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Learning From The Humorous Side Of Purchasing


John L. Balentine, C.P.M.
John L. Balentine, C.P.M., Purchasing And Contracts Administrator, Washoe County Purchasing, Reno, NV 89520, 702/328-2280

84th Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1999 

Abstract. Many of the situations that frequently develop in purchasing while serious, do have a humorous side to them. Whether writing a bid, conducting negotiations, handling a protest, trying to stay within budget or just dealing with suppliers and customers, when we can see the funny side, it makes our work more pleasant and less stressful. The "human relations" lessons that we can learn from purchasing's humorous side can help defuse potentially explosive situations and assist us to view things from a different prospective. The lessons we thus learn are more permanent and yet less painful.

Background. "If you lose the power to laugh, you lose the power to think." So said Clarence Darrow the famous American lawyer. Yet Flannery O'Connor in his book Mystery and Manners said: "Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe." Thus, in the workplace of the late 1990's there is a conflict. Not that of male against female employees, nor managers against workers or even purchasers against salespeople but an even more fundamental conflict of viewpoint: Humor vs. serious. Much has been written about the value of humor in the workplace.

Properly applied humor has defused even potentially deadly confrontations. Mis-applied it can result in hurt feelings, crushed enthusiasm and even violence. Today's business environment is indeed serious and fast paced. However, humor does have a place.

The Opportunity. Actor Bob Newhart said: "Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on." Humor thus can offer a brief respite from the pace of business. It affords an opportunity for a short rest with a fresh viewpoint on the situation.

We have but to look to see the humorous side of a situation. Theodore Geisel, "Dr. Seuss" wrote in One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish:

"From there to here, From here to there, Funny things are everywhere."

It's a matter of viewpoint and perspective. However, our background, experience and the context of the situation all come to bear on how it's viewed. For example: ethnic humor. Within any given ethnic group there is seemingly an infinite number of jokes and humorous stories relative to the history, culture, art, mores and current events of that group. When told by members of that particular ethnic group to others of that same group, such jokes and stories are funny, have meaning, are easily understood and appreciated. However, when told to members of some other ethnic group, the same jokes or stories may not seem funny, or even be completely understood. Further, when the exact same jokes or stories are related by someone of another ethnic group, they may be considered an insult and affront to members of that group.

Therefore care must be exercised in the use of humor in the workplace. Carl Hiaasen was moved to comment "Humor can be an incredible lacerating and effective weapon." When humor is turned on oneself by oneself or directed at a situation or problem not at an individual, it can be most effective.

Seeing ourselves as others see us, particularly through the eyes of a cartoonist or humorist, sometimes "softens the blow". If we can laugh at ourselves and still take the observations to heart in order to make positive changes, then the humor has accomplished its purpose. However, as Vaclav Havel observed in his book Disturbing the Peace, "Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself, does not."

The purchasing and materials management profession is full of humorous situations, if we will just see them. We do not have to look far or hard either. But, the important point is to look, and after seeing, to learn. Then by applying to our situation what we have learned, we can make the indicated changes. At that point, we have indeed profited from our experiences, as we continue "Learning from the humorous side of Purchasing."

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