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Learn Culture for Commerce

SUCHITOTO, El Salvador- There are no rules in cultures, only patterns. Perhaps culture is just an assemblage of behavioral patterns that a multitude of people of a similar social group in a similar location tend to share in common. There are always elements that do not fit into the overall pattern of a culture — [...]

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SUCHITOTO, El Salvador- There are no rules in cultures, only patterns.

Perhaps culture is just an assemblage of behavioral patterns that a multitude of people of a similar social group in a similar location tend to share in common. There are always elements that do not fit into the overall pattern of a culture — people are individuals — there really are no full proof checks on behavior. But, as any traveler knows, there are certain cultural patterns that you can observe amongst certain peoples in certain locations. Even if these patterns can only be seen in terms of contrast, or through your limited exposure or scarce points of contact, they are still prevalent forces that can help guide a traveler’s actions as they travel through the world.

I focus this travel tip around commerce, around the simple buying of goods that all travelers do throughout their journey, as this is one of the prime points of regular contact between a traveler and the cultures they travel through. Simple commerce is one of the few places that learning about cultural tendencies can really be of assistance.

In regards to engaging in simple commerce, a traveler would be wise to observe the cultural patterns of the country they are in, while finding strategies as finding the cheapest ways to purchase goods and services. Often this takes little thought — most often there are no challenges, the cards fall as dealt. Though sometimes your foreign face casts you as the fool.

To approach every culture like your own, is to be the fool, it is to get ripped off. Traveling is an act, travelers are actors. This is a part of the fun. I only snicker slightly when I see travelers dressing in the garb of the local people in the places they are traveling, as I know that this is just a part of their act — they are playing their part upon their own stage of world travel.

When something does not work out very well — if you are short changed, railroaded into paying more than the agreed upon price, paid higher than what you should have, are defeated when your changed is refused, or are bullied into making a purchase — is when

When I get ripped off, I feel embarrassed. It does not happen very often — most likely when I least expect it — but when I am on the loosing side of an intercultural battle of commerce I do feel embarrassed. And I dwell on the situation until I come up with a strategy for prohibiting being ripped off in the future.

It is my impression that humans feel embarrassment for a reason: it teaches us how to restructure our behavior to better fit in with the tidings of our surroundings. The person who blends in with those around them — the person who knows how to act in their circumstances — generally does not feel embarrassed. Embarrassment is the prime feeling of the nail that sticks up — the person unfamiliar with their surroundings, the traveler who does not fully know the cultural plane they are acting upon. It is my impression that a traveler should use their embarrassment as a guide to provide the impetus to come up with a better strategy to prevent themselves from being embarrassed in a similar situation again. Don’t ignore embarrassment, put it off, or explain it away: FEEL IT, your emotions function for a reason

And experience is always earned the hard way.

Observe the cultural bearings that you are in, talk with other travelers, make mistakes, and figure out how to get the best price you can for everything you purchase — or at least to prevent against being ripped off.

In many countries, only a limp wristed wimp or someone with far too much money in their pockets would pay the first price stated by a merchant, in others, you will be looked at like you are nuts if you offer to pay a lower price. Some cultures tend to be relatively honest and a questionable maneuver should sometimes be overlooked, while others will lie, cheat, and steal en masse and you must always be on guard. In some places the people are more honest in groups, while in others the merchants try to show off to their friends by trying to get as much money they can get out of you (some stupid foreigner). Some cultures are warm and engaging in commerce — you can really become friends with the person who sells you your eggs — while others will only pretend to be your friend if they think that it will make you buy something. In some places the merchants act as if they could not care less if you give them business, while in others you are mosquito swarmed by vendors each time you walk down the street.

There are variations within cultures when it comes to commerce, to be sure, but there are often certain patterns that seem to lay over a culture, and sets the beat as a whole. Often such variables as location, proximity to tourist attractions, or whether or not a vendor makes their living off of tourists will have a major impact on how you are dealt with. In point, a tourist town is different than a place that seldom sees visitors, you will pay more in these places and the prevalence rate of being ripped off, short changed, or scammed rises proportionally to how many foreigners you see in the streets.

Traveling is an act, it is a game. When playing a board game it is a part of the process to switch and adapt your strategy to match the tidings of the game, it is my impression that the same goes for engaging in commerce when traveling. Do you haggle? Do you just pay the first price? Does pretending to walk away provoke an offer of a lower price? Does acting like the vendor’s friend help to get a friendlier price? Or is this the merchant’s game to extract a higher price out of you? Does kicking and screaming get you a better price? Or should you take the fellow aside and let him know that you are not going to tell any of the other tourists if he charges you the local rate? Or should you act like you are going to punch somebody in the face.

Try some of these tactics, figure out what works the best to get you what you want. Commerce is a game, and traveling is an act.

A traveler often becomes an easy sucker if they approach petty commerce in other countries as they would at home. A traveler must always adapt their methods to meet their present circumstances. Realize that you sometimes need to adapt your strategies for doing commerce. Travel is a dynamic process, as I weave myself in between the various different shapes of various different cultures, I know that I must bend like playdoe being pushed through a mold. If I am rigid and stiff, I will break and pay more; if I am supple and pliable, I will discover ways to get what I want for the cheapest price. One thing is evident: the mold always wins, you cannot beat culture — you can only figure out how to play the game.

Cultures are not ruled by the forces of reason, they are stupid things ruled only by patterns. If you steer clear of tourist destinations, then 99% of your commercial interactions will be benign and friendly, you will seldom be ripped off, cheated, or hustled. This tip is for that odd 1% of the time when you are challenged in commerce, or for when you do find yourself within the belly of the tourism beast.

In this way, pay attention to what happens when you interact with people when traveling. Remember the looks on their faces, remember the words they say, and, most of all, remember how you feel. If you are bested out of some cash, don’t despair, as you have gained far more in the form of a lesson than you ever could loose in money.

If you come away from a monetary interaction when traveling with an ill feeling in your gut, actualize it, think about what happened, and re-strategize in preparation for the next round.


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Filed under: Culture and Society, Money, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

2 comments… add one

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  • Mike Crosby April 24, 2010, 2:02 am

    Embarrassment is the key word Wade. I also read a book on Persuasion that teaches “tricks” people use to get you to buy: http://www.doshdosh.com/robert-cialdini-and-persuasion/

    Negotiating is definitely not the style for most Americans. My wife is Cuban and very adept at getting her way. She can cry if she needs to, get angry, whatever it takes. I’m in a lucky position in that if I ever get screwed, I just ask the other party if they will resolve the problem responsibly. If not, then I sick “Bulldog” on them. It always gets resolved.

    Here in Los Angeles I need to remember to bargain. I order a bean burrito at some of these Mexican take-outs and they want to charge $8. I just walk away in disgust, more so than anger. I really don’t like to negotiate something as trivial as a bean burrito, especially when I feel I’m being played for a fool. But maybe I should enter the fray and have fun.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com April 24, 2010, 9:09 am

      Right on Mike,

      Some people learn early on how to size up their circumstances (evaluate the “culture” of their surroundings whether domestic or abroad) and figure out the best way to assert themselves to get what they want.

      My mother is very good at this — she does not make any big purchases unless she gets a “deal.” She would rather spend weeks going from store to store negotiating before she buys. She always knows the right buttons to push in the given circumstance: sometimes she makes the person like her, sometimes she makes them hate her and just want to give her what she wants to be rid of her, sometimes she uses logic, sometimes she speaks sternly, and sometimes she just doesn’t go away until she has what she wants — but she figures out her circumstances and makes her strategy match it. She was a good example to have growing up for the traveling that I eventually came to embark upon.

      I should of just wrote this tip about my mother haha.

      It is interesting how little this practice is passed down in the USA, though I believe being able to size up a situation and adapting your behavior to match it is a skill that can be used throughout all facets of life — whether at home or traveling abroad. Some people, like your wife or my mother just do it intuitively, while others seem to need practice.

      Learning how to get what you want is a good skill to have.

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