By Kim Redemer I left my home in Thailand to come live in California 17 years ago. Although I consider myself to be quite Americanized, I still have plenty of cross-cultural clashes.
One afternoon I was browsing in a beautiful flower shop. The entire store was packed with freshly cut flowers, and it looked and smelled like paradise! Near the counter where the shop owner was arranging bouquets, there was a card stand. Like the flowers in the store, the selection of handmade cards displayed exquisite and expensive taste. The tiny hand-painted cards caught my eye.
Although she had to be aware of my presence because I was the only customer in the small store, the blonde, blue-eyed shop owner did not show any sign of acknowledging me. Maybe she was too busy with her flower arranging, or maybe she did not think that I was the type of customer to make a large purchase, so there was no need for her to waste her time being courteous. I chose to interpret her behavior as her way of giving customers privacy to wander about the shop until they could find something that caught their fancy. I found something that caught my fancy—the tiny cards!
"May I help you?" she asked in a businesslike voice as she saw me holding the cards in my hand. Fully aware of her attitude and tone of voice, I chose to answer her question directly with my heavy Thai accent. "I was wondering how much these cards are."
"One dollar and fifty cents each." Still no smile, same tone of voice. She must be an unhappy person, I thought. The beautiful environment that surrounded her did not seem to affect her.
"One dollar and fifty cents!" I raised my voice with shock. "These tiny cards are one dollar and fifty cents? I thought they were probably seventy-five cents or maybe a dollar. I would buy several of them if they were a dollar." My brown eyes met her blue eyes. I held my breath while waiting for her answer. Everyone likes to be a winner regardless of race and color.
"We do not bargain in this country, especially in this neighborhood. How long have you lived in this country?" Her voice was sharp and her words were harsh. Her big blue eyes stared at me like a winner!
Oh dear, I thought to myself. My therapist was wrong to encourage me to be so genuine. Look what happens. In that moment, there was complete silence before I made my move.
"Oh, I came from Thailand. I have been in this country for 17 years but, of course, it is not long enough for me to stop bargaining. I come from a culture where we bargain for everything, even when we think that the price is reasonable. We use bargaining as a way to connect with others, to develop some kind of relationship between the customer and the salesperson. It is not cut and dried like in America where you know the price of what you want to buy, you pay for it, and you go out the door. Bargaining allows us to linger longer and to have human contact. It is the beauty of exchange." Seeing the ice melt on her face, I felt encouraged to finish what I had wanted to say.
"I see," the shop owner responded. "That is an interesting idea. I have never thought about it in that way at all." I heard the smile in her voice and actually saw a smile on her face. With warmth and a smile, she seemed to be prettier.
"I should not have bargained with you like I did, because, according to your culture, you might have been insulted that I did not trust the way you price your merchandise," I said. "I want to apologize if I did offend you." It was easy for me to apologize when the shop owner was receptive.
"Oh, please don't worry about that," she responded. "You are welcome to come here and negotiate the price anytime. Of course, I will just say 'no' to you, but please do come back in again." Her gentle voice sounded soothing and reassuring. We exchanged friendly smiles as I left the store.
The shop owner and I barely escaped a cross-cultural war. I gave myself a purple heart medal for being able to defuse the explosion that could have shattered and damaged both of our spirits. Instead, I was able to promote peace and understanding—even to one single individual. It gave me hope for peace talking!
Kim Redemer is a family counselor in Berkeley, California.