Woman barters for jewelry with Kenyan girls. Image by Flickr user meaduva.

Many Westerners have a deep-seated aversion to haggling. But when approached with the right attitude, haggling can truly be an art, somewhere between a game and a cultural experience.

When I lived in Cairo, I hated price negotiations. It seemed there was no alternative to either being taken advantage of for my naivety or resorting to unpleasant aggressiveness. I still regret leaving Egypt without purchasing a piece of art that I timidly hovered past for months.

Don’t let this happen to you!

After living in Togo for a year, I’ve learned that there is no need to forgo a purchase just because an item has no price tag. Besides, haggling is about more than just bagging a cool piece for your wall; the banter is part of immersing yourself in your location!

In many parts of the world, haggling is not unusual. Follow these steps, and you’ll be negotiating without compunctions in no time.

Remember: Haggling Is a Cultural Norm

If you come from a place where prices are customarily fixed and non-negotiable, it can feel rude to request less than the asking price of an item. Do away with this mentality.

In Africa, for instance, it is common to encounter contexts in which vendors expect you to make a counter-offer to their first price.

Know Your Context, Do Your Research

Certain items, especially in larger cities, will have fixed prices.

Of course, Africa is not one unilateral behemoth, so I use common sense, and you should too; scope things out regarding your specific destination before you go. For example, I approached the agreement on the price for a scarf at the huge Khan El-Khalili , Cairo’s ancient bazaar, differently than I did with a local tailor selling bolts of kente cloth in rural Togo.

To get a ballpark of what you should be paying, poke around online, check in with a friend who has been to the area, ask a fellow Go Girl, or find a trusted person who lives in the area.

If you’re staying in a hotel, you can try asking the staff, but know that the owner may be buddies with the guy down the road who sells the belts you’re looking at!

Learn a Few Phrases in the Local Language

This is a great thing to do, whether or not your purpose is haggling. In my experience,  people in West Africa are delighted and encouraging when I stumble my way through numbers and bartering terms in a local language.

Language can be the beginning of new insight into a culture, and it shows a degree of respect for the people you’re visiting. In Togo it also allows me to buy from people, often women, who don’t speak French or English.

Sometimes I’m rewarded with a little handful of extra bananas or a slightly reduced price. Even just a smile is worth it. Sometimes the only piece of local language I utter is a balg-bon-chien, “thank you” in Moba, at the end of the transaction.

Be Patient

Of course, it’s easier to pay the asking price, but haggling is an ancient game and part of a cultural experience.

Allot enough leisure time in the market to chat with a vendor. Sometimes I’ll divulge who I am buying for, or how I plan to use the item. Vendors will often be amused, and it’s fun to establish a human connection.

Once negotiations begin, don’t be afraid to push your comfort zone in terms of how long you’re willing to stubbornly (but politely!) hold out for your lowest price.

art of haggling, bartering, Africa, market

art of haggling, bartering, Africa, marketThe author standing behind fruits and nuts conveniently labeled in dirham per kilo. Luckily, there are plenty of other items to haggle over in the Marrakesh souk. Image courtesy of Chelsea Clarke.

Approach Haggling with a Playful Attitude

I’ve turned the tables and used some of the phrases that vendors try to sweeten me up with.

It is customary to appear shocked at each other’s initial offers. There’s a bit of theatricality to the whole process.

Teasingly, I plied a grandma the other day with an argument often used to try and get me to pay more: “Oh, you are joking about that price! But you’ll diminish the price for ME? Because we’re friends, right?”  If you get them to chuckle, there’s a better chance the price will come down, plus you’re both having more fun.

Again, context matters. Use discretion with male vendors if you’re not looking to flirt!

Pair Up

Go shopping with a friend, and have him or her play-act as “the voice of reason,” telling you why you don’t really want the item or what’s wrong with it. Look as if you are considering these arguments. There is nothing like appearing ambivalent to bring the price down!

With especially aggressive vendors, your friend can also act as the decoy. I tried this with my girlfriend in Morocco. While she quietly examined the leather bag she was very interested in, I engaged the shopkeeper in a lengthy discussion on the merits of various lamps I had no intention of buying.

This can also be an advantage because it’s always cheaper to buy multiples. One pair of earrings may cost 2,000 Central African Francs (CFA) (approximately $4 USD). If your pal is planning on throwing down for the same item during your trip, see if you can finagle two pair for 3,000 CFA

Walk Away

If you come to an impasse, politely state your final offer, and if it isn’t accepted, walk away.

If the vendor beckons you back with an assent or a lower offer, it’s a win-win.

Don’t worry about taking advantage of poor shopkeepers; they will not agree to an unfairly low price. You’ll know when you’ve gone too low if they let you walk away. At that point, either swallow your pride and circle back later to pay the vendor’s final offer, or congratulations! You just did your research on your own. Next time you’ll have an idea of a reasonable price for the item.

Whatever you do, don’t be a doormat. Savvy vendors may try to play on your emotions by feigning hurt feelings. Feel no guilt about walking away.

If you get a bad feeling about someone, trust your instinct, and buy from a less aggressive vendor with a respectful comportment.

art of haggling, CFA, Africa, bartering, money

Central African Francs (CFA, pronounced say-fa); 2,000 CFA equal approximately 1 US dollar. Image by Flickr user Docteur Christophe.

Keep a Little Generosity (and Perspective) in Your Heart

If, as a Westerner, you end up paying a bit too much at the end of a good-spirited bout of haggling in a developing country, think of it as a little re-distributive justice. If someone is unusually kind to me, I’m happy to pay a little more than I had anticipated. A small amount of money in US dollars could mean a lot in Central African francs. Keep prices in perspective.

Sure, nobody likes being taken for a sucker, and I’ll be the first to admit that I get irritated when asked to pay four times the price of something I know to be a fixed cost, like transportation in Togo. Even so, you may find a moto-taxi driver angling for more money after dark or in the rain, and it’s a good idea to give a little extra for their troubles.

Often, the art of haggling is less about the financial bargain and more about the personal exchange.

Do you have a harrowing or horrible haggling story? What are your bartering tips? I’d love to hear in the Comments below!