Funny…I Trust You
July 14, 2008
When we discover a new acquaintance belongs to an affinity group, we take it as a clue we can trust that person. For example, suppose you are a thief. You meet another person and discover that person also steals for a living. You say to yourself, Hey Pat steals from people just like I do. I can trust Pat!
One of my affinity groups consists of people with an exaggerated sense of humor. I tend to trust people who laugh at my jokes or who tell me jokes that make me laugh.
In the two stories that follow I will tell of two cases where my tendency to trust people with a sense of humor misled me.
The first case involves the graphics arts industry. My wife and I worked in this industry for a number of years, first in our own business and then in other organizations. We hate this type of work with a passion that is hard to convey. I’m sure there are worse types of work. For example, one can be a coal miner. Or one can work on an Alaskan crab trawler. At least in a coal mine, there is something good to eat. On a trawler, it’s warm and dry.
The graphic arts business, like romance, involves people who screw each other. The word screw is an interesting idiom. It means 1) fasten two boards together by turning a fastener; 2) fasten yourself to another person (using a slightly different motion) to engage in reproductive activities that often produce intense pleasure (otherwise, why would most of us bother to have children?); 3) hurt someone in a very painful way.
In the graphic arts business the customer wants to reproduce something. From the customer’s perspective, the printer will reproduce it with at least one critical error. From the printer’s perspective, the customer will want work that will be cheap, done quickly, completed perfectly, and delivered cheerfully. As with romance, these expectations will lead each party to hurt the other.
Not everything in my analogy corresponds perfectly. In romance, reproduction expands the opportunity for conflict; soon the reproduction is screaming at the parents, who are, of course, screaming back. In print shops, while one often sees printers and customers screaming at each other, seldom do the printed flyers and brochures join in the cacophony and start screaming at the other participants.
For three years I worked for a quick printing company that owned about 30 stores. Every store was operated by a manager. There were no franchises in the chain (at that time); every manager was an employee. Although the business was horrible, it was remarkably democratic. Some of the managers had college degrees. One of the best managers I knew was an architect. Other managers had no more than a high school education and had worked their way up every painful step of the company ladder.
A manager had to develop a variety of skills. Managers needed technical skills: ability to operate computers and plate-makers, high speed copiers, and off-set printing presses. Managerial skills: supervise and motivate low-paid, unmotivated employees. Customer-service skills: ability to deal with screaming customers without resorting to violence or screaming too loudly back. Sales skills: ability to make absurd promises with such charm customers would come back over and over again even when their work was late and printed in the wrong color.
The managers represented an almost perfect statistical “normal” distribution of talent and ability. There were a few “stars” that made most of the money for the company. The bulk of the managers were “mediocres” who made a little money and didn’t cause too many employees to quit or too many customers to call the Better Business Bureau with complaints. At the bottom were the awful managers who lost money or or caused too many problems for the company’s human resources department, or the attorney they kept on retainer.
Once a quarter we would have a company meeting. Company management would make presentations such as: Clues your press operator is making counterfeit money when you are not looking. (This was a real problem; on more than one occasion employees did in fact use company equipment to run bogus money; one such printer was caught in Las Vegas trying to pass his phony money at a casino.) Sometimes one of the managers would make presentation: perhaps offering sales tips such as How to convince customers they want to print 1,000,000,000 business cards rather than 1,000.
I’ll call one of the managers Abner. He had the slightest hint of a southern accent. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the specifics of his presentations, but everyone loved them. He had a, folksy, down-home charm, pleasant and unforced. His presentations were useful and entertaining. Along with everyone else I immediately liked him and laughed at his light-hearted jokes (always presented in low key good-taste) and witty repartee. He was not only funny; he seemed like a genuinely nice guy.
Sometimes I needed some personal printing done; I might take it to Abner because he was reasonably competent, entertained me while I waited for my work to be done; and…as I said, I tend to trust people who have a good sense of humor. Abner reminded me a bit of the kind of charming characters television actor Andy Griffith played. In his most popular role, Griffith played Andy Taylor, the folksy sheriff of the fictional North Carolina small town of Mayberry.
This is ironic. One day I attended one of the quarterly company managers’ meetings. Abner was not there. There was a slight, low-key buzz in the room; I couldn’t tell what people were talking about. Finally, I cornered a manager I knew well and asked him what was going on. He said, in a rather low voice, “I heard Abner was arrested.” I was shocked; he didn’t have any more details.
The company was keeping the whole affair rather quiet. It took me a week or so to track down the basic story. Abner, for quite some time, had been printing counterfeit gift certificates for a large department store and giving them to his friends. In a way, it was clever. It’s a lot easier to counterfeit gift certificates than U.S. Currency. In a way, he was being a genuinely nice guy; he was helping out people he knew. Even so, when you get right down to it, what he was doing is still called stealing.
Personally, Abner never caused me any problems. He never harmed me in any way. Yet just as a Christian would be shocked and disturbed if he found a member of his church had been up to something wicked, I am still shocked that a person with such a tremendous sense of humor was a crook.
Really, I’m not that funny. Really. Trust me on this.