Written by Jon // Oracle, and first published on 2023-02-19
This article introduces a new aspect to Athasian trade - the cross-cultural gap.
A New Aspect
This article introduces a new aspect to Athasian trade - the cross-cultural gap. The cultural differences between the various populations of the city states and races affect the customs and rituals associated with trade. Dune Trader contains information on dealing with various races, but very little information on the cultural differences between the various city states.
How a trader should approach a fellow trader from another culture will vary greatly from city to city, regardless of race. The vast majority of traders are human, naturally since the majority of city dwellers are human. While it is important to be aware of any interracial differences of note when dealing with a member of another race, the culture in his or her city of origin will also have affected her customs, beliefs and views to some degree – and this extends to the way in which trade, in his or her subjective opinion, should be conducted, as much as racial identity does.
When traders from two different cultures meet, two “iron rules” apply:
The seller is expected to adapt to the buyer.
The visitor is expected to observe local customs.
In other words, the saying “When in Tyr, do as the Tyrians”, applies to some extent.
Deal Focus vs.
I have categorized the 7 city-states (Balic, Draj, Gulg, Nibenay, Raam, Tyr and Urik) by two categories, Focus and Context, each with two subcategories, as per the included table. This grants us a total of four combinations: deal-focused & low-context cultures, relationship-focused & high-context cultures, deal-focused & high-context cultures, and relationship-focused & low-context cultures. Cultures who share the same focus and/or context have an easier time dealing with one another than those who don’t. For instance, the Gulgans (relationship-focused, low-context) and the Urikites (deal-focused, high-context) tend to have more problems communicating efficiently and understanding each other than the Tyrians and the Balicians, who both have deal-focused and low-context cultures.
It is to be noted that in intercultural dealings, linguistic mistakes are far less impactful than cultural mistakes. A simple linguistic mistake does little harm compared to what a cultural mistake might do. For instance, walking up to a stranger from a relationship-focused culture and making a business proposition gets you as far as a half-giant in a dwarven hut – nowhere.
In deal-focused cultures, a trader can make initial contact with a prospective buyer or trade partner without any previous relationship or connection. Having an introduction or referral is helpful but not essential. In relationship-focused cultures, however, people prefer to deal with family, friends, and persons or groups well known to them – people who can be trusted. Thus, a third-party introduction is often necessary to break the ice. In relationship-focused cultures, a trader must first make an acquaintance, before he or she can make a trade proposition.
In a low-context culture, people are generally direct, speak clearly, and communicating is relatively easy; the verbal aspect of communication is emphasized - what you say is what you mean. A high-context culture is the opposite; communication is more difficult as it is permeated by culture-specific codes and body language, often unknown to foreigners. Verbal communication is more vague and indirect. Low-context cultures often view high-context cultures as inscrutable, sometimes even untrustworthy. Likewise, high-context cultures often perceive the direct approach of a low-context culture to be rude and arrogant, and their emphasis on verbal communication to be childish and primitive.
In Free Year 11, Balic is a divided metropolis run by trade lords, two of whom are plutarchs. Naturally, commerce plays an important role in all levels of Balican society, as the city is run by merchants. The open markets of Balic have always been a forum for public gathering and socialization. Supply has traditionally exceeded demand in Balic, as exotic goods from all over the Tyr Region have found their way to the city’s markets, primarily due to the absence of sales taxes in Balic. Over the years, a deal-focused culture has evolved. Balician merchants have found it convenient to formalize relations with traders from different cultures with customs different from their own. A written standard contract was introduced several decades ago to avoid confusion between partners with different cultural backgrounds.
The contract is but a formality of little importance when dealing with relationship-focused traders, such as the Nibenese, but is vital in negotiations with other deal-focused traders, especially the Urikites, who won’t conduct business without one. And of course, you’d be naive to expect an elf to honor any form of a contract!
Traders usually get right down to business and haggle over prices until all parties are satisfied. Questions are promptly asked and answered during negotiations. Then the parties sign a trade contract and arrange a time and place for transactions to occur. Deals are usually negotiated between senior agents of the merchant houses and it is customary for the Balican party to provide room and board for visiting traders. After a contract is signed, it is customary to share a bottle of wine or liquor to celebrate a successfully completed deal.
Balic has a low-context culture. In addition to being very direct, Balicans express themselves in clear language to avoid unnecessary confusion with their trade partners. The limited amount of body language used is very simple, corresponding to general gestures and expressions used all over the Tablelands, a result of the cultural clash through King’s Ages with foreign traders seeking to enter the city’s markets. The meaning of one particular local gesture is important to be aware of, though – if a Balican tips his head back without saying a word, this is the non-verbal equivalent of saying no. In most other city-states this gesture means yes. Also, waving an open hand with extended fingers at a Balican is a gross insult; to a Balican, this gesture means “you’re running around like an erdlu with its head chopped off”. For Balicans, the correct way of greeting someone at a distance or to get their attention, is to shout at them.
The warrior people of Draj view trade as something beneath the warrior ideal. The important role of traders in society is recognized, but their popularity is low, unless of course, the traders have marked themselves as decent warriors on occasions such as the Flowery Wars. Few want to socialize with average traders, and especially foreign ones. Based on these cultural facts, the Draji have a deal-focused culture.
Draji traders put as much emphasis on the warrior ideal as any other citizen of Draj, even if they do not necessarily live up to it themselves. A Draji trader will size up potential partners and customers based on their appearance: strong-looking traders will impress the Draji, and will be at an advantage when negotiating a deal. Similarly, frail-looking traders will be at a disadvantage. Draji negotiate in loud voices and they try to intimidate those with whom they bargain, to bend them to their will. If a Draji trader detects weakness in an “opponent”, he will exploit that weakness to deal a “fatal blow” in the negotiations.
Written contracts are seldom used in Draj. Draji are accustomed to oral contracts and the spoken word is the agreement in Draj. The Draji believe that those who depend upon written contracts are too weak to deal retribution on those who fail to fulfill their end of a bargain - too bad for them. To demand a written contract from a Draji trader is to say that you do not expect him to follow through on the deal – an extreme provocation and one that has got many foreign traders into trouble.
Draji are aggressive negotiators, who stare their opponents straight in the eye and strike their fists together to emphasize their points. The Draji culture is a low-context culture: facial expressions and aggressive body language complement verbal communication in the Draji tongue, but it is not necessary to study Draji culture in detail to understand what a Draji is saying or what his feelings on a particular subject are - it shows all too well. Draji traders often have trouble negotiating with Nibenese and Urikite traders. The Draji’s aggressive approach to negotiations tends to appall the Nibenese, and the violent body language and the loud speech of the Draji – in addition to their tendency to lose their temper – make Urikites feel they lose face at the hands of the “immature” Draji.
The Gulgans, through their community social structure, naturally have a relationship-focused culture. Trade is generally conducted between friends and acquaintances in and around the various dagadas. However, it is not uncommon for a foreign trader to become an accepted trade partner. Gulgans are a practical lot, and trading any surplus goods not needed elsewhere in the city with foreign traders is encouraged to bring more wealth to the dagada and city, and ultimately more taxes into the Oba’s coffers.
It is customary for a trader to bring a gift to a representative of the dagada they wish to conduct business with. An appropriate gift is one of monetary as well as symbolic and practical value. For instance, a dasl or metal hammer would be an ideal gift for a member from a carpenter’s dagada. It is durable, symbolizing the strength of the trade relationship proposed, an idol that represents the craft itself, and it can be used in actual production by a carpenter. Once the gift has been delivered, inspected, and approved, the trader and the dagada’s representative usually sit down in the representative’s tree hut and converse for several hours. During the conversation, the parties exchange stories, test each other’s wits, and engage in a friendly bout of arm wrestling. After these bonding rituals, the trader is invited to dine with the Gulgan and his family. Sometimes, if the trader is a representative from a large merchant house, a great feast is held where the trader is introduced to the entire dagada by the Gulgan representative. Only after this meal will the Gulgans talk trade.
Gulgans are a straight-forward people: their culture is low-context culture. They communicate mostly verbally, and are very direct. If a Gulgan has something on his mind – especially something he’s dissatisfied with or finds strange, he blurts it out. This behavior can seem odd or even rude and arrogant to some peoples, such as the Urikites, who go to great lengths to conceal their emotions and keep face, so that everyone’s honor remains intact. Gulg also has a high-contact culture. After Gulgans get to know one another, male friends will shake hands lengthily and embrace, while female friends brush cheeks with a kissing motion of the lips. Gulgans readily pat each other’s backs and touch each other’s faces, but do not expect the same from their trade partners.
The Nibenese have a relationship-focused culture that centers on the family. In Nibenay, it is not a question as to who you are, but who you know. The Nibenese are generally polite but are wary of outsiders who are unfamiliar with their culture - this has made it very difficult for foreign merchants to conduct trade in the city. The Nibenese will not deal with people they do not know they can trust; a third-party introduction is necessary to bridge the relationship-gap between a foreign trader and the person or house he wants to conduct business with. Ideally, introduction should come from a family member, but any relationship will do. If no one can put in a good word for him, though, the trader can forget about the Nibenese market.
When a trader is introduced to his prospective partners or customers, they will first be asked questions about their family, interests, clothes, taste in music, taste in beverages etc. – all non trade-related. If the trader declines to answer the questions, or starts to talk about trade, he or she will be viewed as very rude and inappropriate to conduct trade with. If the meeting goes well, and the Nibenese are satisfied with the trader’s answers, they will invite the trader to a second meeting. The second meeting usually takes place in comfortable surroundings and involves consuming considerable amounts of rice wine. Again, it is inappropriate to mention trade matters – the Nibenese have invited the trader as a friend, not as a business partner. If the trader passes this ordeal, he will be invited to a third meeting where they will discuss trade.
The Nibenese also have a high-context culture. It is not as much what is said, but the context in which it is said that matters. Body language, especially hand gestures, permeates the Nibenese way of communication, which can be tied to the cultural importance of dance as an expressional art form in Nibenay. Traders should be careful not to wave their hands about – while most Nibenese simply find it amusing when a stranger makes a gesture that changes the meaning of what he says to something incomprehensible, an unlucky trader could end up insulting someone gravely without even knowing it, ruining an otherwise promising deal. The Nibenese are very polite when conducting trade, and rather than show disinterest or say “no” directly, they will use phrases such as “That would be inconvenient.” and “We will have to look further into this”. Also, if a Nibenese person suddenly becomes quiet and only nods her head as a response, it is a good indication that the negotiations are indeed over for their part, and the deal is off.
In Free Year 11, Raam is not a place most traders want to visit to conduct trade because of the riots and the factional in-fighting to gain control over the city. House M’ke, the most powerful merchant house based in Raam, has several outposts and compounds in the 7 cities, however, that traders can conduct business with. The Raamian traders are friendly towards possible trade partners and customers. Their ways of conducting trade, however, can be perceived as arrogant and peculiar to outsiders who are unfamiliar with the concept of castes, a system practiced in Raam with great impact on social structures. The caste system also affects how trade is conducted. The Raamian approach to trade is generally relationship-focused.
In Raam, the concept of haggling does not exist. A merchant’s prices will vary depending on the caste his customer belongs to: customers of higher castes are granted exceptional service and lower prices than those of lower castes. A non-Raamite is treated as casteless – and receives the worst treatment as a customer and the least preferable treatment as a trade partner. When dealing with outsiders, Raamians will convey the memorable moments and deeds of their lives, and emphasize the status of their caste – and how they were born to fit that role. A foreign trader who in turn tells his life story and brags about his own achievements will, however, be viewed with esteem, assuming of course the achievements are on par with their Raamite counterpart’s tale. In that case, the foreign trader will receive certain benefits, decided by the Raamian trader. It is not uncommon, “in the greatness of the Raamish”, for a Raamite trader to extend the benefits of their caste to the foreign trader, as a sign of goodwill. This essentially means a better price and better service, and possibly better deals if introduced to another Raamian trader by the Raamian in question.
Before Abalach-Re’s death at the hands of Sadira of Tyr, and the chaos following the arrival of the information on her death, Raam’s racial and ethnic diversity played a major role in trade patterns within the city. The fact that non-humans make up the majority of the city’s population lead to the concept of racial market segmentation. The various races would focus on trade with their fellow race members, and limit trade with other races to a minimum. Raam’s dwarves, for instance, would mostly conduct business with other dwarves in the city. Today, there is no real trade situation within Raam’s city walls, and the concept of racial segmentation has been abandoned in the battle for survival.
Raam is also a high-context culture. The Raamites have a very advanced form of sign language – not only does the sign language cover all spoken words in the Raamish tongue, but it also allows a very detailed level of emphasis and mood to be added to any word. The right hand is used for gestures that constitute words, while the left hand is used for punctuation, emphasis, and mood. Foreigners who master the Raamish sign language are treated with great respect, for it is difficult to master and also forbidden to be used by casteless Raamites. The great majority of foreigners who do not know the intricate sign language are at a disadvantage at the trading table, as the Raamians use their sign language to convey mood, emphasis, and even pass on secret messages to one another.
The spoken language of Raam is also difficult for outsiders to navigate, with the word Raamish used to describe things originating in Raam (i.e., Raamish rugs or the Raamish language) and the word Raamian generally used to describe the people of Raam (i.e., a Raamian templar or the Raamian legion), though large groups within Raam, especially the city’s thri-kreen inhabitants - who cannot properly pronounce the word “Raamian” - prefer to use the word Raamite, among others.
Trade in the Free City is regulated by the Bureau of Finance, run by the templars. Since the time of Kalak’s regime, the Bureau of Finance has been responsible for tax collection and controlling market fluctuations with floating sales taxes for different goods and strict quotas on exports, in particular the flow of iron. The liberation of Tyr’s slave population created a vacuum in terms of supply and demand – and a shortage on many goods. The templars went to great lengths to keep the price level from rising on vital trade goods such as food, water and clothing, cutting back on sales taxes for those products, and increasing the sales taxes on luxury items to keep the city’s income from sales taxes normalized. This encouraged traders to import necessities over luxury items and also attracted several foreign merchants from other city states. Today the trade situation has normalized to some degree, and while surplus is still greater than demand, the floating sales tax is more balanced in terms of taxation on necessities and luxury items.
All these events have conspired to change the relationship-focused culture of historical Tyr to become a deal-focused culture tied to the Free City in the Age of Heroes. Relationships between the great noble families and major trading houses still exist, and business conducted between these parties is still dominated by disputes and alliances of old. However, among the smaller merchant houses and new traders to the city, such ties are almost non-existent, and just about anyone will trade with anyone who can throw a good deal on the table. Some markets, such as the iron trade, are difficult to gain access to, and having connections to the templars in the Bureau of Finance is undoubtedly a valuable asset. For those who do not enjoy the privilege of such relations, there is always the option of bribery. Greasing the wheels of bureaucracy is sometimes necessary. While foreign traders will have difficulties trying to gain a templar’s favor, a Tyrian merchant of some reputation stands a fair chance of being able to influence the authorities in question.
Tyr has a low-context culture. Its population of ex-slaves comes from all over the Tablelands. Formal codes of communication tied to the specific cultures of the individual city states have vanished or been incorporated into the trade tongue. The spoken language is not all that different from the one spoken in Balic. Striking a deal with Tyrian traders is essentially an open-minded session of haggling back and forth until the parties come to acceptable terms. Negotiations start with all involved parties introducing themselves to one another, usually informally and on a first name basis. Deals are struck everywhere, at a merchant’s stand in the marketplace, at a small tavern, in a back alley, or in the offices of a merchant house. A deal is completed with a handshake. While the importance of the handshake might seem to be a mere formality to outsiders, Tyrians believe they can learn a great deal about a person through the handshake. A firm handshake is attributed with dedication, sincerity, potency and strong spirit, while a frail handshake is associated with weakness, cowardice and lack of belief in oneself, and even lack in sexual ability.
Trade in the city of Urik has become increasingly bureaucratic over the years. This has resulted in a deal-focused culture permeated by a rigid law system. Traders are aggressive and direct in their approach. In Urik, it is not uncommon to strike a deal with a complete stranger. The written contract is a necessary formality – all mercantile activity is to be registered by Hamanu’s templars, and written contracts are required by law. The contract outweighs the spoken word, and protects both parties involved in a transaction, as well as detailing the nature of the bargain and the amount of goods involved for templar records. The penalty for violating a written contract in Urik is fierce – the law requires the estimated values of the transaction and any financial losses to be compensated by the violating party, either in coin, goods or through labor – traders who cannot meet their end of a contracted bargain become slaves if they are unable to compensate their trade partners’ losses.
As a proud warrior-people, the Urikites are concerned with honor and not losing face. Haggling is a central part of the Urikite trading traditions: trade is viewed as a contest, but both parties must be content with a given bargain. It is important to keep both your and your trade partner’s honor intact. By offering a price that is far too low or ridiculously high, or making negative comments about your “opponent’s” goods, you insult him. If a Urikite feels he has been insulted, he will politely smile before excusing himself and leave the scene – losing one’s temper is viewed as childish and both parties lose face if such feelings are displayed openly.
The Urikites have a high-context culture. Non-verbal communication is at least as important as the spoken language - unspoken codes and facial expressions dominate Urikite communication in all situations. The blink of an eye, touching one’s nose with the index finger, or a polite but emotionless smile tells more about a Urikite’s opinions than a hundred words. A polite way of informing someone that their offer is uninteresting is to raise one’s eyebrows. In contrast, to tell someone verbally that their goods are of no interest to you is to insult and dishonor them. Many potential deals between Urikite and Gulgan traders have faltered – the Gulgans do not see the point in a written contract, and the Urikites are easily offended by the Gulgans’ bluntness.