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A Rule-Based Girl in a Relationship-Based World

April 9, 2018

I am really not great at bargaining.

Anytime I have to do it I get stressed. If I want to buy something in a shop in the medina, I have to work up the will to do it over several days or even weeks. Don’t even ask me to bargain for a taxi – luckily almost all of the taxis within Rabat have meters so I don’t have to worry about it.

Why don’t I like to bargain? Because I don’t like to offend people, and even though I know it’s all part of the act, it makes me feel bad if someone acts offended at a low price that I name. Because I like to please people and so feel pressure not to walk away. Because I still don’t have a good sense of what things should cost, and so unless I specifically ask someone in my host family or on the center’s staff, I don’t know what I should be aiming for. I’m resigned to the fact that, as a foreigner, I will pay more than a Moroccan would, and given the power of the dollar and the favorable exchange rate, I don’t think it’s necessarily unfair. Still, I don’t know how much more is too much. So it’s a nice relief to go into Carrefour where everything has a marked price and I don’t have to do any negotiating.

In the seminar class that accompanies my internship, we read a paper called Cultural Differences in Business Communication by John Hooker of Carnegie Mellon University which discusses the theory of relationship and rule-based cultures. Cultures that are more rule-based, like American culture, place more emphasis on objective, external rules that (are at least supposed to) apply universally, like fixed prices in a grocery store. An outside authority has determined the price for a certain product, and that’s what everyone pays. Cultures that are more relationship-based, like Moroccan culture, place more emphasis on social relationships and interactions or situations are tailored based on those relationships. In the shopping context, it makes sense that there is not a fixed price for a product, because the price is determined based on the relationship established between the buyer and the seller. While in class we discussed such theories of culture in the context of a multicultural workplace, since then I have begun to notice these cultural frameworks at play in everyday life.

According to Hooker, rule-based cultures tend to also be low-context cultures, meaning that information is communicated directly and explicitly and not much is left to context. Again, an example of this would be the labeled fixed prices in American grocery stores. Another example is our expectation that street signs will be accurate and buildings will be logically numbered so that addresses are easy to find, or that stops on a train journey will be announced or clearly indicated on maps and signs. On the other hand, relationship-based cultures, as Hooker describes, tend to be high-context, where little information is communicated explicitly and a lot is expected to be drawn from context. Thus, the lack of need for fixing or marking prices in a place like Morocco, where people within the social context already know about how much they should pay for something. In the old medina of Rabat, it’s very difficult to navigate using an address – houses are not always marked, streets can be narrow and not always named, and maps are not always accurate. I’ve learned my way around the medina by people who know the area showing me where to go. I was struck by another demonstration of the high-contextuality of Moroccan culture on an evening train ride home from Casablanca to Rabat at the end of spring break. It was impossible to hear the stops being announced and it was dark outside making it difficult to see the station signs. Yet everyone else seemed to know where we were, and I asked a couple women across the aisle what stop we were at when their friends disembarked. I surprised myself when I recognized the name of the station and knew where it was in relation to the Rabat Ville station, because I had seen it on a map earlier.

Coming from a culture where I’m used to explicit communication and authority being attributed to external, theoretically objective sources, I often feel like I’m missing something or don’t have a full grasp of the situation here in Morocco – usually because it’s true. I am in the continuous process of learning to live with that.


The reading about rule-based and relationship-based cultures:

Hooker, John N. 2008. “Cultural Differences in Business Communication.” Published in C. B. Paulston, S. F. Kiesling, and E. S. Rangel, eds., Handbook of Intercultural Discourse and Communication, Blackwell.

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