One of the highlights of traveling in the Middle East is shopping in the open-air markets known as shuks or souks. Along ancient cobbled walkways dozens, if not hundreds, of stalls sit tucked into arched stone niches, selling spices, colorful scarves, ceramic ware, metalwork, clothing, shoes, and chickens, along with touristy tchotchkes. And the best part of the shopping experience is the bargaining that takes place once a customer decides that he or she wants to make a purchase.
We here in the United States are used to buying things at the listed price, or on sale. We as a general rule don’t negotiate; we don’t feel comfortable doing it.
But in the Middle East, bargaining is part of the culture. It is expected.
“How much does this shawl cost?”
“This is genuine cashmere, 100 shekels, dinars, dirhams.”
“Too much. I’ll give you 30.”
“I can let you have it for 80, and that’s my gift to you since you are my first customer of the day.
“I’ll give you 50. ”
“I can’t make a profit at that price. Give me 75.”
You get the drift. Eventually the customer and the merchant reach an agreement. They compromise on a price. Nobody gets everything, but nobody feels cheated either.
Yes, it’s part of the culture. So, what happens when parties from this mercantile culture sit at the peace negotiating table? Suddenly, this one wants preconditions and that one doesn’t. Parties get up and walk away. Then one party finally does come to the table, mere weeks before the other’s prior agreement is set to expire.
Crazy, completely unproductive, and ultimately harmful to the real people who have to live with the non-decisions.
Perhaps negotiation has degenerated because the diplomats assigned to them are too far removed from the shuk. They have “people” to do everything for them and don’t remember the idea of compromise.
So, my idea, for what it’s worth: Before every scheduled negotiating session, every diplomat involved in negotiations should be required to go shopping. And bargain.