On a recent trip to India and Nepal, I found myself dealing with local people trying to hawk various items to me and the other tourists as we wandered around the monuments and sights. Because it was off-season, we were primary targets since there were so few tourists, especially western ones.
Actually, when I hung back from the rest of my group, giving the others a lot of space, I had less trouble. After I said “no” very loudly and ignored them for awhile, they stopped badgering me and moved on to the other members of my group, who made the mistake of buying something from them. The hawkers would not leave them alone after that. They descended on the whole group like seagulls on food left lying on a blanket or chair on the beach, or pigeons to bread crumbs scattered by a park bench.
What amazed me and the other westerners on my tour is not only how difficult – almost impossible- it was to make them go away or even understand that we did not want to buy anything, but that they did not understand how annoying, frustrating, and even frightening they were to us. They didn’t understand our reactions to them. Clearly we were experiencing a cultural disconnect.
Our tour guide, an Indian who spoke English perfectly and has been leading tours for over twenty-five years, explained to us early on that the best way to get rid of the hawkers was to say, “No thank you,” and then ignore them. Just “no” wouldn’t do it. They think that means, “No, your price is too high; I want to bargain.” The phrase, “No thank you,” is more final. Ignoring them lets them know they are wasting their time. “You have to be patient though. It takes awhile for them to get the message,” our guide said. Unfortunately, few westerners are really that patient.
The people I was touring with couldn’t resist stopping to buy something from one or two of the hawkers, which sent the message that they were fair game and willing to buy something if only the seller was persistent enough and bargained well enough. The rest of us in the group became collateral damage and had to deal with the hawkers, as well, who assumed we were all interested.
For the most part, I refused to buy from the street hawkers and touts. My immediate, almost visceral reaction to them was fear and annoyance. I found them intrusive and threatening. However, toward the end of the trip, I wandered around Patan Durbar Square in Nepal, looking at the wares spread out on tables vendors were selling from. An old Nepali man talked me into buying a pair of earrings. A middle aged Nepali woman talked me into buying a couple of medallions I didn’t need or want.
Later I thought about that: I was comfortable with them and willing to listen to their sales pitch and even felt enough sympathy for them that I wanted to help out and buy something. The difference was that they kept a safe, personal distance. They didn’t come right up and touch my arm and stay less than inch from me, asking me over and over to buy their product in a loud voice, the way most street hawkers did, in both India and Nepal.
They let me have my personal space and then talked to me about each item, explaining what it was, smiling, and giving their pitch in a soft voice. Clearly these two had dealt with westerners before. I realized that the biggest cultural disconnect that causes so much discomfort for both the western tourists and the hawkers is the difference in the way we view personal space.
Tips for dealing with hawkers and touts
My experiences taught me several ways to handle persistent hawkers and touts in other cultures. First, if you’re not interested in what the person is selling, you should say, “No thank you,” firmly and loudly and walk away, ignoring that person. It’s best if you can say it in his or her own language. Make sure your body language clearly shows you are not interested. If you look at the person or his or her wares, the person will see that as a suggestion that you are just bargaining. If you are traveling in a group, this will work only as long as no one else in your group decides to buy something from that person. Then he or she will follow the whole group and continue to hawk his or her wares, loudly, in the hope of another sale. Separating yourself from the other group members, even just a yard or two away, is the only way to make your own body language work for you. Even when dealing with a seller at a stall or table, all of this will still work.
Second, if you are tempted to buy, but you feel threatened by the way the seller has gotten so close to you, raise your hands a bit, step back and say, “Please don’t stand so close to me.” Try to remember that the person is not threatening you. He or she wants to sell something to you. That person sees distance as an opportunity moving away. Hawkers want to get close to you to make sure you buy from them and not someone else. You are a visitor to their culture; you need to adapt to their cultural norms, not the other way around. State that you are interested and start the bargaining process, but step back and put your arm straight out to handle the merchandise or to take it, so as to keep the person at arm’s length of you. However, that limits your bargaining power.
If you really want to get the best price, and some of those hawkers will give you the best bargains you can get, then you need to adapt to the differences in the ways people in that other culture use or perceive personal space. If you don’t, you are going to find yourself frustrated, annoyed and uncomfortable throughout much of your trip.
I returned to the US with quite a lot of Indian rupees in my wallet. I wish I had bought more gifts. The crafts in the different parts of India and Nepal are distinctive, beautiful, and inexpensive compared to what you would pay elsewhere. If I had been able to adapt better and paid more attention to what was being sold, instead of how the seller was hawking it, I might have completed all of my Xmas shopping before July, as well as come home with some fabulous silver necklaces and Pashmina wool scarves for myself.