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When the Price Is Right

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

The first time I went shopping in Jerusalem was about 30 years ago. I vividly remember spending an entire afternoon in one shop, discussing quality, sipping tea, making and rejecting offers, feigning indifference and disinterest – in other words, bargaining, Middle Eastern style.

Usually it’s done like this: First of all, if you see something you’d really like to buy, never let on that you’re interested. After diverting the conversation to other matters, you cautiously may express some curiosity as to its price.

The seller probably will mention a figure at least double its value and his expectation. You, in turn, express an offer of no more than half of what it’s worth and what you intend to spend.

Then, the negotiations begin. It’s as much a match of wits and skill as any game of chess. The goal, of course, is to bring your opponent as close to your price as you can. The method is a series of reluctant compromises. The style, if you’re capable of it, is dramatic; the rhetoric, exaggerated and extravagant.

Of course, the whole exercise is futile if you don’t have a good idea of the thing’s value – both market conditions and what it’s worth to the seller personally.

In The Book of Genesis there’s a classic story of bargaining, which extols Abraham, the great ancestor of all the Semitic peoples. When God was about to destroy Sodom, Abraham interceded. He persuaded God to spare the city for the sake of 50 innocent people, then 45, then 40, then 30 and then 20. Finally he persuaded the Lord to spare it for the sake of 10.

Abraham bargained with God and drove the price of Sodom’s salvation down!

Now, thanks be to God, Abraham’s children, with mixed mutual sentiments of hope and apprehension, finally have begun to talk to one another and negotiate solutions to their differences.

And, what are political negotiations but a specialized kind of bargaining?

It should be no cause for wonder, then, that their initial proposals to one another are impossible. No one really expects them to be taken entirely seriously. They’re meant to open the bidding – they ask for or demand far more than the proposer ever expects to settle for or receive.

As in all good bargaining, there may be exaggerated and extravagant rhetoric and dramatic contrivance and staging. But, behind it all, there is a mutual expectation of compromise.

The art and the skill of it, naturally, is to bring your opponent as close to your price as you can. In this match of wits and will, the style of the process may be as important as the result. Saving face sometimes becomes more valuable than success.

Of course, the whole exercise is futile if each does not have a fair idea of what the other can afford and is willing to pay.

Shopping seems much easier when you’re confronted with fixed prices – no hassle, no bother, no time wasted in bargaining. But, it can cost you a lot more, because you have no say about the price.

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Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA



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