My car got rear-ended two weeks ago, and declared a total loss last week. The body shop called and warned me in advance that the car was probably going to be totaled. So I went and looked up similar cars to my own, on cars.com and autotrader.com, to see what I could expect to get for it. I looked up Kelley Blue Book values and Edmunds.com True Market Values.
Then I looked up some advice on what to expect out of the process -- and ran smack up against people talking about the insurance company offering them much less than the car was worth. I realized that I was going to have to negotiate with the insurance adjuster over the cash value of my car.
Here's the thing. I'd never negotiated anything financial before. And negotiation terrified me.
Like many women in my culture and society, I grew up with the knowledge that my job was to make other people happy and not cause trouble*. Moreover, I grew up knowing that it's rude and greedy to respond to someone's offer by asking for more. So negotiating felt like purposefully being rude, purposefully making someone unhappy or angry, purposefully making someone else's life more difficult. It felt like being a real jerk. Or, to use the gendered term -- being a bitch.
In the Asimov short story "Cal," the titular robot is forced to contend with the idea of harming a human being (against the First Law of Robotics). In response, he says, "I felt my positronic brain-paths go rough." That's how I felt -- like a robot whose positronic brain-paths go rough to prevent it violating its programming.
But rough positronic brain-paths or no, I was going to have to replace my car. To do that, I was going to need money. And I wanted to maximize that money more than I wanted to avoid the conflict.
So when the adjuster called, and offered me $1000 less than the median price I'd seen in all my research…I negotiated. And while I was nervous, I didn't feel my positronic brain-paths go rough. I found myself naturally framing the negotiation as a matter of objective evidence. It was the same style of conversation I'd have with a colleague who disagreed with me on a point of science. He presented his number, $X; I hemmed polite disagreement and said "Well, I've been doing research, and the prices I'm seeing are about $Y" (where $Y was the approximate median value I'd seen in my research). He explained the "policy" justifications for their numbers -- "Our policy is to look at Blue Book private party value. We don't give replacement value, just market value."
I then explained the sources of my numbers, and pointed out that since I was looking at cars for sale, the numbers I'd seen had by definition taken market conditions into account. "Apparently," I said, "local market conditions are such that cars like that one are selling for a bit more -- probably because it's a gas-efficient car and gas prices are rising."
He said "All right, I'm pulling up autotrader.com here…let's see." He did exactly the same search I had, and found exactly the same results I had (which he read aloud). After that, he revised his number upwards to a number much closer to the approximate median value I'd found. Success!
Afterwards I felt exhausted and shaky, as though I'd just had a fight. At least I never have to talk to this guy again, I thought, so it doesn't matter if he thinks I'm a bitch for being so stubborn about this.
And then I had to talk to him again. One of the guys at the body shop wanted to buy my wrecked car for himself, so I had to call the adjuster back and tell him I wanted to keep the car as salvage. I steeled myself to deal with someone who probably hated me now, and called him first thing in the morning.
…At which point, while putting together the new paperwork for me, he cheerfully chatted with me about the weekend, how he'd taken his son to the park, and how bizarre it was that it had been so beautiful all weekend but was going to snow that night. Yes, small talk, but his tone and demeanor were genuinely friendly.
And then I got it. It was a game. It didn't affect our interactions outside the negotiation, any more than you'd stay mad at a friend who blocked your shot in a pickup basketball game. The negotiation was an expected game, with defined and understood rules. By asking for more and sticking with my position, I was just playing according to the rules; he was doing the same. Our actions in the game were understood to be separate from the rest of life. Once the game was over, we could metaphorically shake hands and buy each other a beer.
I've often heard and read people say that. I never understood how it could be true. How could you possibly disregard an argument you'd just had? How could you possibly not be angry at each other? How could you treat it like a game where nothing matters?
Now, suddenly, I get it. It's not a real argument. No one's actually angry. It's a game played out in the guise of a verbal disagreement. It's a ritual argument. When you make a display of anger or offense, you expect that the other person will understand it just to mean "I'm going to push back," not think that you are truly personally offended.
I still think it's a jerk move to start playing this game in a context where the other person doesn't understand that this is a ritual argument and not a real one. It's dishonest and manipulative to take advantage of someone who reacts to your ritual display of offense by thinking they've truly said something wrong, using their apology and guilt to win the game when they didn't even know they were playing.
But in certain contexts, in this culture, negotiation is an expected game. Buying a car or a house; getting a job or a raise; other business and financial contexts. In other situations, it's possible to learn and pick up on the signals that this is a ritual argument -- that you're playing a game. And in those situations, I now see how the game can actually be fun.