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Recently I was on a beautiful island called Don Det, which is part of an area called “The 4000 islands” on the border of Laos to Cambodia. It was a very nice and relaxed stay with beautiful sunsets in hammocks in front of river side bungalows, great swimming in the Mekong river and pretty waterfalls. You can read more about the island here on my blog on “The Mundane Traveller”: Sunset on the 4000 islands in Laos
But there was a small, but unsettling experience with one of the guesthouses or to be more precise with the of one their provided services: I was giving them one plastic bag of 2 kg of laundry to wash. The next day I was surprised to hear and see on their scale that my laundry was all of a sudden 5 kg. I tested it with my state-of the art notebook, which should be 2 kg according the Apple Computer specification but the their scale also showed 5 kg.
As it was not much money I gave up after some heated discussion from their side. During the discussion I stayed very calm all the time as I am a seasoned negotiator due to the nature of earlier jobs but got quite annoyed. The face the woman put up and the family father of the guest house yelling around that the kilogramm in Laos is not the same as in western countries did not improve my mood and my positive feelings for the rigged scale. We were not able to understand his language, but obviously he did not like tourists too much. I can see where his xenophobic attitude comes from, seeing the erratic behaviour of some of the tourists after taking in too much alcohol or other heightening substances. But that it does not justify swindling, least aggressively denying and pushing the guilt on the victim (us) when caught. They made it look like we were the culprits here by uncovering their scheme and breaking up the nice facade!
So much about the always-smiling stereotype popularized by the Lonely Planet and other guide books. Having lived many years in Asia I must say that stereotype must have been invented by someone in the ivory tower or idealizing their theoretical world. Most people in this world are very nice and good, but please don’t fall into the idealization trap. There are good and bad, very friendly and rude people in every country. Most of them are good and friendly in every place I went to. So I always expect everyone I meet to be good, and normally people live up to this expectation. So this case is really just an exception, I will not change my general positive attitude and believe in the good of people.
The second day another fellow traveller convinced me that for the sake of absolute value integrity it is important to take a stance even in the smallest of cases. So we went to renegotiate so that I got all my money back. Having won the fight on the second day I had to leave the guesthouse to another place. With all that earlier swindling and yelling around I could not stay at that place anymore without fearing that they something worse would happen there.
It was a very challenging experience and induced me to think more about the absoluteness and relativity of values as well as the question if one needs to take a stand or not, even if it is small things and not worth much. Of course in the view of my guesthouse they are right, as I could have weighed the bag before washing, as one of their superficial arguments went. With dropping them the bag of laundry I implicitly agreed to the bag being whatever their scale was showing, so I was almost not right as I made the mistake of not weighing it before. I had a very clear suspicion that they said that before, meaning this is not the first time they got caught, so my bad conscious faded after realizing this. So the take-away here is that I will take a more aggressive stance to my values and interest the next time something like this occurs.
The new bungalow actually turned to out be better. So it was really worth not only for the personal feeling about the situation and the integrity of my value system, but also in comfort terms! After this experience, I will push my value system stronger and live even more by my values in a purer sense. I am of course aware that there is more constructive way to deal with this type of conflict, but then that is for other type of negotiations*: This negotiation classifies as “one-off exchange without repeated exchange in the future”, so the guesthouse lady surely thought of it as of being no consequence whether she treats me good or bad.
But if you look closer to it, these small things are really important for the society as a whole, one or two black sheep can ruin the social trust. Little swindling may seem a small thing with no long-term result, but it erodes the basic level of trusting each other. The worst thing about it, is that those who swindle a bit are most probably not proportionally affected by the negative impact of trust erosion, but distributed onto the social group as a whole.
This is comparable to the pollution of a river by a factory owner. The river pollution is something called “externality” in economics, which is paid on the long-term by the environment and ultimately the generations coming after us. This can be equally applied to social trust, if trust is eroded by some few people, the trust level goes down for everyone as seen in many societies with a general distrust among each other.
*If you are familiar with Herb Cohen: The Art of Negotiation then you may recognize the “Soviet Negotiation Style”, i.e. just fighting off a certain position without giving in or factoring in the real interests of the negation partners / opponents. The guest house owner has surely seen it as a one-off negotiation without further transactions, as no matter what the outcome is, normally there is no second visit, independent from service quality or trust. The other traveller actually used the tactics of “bringing up new information” by weighing two 0.6 litre bottles of Lao beer, so he could re-open the negotiations based on this. Negotiations is a fascinating field and after years of negotiating in the field and applying all the theories learned, there is still something new every single time and a reminder to hold true to who you are. Only the ones who really care, can win a negotiation.
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We are pretty sure I’ve read this exact same type of assertion somewhere else, it must be gaining interest with the world