Experience 10: Learning the psychology of haggling in Istanbul

by Christa Larwood
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The great vaulted ceilings of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar have overseen countless millions of transactions during their 600-year history. Deals struck and broken, goods sold for a song or a king’s ransom, and a haggling tradition reaching back to the days when vendors would test the value of coins with their teeth.

For those like myself, brought up in a culture where the price is fixed, stated and non-negotiable, the concept of haggling down a price seems both daunting and strange. Luckily, however, I had a self-professed ‘master haggler’ at my side to guide me through the process.

Kubilay Tunçer is a playwright, actor and magician, and has a fascination with the psychological dance of buyer and seller in marketplace negotiations. “It’s like gambling,” he said. “And it's fun because your brain starts producing oxytocin [a feel-good hormone]. You want something, and have to hide how much you want it; the seller wants your money and wants to hide how much he wants it. It’s like a game of poker.”

He guided me through the ancient bazaar, past the stalls selling everything from burnished copper lamps and intricate hand-tied carpets to Istanbul snow globes and One Direction T-shirts.

I was on the hunt for a scarf and finally spied what I was after – a soft silk pashmina in deep purple. The trick, according to Kubilay, is to practise the art of distraction: pretend an interest in item B while secretly angling for item A. I engaged the stallholder in a bargaining stoush, doing my best to drive down the price, and I did manage to get a small reduction. I suspect, however, that despite my training I still paid well over the odds.

Haggling is clearly not the game for me, but – looking around at the swagger and confidence of these marketplace sellers, playing with their customers like cats with mice – it seems that it might just be in Istanbul’s blood.

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