of their feet, which fall between available shoe-sizes, making life very expensive, and causing them all to go hungry or barefoot, he soon will. You hem and haw and finger the goods, and make critical remarks about their provenance and quality. You point out the threadbare sleeve, the base of the antique statue where a little chip exposes new wood, the shabby way the bits of glass are set in the tin-can bezels on the dagger’s hilt, the mangy appearance of the camel-skin purse/drum/wallet/hassock. The Kente cloth “Made in China.”
Eventually, at a pace sure to entertain for the entire afternoon, both the trader and the customer get within shouting distance of a price. At that point, another customary feature comes into play: the “dash.” There are other cultures with other words for this little extra something thrown in to sweeten the deal. In New Orleans it is called “Lagniappe,” as in “por lagniappe.” A Baker’s Dozen. A scarf to go with the handbag, some earrings to go with the necklace. An extra dollop of dessert thrown in. When the price is nearly met, this little extra bonus is displayed, and arrayed delicately with the goods in question. It is now time to be tipped reluctantly over the brink, and accept the final offer. Then is a bond of eternal friendship forged, never to be put asunder, until you ask the price of that other thing over there.
Then, everyone walks away happy, having beaten the other down shamelessly, having taken them for a ride, and having made them like it. Often it has been a community effort, with three or four total strangers chiming in, offering opinions, even making side deals. I once bought a lovely Tuareg sword with a broken watch and a few shillings, in the course of which deal the watch was sold twice to other people, including a repair man, and I never found out what the owner of the sword actually got paid, but everyone was ecstatically happy, and I managed to avoid incurring the wrath of the tall blue man.
I have been through this all around this world, in Africa, India, the Middle East, Europe, even England. It is a perfectly civilized and rational way to do business, almost anywhere but the United States of America. Here, prices are marked, and carefully calculated to meet profit margins, not to be altered by mere employees. After living in other lands, it seems rather boring and a bit belittling to all concerned.
Back to the big Syrian Peace Debacle.
It is a miracle that the killers of what, a hundred and thirty thousand people? – have now gotten together to divide up the spoils, which as I read it, is the only way the real victims – women and kids and elders mostly – are ever going to get some relief. But that’s what this game is now, and it is being done in the traditional way. Outrageous claims and laughable offerings are thrown down at the beginning, true. But this only establishes that (a) there is a deal being made, and (b) that both sides are going to move about halfway from their positions to the middle of the now-established continuum of acceptable bargaining room.
Americans are not considered smart enough to handle this, by our own media. Besides, they need to sell us the stories, not just tell them. So now what we have is one show for the East, and one for the West. Also, Americans are so incapable of enjoying the process that our national legislatures are thoroughly useless. We only understand the word, “compromise,” in its negative aspect, as in “a compromising position.” There is no sense of the joy of haggling here. In the East, nobody is happy with a deal unless it is a hard-fought and hard-won haggling session, after which the real party can start.
If the Syrian Peace Talks are not allowed to move through the stages of haggling that the antagonists’ respective cultures and upbringings require, the alternative is truly awful to contemplate. These are, after all, on all sides, the people responsible for the incredible slaughter that is still going on in Syria. Because it is a proxy war to a great extent, the haggling will be allowed, or interfered with, by the real antagonists, for their own purposes, and probably many more people will be murdered or displaced. Hopefully the talks will go out of the spotlight now, and maybe something can end the killing.
Interfering in a haggle, by the way, is very unseemly, and derided with cries of “Not your water!” by onlookers and bystanders, of which there is always a crowd when the haggling gets good. Maybe this is the Big Picture, and our media are just part of the idle crowd of shouters. I hope so.
POSTNOTE from Dick:
Peter’s words are particularly relevant, in my opinion, because we Americans tend to have a rather parochial, and unusual idea of what “haggling” (bargaining) is. In most of the world, our method is pretty unusual, not at all normal, and this has been so for a long long time.
When I was a kid, back in the 1940s, let’s say I came across an extra buffalo nickel, just burning a hole in my pocket. (I was not from the “penny saved is a penny earned” school). I’d go into the local store and see what I could get for my nickel. There was no haggling, there. If it was a nickel, a nickel it was. Cash or no deal.
That is how the “American” system works. I need a pair of socks, and I find it, and the price is marked, and that is what it costs. That’s how we do it.
Of course, there are variations: Pawn Stars, American Pickers and Antiques Road Show, etc give slight made-for-tv adaptation on the norm.
I’ve seen “haggling” on a couple of trips to Haiti, and it is a hard adjustment for an American like me.
But I’ve had the good fortune of sitting in on good tough collective bargaining sessions here in the States as well: scenarios where employers and employees come together to try to strike a bargain on wages, benefits and working conditions.
There is a strong element of “haggling” in good American bargains between Union and Management. One side starts here, the other there. Both know the general destination some months down the road, but the ritual is the same as described by Peter. Sadly, only a few who comprise the Union and Management bargaining teams experience the benefits of the haggle, among which are the elements of listening and assessing and relationship building for the longer term. (The worst example of a bargaining process was the recent attempt of Management to break the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians Union beginning with non-negotiable intractable demands ending with a 488 day lockout. Finally, that too ended with a bargain, which I think was fair…but why 488 days of attempting to break the union? In our own relationships with other countries, that kind of dynamic has played out most dramatically, in my view, in our relationships with Cuba (since 1959) and with Iran (since 1979). Our inclination to want dominion and control over others is our Achilles Heel, in my opinion….)
If a bargain succeeds, regardless of how bitter it might seem, the two parties come out winners in the longer term. That’s what I hope happens with the haggle in Syria and other places.
There were many “best” bargains that I can remember. None of them were easy. They were a process, and if both parties respected the process, even if there might be a short strike to conclude the ultimate deal, both parties and the surrounding public were the better for the haggling. I know, because I was part of the team at many tables.
Experienced negotiators know this.
Unfortunately, most public members do not.
Thanks, much, Peter, for the seminar!
COMMENTS (see additional comments in the “responses” section of this blog)
from John B:
Interesting POVs [Points of View]. In school districts I think there are alternatives, optimally if there is mutual respect, trust and transparency. Unfortunately, these are often in small quantities.
Response to John B from Dick B: Of course. We both worked in School Districts. Even when there is already a well formed “family unit” with well defined community rules/roles – community, teachers, administrators, etc. – there are still problems and a need for negotiated solutions which reflect the needs of each. How much more complex this all becomes when you are dealing with different communities, cultures, values, etc.
Toss in the United States habit, over the years, of using factions of people to divide against each other for the ultimate advantage of the United States, and the problem of negotiating becomes even more difficult. This has played out in many places, famously in Iran in 1953, for instance.
In Dec 2003 – Feb 29 2004 I happened, by accident, really, to witness what in reality was a U.S. sponsored coup against the democratically elected government in Haiti. Our hands were all over this change in governments, and the people on the ground know this….