Middle Eastern and North African countries are vastly different from Western cultures. Characteristics such as language, ethnicity, and predominant religion are the obvious factors, and traveling to these places opens up your eyes to how unique they are.
While we traveled to Morocco with seemingly full knowledge of how to act in these cultural norms, we were not as prepared as we thought. The most unsettling difference is the cultural norm of universal negotiation.
I repeat, in Morocco EVERYTHING is negotiable.
Even though that fact might first strike you as advantageous, let me reassure you, it is more pain than gain.
You won't realize how comforting it is to live in a culture where price tags are commonplace and price comparison is simple until you visit a country like Morocco.
Taxi rates. Negotiable.
Hotel stay. Negotiable.
Street food. Negotiable.
Any item of clothing or souvenir. Negotiable.
Just about the only thing that ain't negotiable is a meal at an upscale restaurant, which generally have their firm prices listed on the menu.
Otherwise, it's game on. Advantage out of the gate: Moroccans.
We mentioned in another post there are four pricing strata which are each still negotiable in their own right. From cheapest to costliest: Moroccans; French Moroccans; French speakers; All other foreigners.
We were advised that the price you first get told for a souvenir or artistic good is around 60 times the true cost!
Knowing this, and especially after spending eight days in Morocco, we caught on to the pricing schemes and got a feel for the fair cost of goods and services.
It's really unnerving knowing how much something should cost and feeling like you have to do battle to keep from getting ripped off at every transaction.
Luckily for you, we've got some tips. Based on feedback from my parents and others who have traveled to countries such as Egpyt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, this cultural phenomenon is similar across the map.
Here are some ways to prepare yourself to win in negotiation and handle the associated stress:
1. Put on your tough guy or tough girl face. Every tout will start his pitch with "my friend!" "My friend, come eat in my father's restaurant." "My friend, I have very nice jewelry." And etc. They are not your friend, and while it is natural for us to be polite and say "no thank you" each time, you will get sucked in. Engaging in even the simplest conversation opens the door to invite them to try harder. So walk through the souk (market) with your most serious business face, and silently ignore anyone with whom you aren't inclined to do business.
2. Don't trust anyone who wants to give you directions or guide you on the street.
Let me simply say that I fell into this trap in Tangier and learned this lesson the hard way. I allowed a random "nice" guy to show us the way around a corner, which turned into one more turn until he got us lost in the medina. Then our unofficial guide rudely demanded to be paid 100 dirham ($10!) for his "services". Many, many men will offer their guide services on every corner. The government only permits official licensed guides, but they bug you just as much as the unofficial scammers. My recommendation is to set up a guide with an agency or your hotel and get a licensed guide whom they trust.
3. Don't be afraid to be a little rude and walk away.
Don't like the price you've been offered? Are you certain it's a rip off? Tell them so and walk away. We did that to a cabby who wanted an absurd price to take us across town. I knew better, and I told him so. He and his buddies laughed at me and said "find someone who will take you for that price." So I did. I walked a few taxis down, and found an honest, kind old man who took my offered price on the spot.
In other cases, if you want to buy some of Morocco's exquisite hand crafted goods, be prepared to walk away from the first couple of shops. You must price things up amongst a few shops to see what they realistically want. Then return the next day, knowing exactly which product you want and how much you want to pay. State your offer immediately and with confidence, and you'll be in a better position to win.
4. Ask a Moroccan you trust.
Despite the impression I may be giving in this post, Moroccans are kind, positive people who are very hospitable. You just have to get past the "tourist" stigma and you'll make quick friends. Many of the employees of our Riad (guesthouse) became our friends in the course of a few days. We could always ask for their estimate of a fair price, which resulted in a good rule of thumb.
It's important when you travel to put yourself in the mindset of locals and understand why their societal norms exist and to adapt to them. However, it also helps when a local understands your point of view and can help you assess a situation. Many younger and educated Moroccans are able to understand Western norms and help guide you to an understanding.
5. Be a man.
Sadly, you can take that statement at literal value. To win in a negotiation, simply be a man, not a woman. Morocco is quite progressive for the Middle East or North Africa, but some of the cultural gender roles remain unchanged. Social rules dictate that traditional outdoor cafes are for men only. Women or families must sit in the back of the restaurant. Most businesses are run by men. At artisan shops, men perform the more "skilled" art work, and women are relegated to "unskilled" tasks.
In negotiation, men hold the upper hand. In one instance, my mom stepped ahead of us and hailed a taxi. She was quoted double the normal price that I would have been offered. At artisan shops, you could visibly notice the discomfort on some men's faces when a western woman tried to negotiate prices with them.
This observation is not meant as a criticism, and Morocco certainly has an opening mind to gender roles. Many young Moroccan women under 40 walk in public without head coverings and in modern attire, and men seem to treat them the same. Professional women run and staff certain businesses, such as pharmacies.
On the other hand, it is quite clear that women hold a different - at times unequal - role in society, especially amongst uneducated, working class men.
For travelers, the best negotiating results will be obtained if a man of the group negotiates. For women solo travelers, merchants will surely haggle with you, but I would do price research beforehand and be extra cognizant of their starting point.
My main point in summary is this: doing business in Morocco is very different than at home. Any transaction can be open to negotiation. Don't let yourself be taken advantage of and your budget escape you in relatively affordable Morocco.
Follow these tips, and give yourself a couple of days to get comfortable. Once you do, you can let your guard down a bit. Morocco is a beautiful country with friendly, helpful people. It's a place you must visit; just do your research ahead of time.