When I moved to Castelnuovo last year, I immediately made a mistake. I drove over to the mechanic’s, got out, introduced myself and explained what was wrong with my car. “Lei e’ ricca, signora,” the mechanic said in turn. It was the car that misled him. It’s a ten-year old diesel VW, but a big one, and one of the rare automatics found in Italy—a car that apparently says to the world its owner has cash to burn. The last thing you want, especially as an American new in town, is for anyone to think you’re rich. If I had only driven my Golf–dented on both sides, covered in dust from our long dirt driveway, a war zone inside thanks to popcorn fights on the way home from school and 150,000 miles on the odometer—everything would have been different.
So the ripping off began. At the post office, thinking the lady who works there would know everyone in town, I inquired about where to buy eggs, and was sent to a little old lady who kept chickens. She wanted five euros for five pairs of eggs, when the going rate is three euros for ten pairs, as any local knows. I compounded my error with the electrician. He charmed me because he liked my dogs—two 70-pound Maremman shepherds that barked and jumped all over him—so I forgot to ask for the “no invoice” (i.e., cash) price and surely overpaid. With the backhoe driver who helped me plant some olive trees, I kept my wits and clarified that I rented, not owned, the house. “In that case,” he said, “I’ll charge you two hundred euro less.”
From a vendor’s point of view, the polite, generous and naive American (even one who’s been here for fifteen years) is the best possible client. Since we don’t like to talk about money and we want to seem well off, we’re inclined to accept the first price we see or hear and assume it’s set in stone. But almost anything’s negotiable here, and as anyone who’s studied negotiation dynamics knows, the side with the highest expectations usually comes out on top. So the only way to counter a merchant’s confidence is to check his enthusiasm at every stage of the transaction. I was once witness to the ideal buying scenario, which went something like this:
My friend Sandro walks into an antique shop, wanders around slowly, hands clasped behind his back, frowning, and then heads for the door. The owner, Bracci, calls out, “May I help you?” and Sandro shakes his head. “Non credo. I’ve never seen such a sad selection of cabinets.” Bracci feigns offense, protests against Sandro’s claim, and then launches into a long, florid justification of the quality and style of his wares, wrapping it up by naming the price of the least expensive cabinet.
Sandro guffaws. “I’ll take this one,” he eventually replies, pointing to the finest of the lot, “for half that.” Guffaws now on Bracci’s part, who names a higher price, citing the age and local provenance of the piece. “It’s clearly a fake,” counters Sandro as Bracci starts gasping for breath. Sandro reaches for his wallet, lays cash on the table (the amount he originally offered, rounded down ten percent), and picks up the cabinet to go. Bracci turns red, waves his arms, and calls out “Ladro! (Robber!)” so Sandro sets down the cabinet, and now Bracci really panics.
Needless to say, Sandro got the cabinet at the price he wanted to pay. And what surprised me most was that, when it was all over, he and Bracci shook hands warmly, both looking delighted, as if they had known the outcome all along.
I tried to adopt this stance, on the question of an antique plate, and the result is famous in our family. I thought I had done everything right—the feigning of indifference, the proposal of a radically lower price, the flashing of the wad of notes on my way out the door. I even dragged out my visits over three nervous weeks. But they wouldn’t sell me the plate, and one day it was suddenly gone. Sandro, I asked my friend, where had my theatrics failed? You forgot the most fundamental of rules, he responded. If you really want something, you can’t negotiate at all.