flowers labeled with different prices
Photo: Jonny Valiant
How Valerie Monroe lied, cajoled, sucked up, begged, flirted, whined, and wrangled her way to a cut rate on everything. (Okay, not everything. Actually, just a few things. Well, to be honest...)
We were enjoying an exquisite meal in a fancy restaurant, my friend and I. The room was imposing: gigantic, brilliant bouquets spilling out of crystal vases, Picasso and Degas paintings on the walls, crisp linens on elaborately set tables, and a waitstaff worthy of the Windsors. "I'm writing a story about making a deal for everything I buy," I said to my handsome companion, who was dressed in one of his finest suits. "Mm-hmm," he said, taking a sip of wine between bites. "And I was just thinking," I said, "that now, here in this restaurant, might be an interesting way to start."

His eyes bulged, and he nearly choked on the Gewürztraminer. "No," he said, "please, no, not here."

I won't pretend that I didn't understand his reluctance. In our culture, bargaining, like ripping off all your clothes and dancing on the table, is considered appropriate only in limited situations—and it can require just as much nerve.

Yes, sure, we make deals all day long: I hold the door for you; you let me step onto the escalator first. A colleague asks you to proofread her report; she says something nice about you to the boss. But when I upped the ante, deciding to spend a day trying to make a deal on everything that required a monetary exchange, the notion became suddenly scary—so scary that I put off the dreaded day for weeks, busying myself instead with a stack of books about how to negotiate. Think about it: When was the last time you looked at the price of a carton of milk in the grocery store and decided to try getting it for less? If you're like me, never. Haggle over the cost of a cab ride, or a dental visit? I'd rather have a root canal.

In their illuminating book Women Don't Ask, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever report that women initiate negotiations three to four times less often than men. And when we do negotiate, we ask for—and usually get—less. Why? We're socialized to be compliant (to some degree, at least); we value relationships and strive to preserve them. If we feel that by bargaining we're challenging the status quo, it can make us—and, apparently, our dinner partners—deeply uncomfortable.

The most helpful book I read was Daniel Shapiro and Roger Fisher's practical guide to dealmaking, Beyond Reason. Shapiro and Fisher, associate director and director, respectively, of the Harvard Negotiation Project, believe that deals have a much greater chance of success if they affirm the five basic human desires we all have in relation to one another: appreciation (feeling valued), affiliation (feeling connected), autonomy (feeling free to make decisions), status (feeling respected), and a fulfilling role (feeling...fulfilled). These needs factor in on both sides of a negotiation; the more each need is satisfied, the more successful the negotiation is likely to be.

Getting to "yes" in under 10 minutes

With these lessons firmly in mind, I hailed a cab on the wet, dreary morning of my day of deals. I knew I had to establish an affiliation with the driver (whose name, I saw, was Khaleb Alam. Or...Alam Khaleb). But how to do that in the ten minutes it would take to get from my apartment to the office? Should I ask about his children? About his former life in...where was he from, anyway? (I had just read somewhere, though, that this question is reviled by cabdrivers.) Should I tell him he was doing a wonderful job weaving through the terrible New York City traffic in the rain? The blocks flew by, and I stared out the window, racking my brain for an opening. Nothing. We neared my destination. The fare was $5.60, and I was desperate. As we pulled up to the curb, I leaned forward. "So Mr. Khaleb," I said cheerfully, "if it were my birthday today, would you give me a break on the fare?" Our eyes met in the rearview mirror. He was young, probably in his early 30s, and his face was kind. It took him just a second to think about it. "Why, yes," he said. "Give me only $5. And happy birthday, miss."

I winced under the heavy burden of my lie. To lighten it, I gave Mr. Khaleb the full $5.60, plus a 20 percent tip. And suddenly, I didn't care that I had cheated. I was exhilarated. I had scored my first deal! In a taxicab!

When I got to my office, I called a nearby salon to schedule a blow-out. Given the weather, I was planning to ask, in my most disarming way, for a rainy-day discount. Confident, after my taxi success, that I would be able to pull this off, I went ahead and tipped the stylist nearly 50 percent of the undiscounted price. She was delighted and surprised by my generosity; I was just happy to share the bounty of my anticipated negotiation skills.

At the checkout desk, I complimented the receptionist on the salon's impeccable service (appreciation). I noted that her hair was probably hard to control in rainy weather, just like mine (affiliation). And I said that I wasn't going to let the weather dictate when I was going to have a blow-out (autonomy). "It must be kind of fun to be here in the catbird seat," I told her. "I bet you get to see all kinds of interesting people passing through." (Acknowledging her status.) And finally, I asked her if she might be able to help me with something (creating a role for her and suggesting that she had authority).

"It's crappy outside, and I have to walk back to work in the rain," I said. "But my office is pretty close by. If I came in once a week for a blow-out, would you consider giving me a discount when the weather is lousy, the way it is today?"

She looked at me as if I had spoken Urdu.

"A rainy-day discount!" I said encouragingly.

"We could all use a rainy-day discount," she said grimly, ringing me up and handing me the receipt. Then she focused on the woman standing behind me. "Next!"

Grinding my teeth over the fact that I had just paid one and a half times what I usually do for a blow-out, and slightly annoyed that I hadn't asked for a birthday discount, I made my way to my dentist's office for a cleaning.

???Haggle over the price of a dental visit? I???d rather have a root canal.???

"Your gums are a little inflamed in the upper left quadrant." The hygienist poked around in my mouth. "I know you try to take good care of them," she said sympathetically, adjusting the saliva suction tube. "Eah, I goo, I eally goo," I told her. "I want to inject a bit of antibiotic into your gums," she said. I sensed a deal coming. Pulling out the suction tube, I sat up.

"How much?" I asked. I knew my question wasn't clear: How much antibiotic, or how much would I have to pay? I was hoping to throw the hygienist off guard by suggesting that the whole concept was a lot for me to handle: a lot of antibiotics, a lot of money, an overwhelming situation with which I needed help. The heck with the five positive emotions; I was going straight for pity. Three shots, the hygienist said. "Yikes," I said, lying back down. I looked up at her pathetically. "Can you give me a deal?"

"Huh?" she said, surprised. She looked at me while I stuck the tube back in my mouth and opened wide. I was done negotiating; the next move was hers. ("Some of the most effective negotiation is accomplished by saying nothing," writes William Ury in his classic book Getting Past No, which I'd lingered over during my weeks of stalling.) "Well, I guess I can do something," she said. "How about I give you the three shots but only charge you for one?" I gave her a drooly smile. "Hank you!"

On my way back to the office, I passed the Alliance Française, a language institute, and realized that in preparation for an upcoming trip, it wouldn't be a bad idea to brush up on my French. Inside, a handsome instructor told me I could get a series of conversation and grammar courses for $75 per hour. "Is there some way I can get a discount?" I asked. "If you sign up for 12 hours of instruction or more, you pay $72 per hour," the instructor said.

What if I signed up for twice that? For 24 hours of classes, could I pay $70 per hour? "No, madame, we cannot do that." "Mais je suis une bonne étudiante!" I said. (Affiliation, en Français.)

"Désolé," said the instructor, with a tilt of his handsome head. I was about to leave, but he seemed to be considering something. "We will be offering a 10 percent discount on all classes soon," he said.

Discount? When? "At the end of the week, you will find a coupon in the newspapers for a discount." Great! What papers? "I cannot tell you that, madame. I do not know." (You might recognize, as I did, an unmistakable Kafkaesque quality in this exchange.) But if I call at the end of the week, you can tell me? "I suppose so, yes. And the discount will be offered on our Web site, also."

Had something been lost in translation? Puzzled, I left. But I was tickled by the idea that I was fast becoming a bargaining virtuoso.

Did a salesman in a high-end shop on Madison Avenue make Val's day?

"Wow, you really stink at making deals!" That's what my editor wrote when she returned an early draft of this story to me. She pointed out that I had not, in fact, gotten a deal at the Alliance Française; I was merely informed of a sale that would be offered to everyone. And I'd actually paid more than I usually would for a taxi ride (I typically tip cabdrivers only 15 percent). In fact, the only deal I'd gotten was at the dentist's (a treatment my editor was half-convinced I didn't even need). Yet the fact that I was in the bargaining game at all made me feel I was winning, even when the result wasn't in my favor—like hitting foul balls and being proud simply because the bat had made contact. I'd thought the moment I opened my mouth to make a deal, I would automatically be thrown out of the game. When I wasn't....I won!

Happily oblivious to the fact that the only thing I was succeeding at was lightening my wallet, I continued to push the limits of sociability. The small John Lobb shop on Madison Avenue in New York City sells handmade shoes for men (and some gentlemanly styles for women). The salesman, smartly dressed and comported, welcomed me into the store. "I'm wondering..." I began. I felt awkward, as if I had just dropped in unannounced at the salesman's elegant home. So I got right to the point. "If I were to buy a male friend a pair of bespoke shoes as a gift, could you help me out on the price?" "Oh, I'm so sorry, I'm afraid not," said the salesman in a consoling way. He told me that the least expensive pair would set me back just under $7,000. I think I turned pale. "But the second pair is usually about $1,000 less," he added. I nodded, as if that were somehow meaningful. "What if I chose a very inexpensive material?" I said, though even as I asked, I was thinking, Like what, aluminum foil? The salesman looked down; he seemed sad for both of us. "I'm sorry, no." I knew I wasn't going to get anywhere, but I couldn't resist one more shot. "And what if my friend's feet were very, very small?" The salesman smiled gently. "The same price, whether he's a size 5 or a 15." His graciousness never wavered. But there were no deals to be had.

When I related my experiences to Shapiro at the Harvard Negotiation Project, he understood instantly why I was only partly successful. ("Not to beat a dead horse," wrote my editor, "but 'partly successful' is overstating it.") "People often see negotiation as adversarial; I see it as a shared problem," Shapiro said. "Both sides need to have their interests met." Evidently, what I gave the taxi driver and the hygienist was an opportunity to feel good about themselves. (Also, the hygienist later confided to me that she asks for deals on everything, so I'd unwittingly given her a feeling of affiliation. "If I'm offered a free drink on a long flight, I'll ask for a second one for later," she said. "If I want a better hotel room, or a free breakfast when it's not included, I always ask. And I almost always get what I want.")

But apparently I hadn't offered the salon receptionist anything beneficial. I might have told her that I'd been to the salon up the street, where the blow-outs were less expensive, but that I liked her salon and was looking for a way that I could afford to keep coming back; if she could work with me, I'd give her my business. At the shoemaker, I might have started by making clear that I wanted to buy. "Here's my situation," I could have said. "I would love it if I could afford a pair of these shoes." I could then have asked if there might be a damaged pair in the back of the store; were they fixable? Rather than let the damaged shoes go to waste, the salesman and I both could have benefited.

I thanked Shapiro for his insight and said goodbye, hugely relieved that my day of deals was over. Though I had forced myself to negotiate all day long, it was never less than excruciating. I hate confrontation, don't like challenging the status quo (unless I think it's unfair), and disagreeing makes me feel...disagreeable. And yet I believed that if I kept at it, I'd eventually hone my negotiation skills.

As a gift to myself for my courage, I stopped in a flower shop on my way home. The air inside was dense and humid and smelled of loam, greenery, and sweet freesia. "I love this smell," I said to the proprietor. I told him I was looking for a flowering plant for my apartment and that I planned to put it in a spot where there was no direct light. This set him off on a disquisition about flowering plants, to which I listened raptly. As he talked, I noticed a couple of lovely little orchids in clay pots. "I wish I could afford every plant in your store," I told him, truthfully. "But how much are those small orchids?" "Seventy-five," he said. "Oh," I said. "Let me think about it." I left the store and returned a couple of hours later, planning to ask for at least 10 percent off. "I was here a while ago looking at the orchids," I said. "Which one do you like?" asked the owner.

We looked at a couple of them together. "The yellow and purple," he decided. "They're the prettiest," I agreed. He glanced at me as he took the flower off the shelf. "I'll give it to you for $65," he said. "But don't tell anyone."

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