style, bartering, and Auction Hunters

One of the students from my Cross-Cultural communication class sent me this link. First: I’m always happy/impressed when a student sends me something related to a class she or he has taken… after the class has ended. It makes me happy that they’re still thinking about the class!

This link and the series that it’s part of would have been great to use in that class. Americans like to use a lot of words and silence in conversation indicates something bad — usually. The other articles in the series point to similar conclusions: Americans like to talk a lot, they like to use numbers, they hate silence, and they are generally well-prepared for negotiations but aren’t very good at being flexible.

This got me thinking about the reality television show Auction Hunters, which I watched recently late at night while visiting my family. If you’ve never watched Auction Hunters, it’s not all that exciting – it’s basically two guys who rummage through abandoned storage spaces looking for valuables. Typically, the show features both auction settings (where Americans tend to excel) and bartering settings (where Americans are stereotypically awful). The auctions feature an auctioneer talking quickly and bidders making small motions to place bids. The auction settings seemed very natural in the show, if hectic, and the two hosts seemed pretty comfortable with setting a maximum price they would pay for things and having a strategy for approaching the auction. Conversely, I thought all of the bartering sequences in the show seemed stilted, or scripted. It could be that they’re re-enacting something for the cameras, or that the presence of the camera makes people nervous, but perhaps the American business conversational style figures into it.

Auctions – lots of talking, lots of words, fast speech, strategy.
Bartering – negotiating, being flexible, considering offers.

With auctions, we anticipate a regular progression of events that follow a script in a particular style. We can research and develop strategies. However, with bartering, there are general expectations for how the interaction will go, but much is dependent on the people involved, their motives, and their conversational styles. Perhaps the stilted nature of the bartering sequences I saw on the show were a manifestation of conversational footing as the participants attempted to negotiate each other’s styles.

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