It was pure good fortune that I read Victor Mair's guest post over at Language Log a couple of days ago. In it, Mair treats with loving respect the details of a sign seen at Silk Street Market in Beijing. The sign lists the Recommended Words and Forbidden Words for the benefit of the salesgirls at the market, and Mair takes particular trouble to dissect the ones that the official translator -- an utter wimp -- failed to rise to.

10: "Just look at how disgusting / revolting you are!" QIAO2 NI3 NA4 DE2XING4. Literally, "look you that virtuous-behavior / nature." The use of DE2XING4 ("virtuous-behavior / nature") to mean virtually its opposite is a good example of the penchant for extreme FAN3HUA4 ("irony; facetiousness") that is pervasive among various social groups in China.

All of which is by way of saying: I still don't understand markets properly.

I know I've rabbited on about this before and I sound quite the grumpy old man, but I really do not understand why the sales people think it worthwhile to be quite so pushy. Are they really rewarded more often for boorish, insulting, in-your-face sales tactics than they are for genuine helpfulness? I find that hard to believe.

I forced my way through the gauntlet of clutching hands to end up at an optician's stand of sorts, where a pushy woman certainly got me interested with an offer of progressive focus specs -- sunglasses too -- for a very reasonable price, about a quarter or less what they would cost in Rome. But she just would not leave me alone to select a couple of frames. She kept thrusting frames at me, getting in my way, chattering meaninglessly, but with menace, and generally being obnoxious. Finally, I confess I snapped.

“Please leave me alone,” I said. “I would like some glasses, but I can't choose if you don't stop bothering me. and if you don't stop bothering me, I won't get them.”

I paraphrase, of course, but I hope I was reasonably polite. I think I was.

She muttered something, possibly No. 9 on Mair's list (“Are you a man?”) and then started again with the “What frame you want? This frame good. Titanium. I give you very cheap price. What frame you want? You want two pair? This frame titanium, good.”

I'd had enough, and I said so.

“No, I'm sorry, I've changed my mind. I won't buy these glasses. I told you to stop pressuring me, and you didn't, so I'm going.”

She dropped the price from 1600 a pair to 1000, which is a steal.

But I really was fed up, and kept walking. It was then, I think, that she did the Duh Sheng. And in English something about a waste of time. All I could think of was to tell her that it was she who had lost the sale by her behaviour, not me. Mair says:

According to my jealous yet awed friends from other parts of China, only a Beijing woman can articulate DE2XING4 with just the right nuance to reduce the object of her contempt to smithereens: DUUUUHHH-SHEENG!

That's as maybe. I was not in smithereens, probably because I'm too ignorant to be. I was angry. The fact is, she did lose the sale, and even at a ridiculously low price, for me, I'm sure there was a goodly profit margin that went down the tubes. Which brings me back to my original question: are the sales people really rewarded more often for boorish, insulting, in-your-face sales tactics than they are for genuine helpfulness?

I suppose they must be. But I should add that among the hundreds of harpies, there were a couple of women whose behaviour stood out and who probably benefited, at least from me, as a result. One very patiently sold me a Lt Uhuru thing so I can look like a complete nerd while talking on the phone. She even went to another stall-holder to charge it to my credit card, because her own card reader wouldn't work. I think I bought the thing, which I hadn't intended to, simply because the salesgirl was pleasant and helpful. The other let me try on a variety of knock-off sharp suits, even though I told her I didn't have enough money to buy one. That was a bit farcical though, because she wouldn't actually name a price. I said I had no money, but that I could go to the bank and get some. So how much would I need?

“Very cheap. Good price.”

We went round and round like this for a while as I slipped between Armani and Paul Smith, but in the end got nowhere. I suspect that had she named a price -- any price -- I would probably have bought out of relief.

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