I have always assumed that the language medium plays a big role in the price you get for things. If you start out asking in Nepali, storekeepers will often tell you that they're going to give you the "Nepali price." I always assumed that this was actually a mid-level price, a bit discounted from the exorbitant tourist price but above the asking price quoted for Nepalis themselves. But I've never really had any proof that the language you speak (as opposed to say, nationality) has any effect on bargaining effectiveness. I wanted to test that in a quasi-scientific sort of way, so I headed to the strange tourist netherworld of Thamel, where tourists stroll around the stands of Buddha figurines and khukuri knives, the only rickshaw drivers in the city wait around every corner, and touts and knick-knack sellers call out to every Westerner they see about their travel prices, their sarangis, their hashish (in a lower voice), street children huff paint out in the open and ask tourists for a few rupees for dictionaries or shampoo, and above the shoe shiners and beggars with physical disabilities and cute children selling postcards and women asking for milk for their babies there are Western-style coffee shops and guest houses and restaurants.
I was looking for something ubiquitous, something sold at every stand and of about the same price everywhere, and my first inclination was to ask people the price for Tibetan singing bowls. I quickly discovered that the problem here was that slight differences in quantity and quality change the price of these bowls quite a bit. Generally at a single stand there would be three or four different prices quoted for different bowls, and the asking prices ranged from 500 to 2000 rupees.
One thing I noticed was the difference in the tone of conversation between English in Nepali. If I said "How much is this?" a shopkeeper would generally try to show me how to play the bowl, would smile and ask me where I was from, and then tell me a price. If I said "Tyasko kati parchha?" a shopkeeper would show me the range of bowls, tell me which were more expensive and which were cheaper, tell me which were machine-made and which were handmade, and show me differences in sound quality.
At one stand I was given an asking price of 1600 rupees in English, and then I sent my buddy down to ask for the price again, but this time in Nepali. The asking price was 1200 rupees. Still, this was not quite vaguely quasi-scientific enough for my tastes, so I decided to try this again with dhakka topis, the traditional Nepali hats that are worn by older men and often given to visitors as parting gifts.
|Bottom right. Creepy heads cost extra.|
If I was going to buy one of these hats, I would expect to eventually pay around 100 rupees (a bit less than $1.50). In English the asking price ranged from 300-500 rupees with an average of about 350, and in Nepali the asking price ranged from 150-300 rupees with an average of about 230.
Again, the more obvious difference was the tone of the conversation. In English the salesperson would ask how many I wanted (I always said "one" in either language), how I enjoyed Nepal, would show me a mirror in back and give me instructions on wearing the hat properly, and when I tried to leave would insistently call me back and lower the prices as I walked away. In Nepali the salesperson would ask how many I wanted, would show me the different designs and describe the difference in quality, and would not pester me if I decided to walk away.
So my hypothesis was more or less confirmed. Speaking the English language, people think you are a tourist. Speaking in Nepali (for someone like me who is obviously not a native Nepali), people know you must be something else, a volunteer or an expat or a foreign government employee maybe, and so it is assumed that you have a little bit of knowledge about what you are buying. The next step would be to somehow convince some of my Nepali friends to go down into Thamel and do the same thing and see if there is an even lower "Nepali price."