Follow-Up To Our Show, 'An FBI Hostage Negotiator Buys A Car' : Planet Money A listener questions the credibility of an anecdote in one of our shows. We follow up.
NPR logo Follow-Up To Our Show, 'An FBI Hostage Negotiator Buys A Car'

Follow-Up To Our Show, 'An FBI Hostage Negotiator Buys A Car'

We recently received an email from a listener about our show, An FBI Hostage Negotiator Buys A Car.

In that show, Cathy Tinsley of Georgetown University told a story about negotiating to buy pumpkins in a market in Africa.

The listener wrote:

Subject: Credibility issue w/ French pumpkin story

I enjoyed the negotiations podcast, but was surprised by the pumpkin negotiation anecdote. When I took negotiations with Professor Jeanne Brett at Kellogg in 2004, she told this exact story down to the detail of it being a French farmer. She also told it as a personal experience.

The story Cathy Tinsley told was about an experience she had when she was with the Peace Corps in the Central African Republic (not France). Here's what she said on our show:

I'd been in my village for about five or six months and I decided that I wanted to have everybody in my village over for Thanksgiving dinner, and I was going to make some pumpkin pies. So I went to the marketplace to try to buy pumpkins, and there was only one woman that had pumpkins and she had four of them. And I thought about how many people were coming to dinner, and so I asked how much were her pumpkins. And she said 25 francs, Central African francs. And I said, "OK, great. I'll take all four of them." And she said, "No no no, I'm only going to sell two to you."

Tinsley said there were no other vendors selling pumpkins, so she offered to pay twice the asking price. But the woman insisted on selling only two. Tinsley continued:

Finally, I think out of desperation, I really was about to just quit. And I just said to her, "Why? Why will you only sell me two?" And she said, "Well, it's the end of the harvest, and if I sell you all four pumpkins then I don't have any seeds to plant for next year." And I looked at her and I said, "You know we got a really easy deal here," I said, "because I only want the outside part of the pumpkins and you want the inside part."

Here is Jeanne Brett's pumpkin story from her book "Negotiating Globally":

When my daughters were in grade school in a small village in the south of France, the teacher asked my husband and me to plan a Halloween party. He wanted his class of thirty-two children to carve pumpkins. My job was to buy the pumpkins. I looked everywhere, finally locating a roadside stand with exactly thirty-two pumpkins. I immediately accepted the seller's price, because I had no other source of pumpkins. (It's also not customary in outdoor French food markets to negotiate prices.) But when I told the seller that I wanted to buy all her stock, she shook her head no. What to do? My alternative was poor. Offer her more money? Try sympathy, tell her why I wanted all thirty-two? Instead, I asked her why she wouldn't sell me all her pumpkins. She said if she sold all her pumpkins to me, she would have no seeds to plant the next year. "Chere Madame," said I, "if I bring you all the seeds November 1, will you sell me all your pumpkins?" She said yes, each child got a pumpkin to carve, and a picture of the children and Mme. Petit's pumpkins, as I later learned her name was, graced the front page of the local newspaper.

After getting the email I followed up with Cathy Tinsley. She said she'd told the story many times over the years, and the actual event is now hard to recall. When she first told me the story, she had mentioned that a friend was with her in the market. I asked for the friend's name, but she said she couldn't remember who it was.

I asked Tinsley for a written response to post here. This is what she sent:

Two sisters are negotiating over who gets the last orange in the refrigerator. They are at impasse because each sister takes the position that she wants the orange. When they finally ask each other why the other wants the orange, they discover that one sister's interest is in the inside part to make juice and the other sister's interest is in the outside peel for the zest to make a cake. This famous two-sisters-and-the-orange parable is often used to show the benefit of negotiating over interests rather than positions. As negotiation teachers, we find ways to illustrate this point with more colorful real-life examples so that students understand that this phenomenon is not merely theoretical but applies to many everyday life exchanges. Using similar real-world examples is not uncommon and many readers will probably now be able to diagnose they have their own version of this "positions versus interests" story from their own lives. Hopefully, the lesson of using interests over positions is compelling as I have found it beneficial in my personal negotiations.

I asked Tinsley to respond to the question of whether the pumpkin story had actually happened to her. She declined, writing that she didn't think the listener who wrote to us was raising that question.

I also reached out to Jeanne Brett who told me she had been Tinsley's thesis advisor. Brett said "My story has been in my book since 2001. It happened."