Often, after a trip, I have distributed my impressions. Liz Leeds and I recently traveled to Florence, Armenia, and Georgia. But this time, rather than provide comments on the whole wonderful trip, I have chosen to focus on only one moment: the negotiation for a rug.

Liz and I went to Armenia because we have a friend there, Anna Ohanyan. Our hotel in Yerevan is owned by Tufenkian, an internationally known rug-selling firm that, in addition to an elegant showroom adjoining the lobby of the hotel, also has a fancy display room in midtown Manhattan, and showrooms throughout the U.S.

I am not a fan of oriental carpets, and had no thought of buying one. But I did find myself quickly smitten by an elegant bed cover in our hotel room. It was not what I thought of as an oriental carpet, and when I asked in the show room if that design could be made into a rug, Anoosh the young woman seemingly in charge said yes. I then considered adding in a bed cover and wondered further if a pillow cover that I found attractive might be good as well. Laughing at the effectiveness of their marketing, and my own susceptibility, I understood I was hooked.

I told Anoosh the rug size I wanted (small) and she told me the price, $840. I asked the price for the bed covering, and she said $450. Fedex delivery would be an additional $180 each.

$1650 was a lot of money I had not planned to spend, but in Boston I was in the process of moving to a new apartment, and giving the place a few color jolts, plus a tangible memory of a very enjoyable visit to Armenia, suddenly began to seem like a good idea. Selling one apartment, buying another, and running up the moving/renovating expenses? These rug numbers did not seem so huge. (What couldn’t I talk myself into?) I said I would come back tomorrow.

I came back ready to pay her price. More than once I had returned from prior travel regretting my unwillingness to pay a few additional dollars for a piece I really liked. But Anoosh’s greeting had an edge. “I’m sorry. I made a mistake yesterday. I calculated incorrectly. The rug will cost $1100. That is the real price.” I was taken aback. After some useless conversation (“Why are you asking me to pay for your error?” “Is there any room to move on the bed cover?” “No”.) I asked to talk with the manager. He was in New York (eight hour time difference) and not expected back until after I will have left Yerevan. “Can you reach him by phone or email?” “Yes, I can reach him tonight. Come back tomorrow and I will tell you what he says.” 

I told Liz that I did want the rug but that I was uneasy at the way the price had jumped. This was now a negotiation and I needed to set my own limit. The one forming in my head was the figure I had been prepared to pay when I returned on the second day. “Why should I pay more than that?”

Photo by Ani Melikyan

Photo by Ani Melikyan

The next day I returned with Liz and Anna. It was Anoosh’s day off, and we found Malina taking her place. I asked if Anoosh had spoken to her, and Malina said yes. After some shuffling of paper and calculating, she said that they could let me have the rug and bed cover for $1000.  Anna and I were surprised and repeated that offer back to her. “Yes, though that doesn’t include shipping.” I said that was fine, and we began to work on writing up the precise measurements, the color of the fringe, etc. This took a half hour. Then she made a call, did some more work with a calculator, and said she had made a mistake. In fact the rug and bed cover would come to $1640.  She said she had incorrectly repeated what Anoosh (or the manager) had told her, or, she had expressed incorrectly in English what she had calculated. (Her explanation touched on both.) She was very apologetic and upset.  My temperature rose. I asked to speak directly to the manager. She said ok, but the time difference meant it would have to be later.

Malina then began to do a series of calculations talking about square centimeter cost, which I could not follow. This took about 15 minutes and Malina looked increasingly flustered. Anna told me later that Marina said to her in Armenian “I’m just an Armenian” and Anna had reacted sharply in Armenian to the implication that being an Armenian allowed a lower standard of competence. (Anna also said to her - she told me later- that he is ”an important professor” and that he was on his way to an interview with a local TV outlet.) I interrupted and, seeking to get control or at least influence the direction of the negotiation, said: “We started at $1000 for the rug and cover. That plus the shipping cost comes to $1360. That is what I will pay.” 

She then offered $1560 for the rug, cover, and shipping. (The pillow cover got lost in the discussion.) This seemed to come from her work with the calculator but I couldn’t see how. I was tempted to make a move above the $1360 but my desire to take home the goods was being overridden by my suspicion that this growing list of errors was scripted. And also, of course, by the hope that if I just stood still, she would continue to drop the price.

I repeated that she had offered $1000 for the two items and I couldn’t see why I should pay for her error. But I was feeling harsh. She did seem to be wilting in the process, and Liz said in an aside that she thought Malina was “just overwhelmed.” Somewhere in the conversation Malina said she had been in this job two years.

She went back to her calculator and said she could sell the two items for $1480. For some reason, that irritated me even more, and I assume I showed it. Then, abruptly, with no recourse to the calculator, she said $1420. Liz let me know that I should accept it, and feeling lightened and somewhat surprisingly satisfied by the process, I said yes. 

Malina told me it would take two months to make the new carpet. Anoosh had said one month. I accepted the change without comment.


Some thoughts:

I am hesitant to read other people’s minds as I find that we often (usually?) believe we know something that we don’t. I am nonetheless obsessed with trying.

There are two, perhaps three, interpretations of what was going on. In the first, Anoosh and Malina were overwhelmed. Working in English may not be very comfortable (we did not encounter many English speaking tourists) and negotiating in English yet worse. I count three errors they made, and each may have discouraged Anoosh/Malina more. Perhaps their manager in New York was annoyed at the errors (had there been others in the past?). The errors, calculated in American values, might be coming out of Malina’s salary, calculated at a much lower Armenian value. Dealing with Americans, one of whom may not have been as gracious as his mother would have preferred, may have eroded their confidence yet further. Malina, raised in a patriarchal society, was negotiating with an older man.  There were three of us, one of her. Certainly Malina looked flustered. She didn’t cry but she looked as if she wanted to. (Anna doesn’t agree). But Anna does report that when the process was over, Malina was greatly relieved.

Alternatively, this was a well-planned con. What fluster? Marina had been on this job for two years.  Anna has referred to her as a “tough cookie.” Each of the errors increased the cost of the goods. They began with one price ($1650, which I was prepared to accept), then raised it to $1910, dropped it to $1360 (which I thereafter defined as my maximum), then raised it to $1640, then dropped it to $1560, then $1420.)  That is, a low price drew me in, “errors” caused the price to rise, Marina zigzagged from phone calls to mysterious calculations to making new offers. The zig zagging was a framework to keep moving the number up until she decided that that wouldn’t work any more, and then brought it down to give me the satisfaction of “winning” and thus accepting (happily) more than the price that drew me in. I was the daily lamb being artfully sliced. 

And where, in this exercise to connect the dots, does having a native Armenian on my side fit in? Was Anna a reassurance or a threat?

What was in it for me? Was I trying not to be bested by a kid? Did I want to look good in front of Liz and Anna? (“This is how a good negotiator- a negotiation teacher no less - does it.”)  Was I feeling the weight of big-bad America oppressing tiny Armenia? (No, but do the big-bads ever feel that weight?) But I did feel that I was causing Marina pain, that I was being a bully. Our relationship would have no future, but, in the moment, causing her pain was not comfortable. Even without a future, our relationship left its mark on me. I am struck by how a negotiation that, in the telling, is conventionally limited to the rise and fall of offers, also evokes feelings of elusiveness, puzzlement and frustration, patterns of shaky inference, and a challenge to identity.

I have negotiated in Middle Eastern markets. Armenia is in Eurasia, between Turkey, Iran, and Georgia. Liz points out that at an Armenian open air market the negotiating style differed from our experiences in the Middle East. E.g. In Armenia, when we sauntered away from a too-high offer, no one tried to stop us. At the time, however, the Middle East analogy seemed to fit. Its process can be lengthy and full of zigs and zags, but the sellers have always had about them the attitude that both the seller and buyer are playing a game in which both know the rules and both are comfortable. I have had sellers berate me for being an oppressor, for squeezing them unjustly. They have played the victim, and I have always understood them to be acting, and I have understood them to understand that I understand them that way. We are men of the world, enacting a conflict ritual that ends in harmony.

“Implicit bias” is a currently attractive phrase. The very professional style of the store (and its counterpart in NYC) evoked the bias that this would be a transaction without negotiation. Only after the first error did my bias about negotiating with rug sellers come to consciousness. (A rug store in Brookline ran a going-out-of-business sale five times in four years, but I didn’t make this association until after the first error.) On the other hand, my bias about an apparently overwhelmed young woman led me to sympathy, a grandpa’s inclination to take care of her, and a temptation to pay more. Would I have had that feeling for a young man? In this negotiation Malina did not have about her the attitude (ie I didn’t infer it) of acting with intent to manipulate. She seemed quite over her head. Or was this just really good acting? Was my implicit bias based on her well-crafted presentation?

Negotiation is a process to change minds. What changed mine? Did the uncertainty of which role she was playing have an impact? Was she playing both roles simultaneously? Was her wiliness with offers and errors made more acceptable by the imminence of her tears? Or did I just decide that $60 (the difference between the offer I finally agreed to and the figure I had earlier said was my maximum) was an ok price to pay for a rug and cover I liked? (“Ok” because it was close to the figure I had arbitrarily latched onto earlier in the process?) Was paying the last $60 my way of participating in the process? Was I, not so incidentally, happy to get a good negotiating story out of this?  Did Liz’s nod sway me?  And why am I asking these questions? Who knows the answers better than I do? Don’t I know my own mind?

So Malina’s mind is a mystery to me, and my own motivation is not so clear either. But we did reach an agreement, one satisfactory to me, then and now. (No buyer’s remorse this time.) How did we do that? Is knowing the intent of the Other, and indeed knowing my own intent, irrelevant in negotiating? When we later give a reason for our decision are we just making up a story to fit the facts and to make ourselves look good?

But of course what we believe about the intent of the Other feels important in a negotiation. It may have an impact on whether we negotiate or not. It may have an impact on what we feel is a satisfactory agreement. It may have an impact on our feelings about the process after it is over. That certainly describes my introspection about this negotiation. But, should I care about what is going in Malina’s mind? Shouldn’t I make decisions on the basis of my own interests without regard to what she is thinking? Should even such a passing – if not so simple – relationship have any impact? Can I keep it from doing so?