Wineglass symphony

The smallest village shop, whether it is French or Finnish, follows the law of supply and demand, and to say that is hardly shocking news.

What is shocking, though, is that the law of supply and demand has sneaked outside its rightful territory into areas of which it should stay clear. For almost three centuries, we've been aware of the mechanism of supply and demand. It has become such an ingrained part of our thinking that its tentacles have reached even into areas of our lives that have nothing to do with commerce. When there is no connection to commerce, the result of the warped thought processes can be very sad. And the worst thing is, even as we implement it, when the law of supply and demand is operating outside the field of commerce, we don't necessarily recognize it as such.

When I first had Christmas dinner with my wife's family, it transpired that my father-in-law is the sort of person who always has a trick up his sleeve to entertain guests. In honour of the festivities, a table had been set with wineglasses - not however for us to drink Beaujolais from. As we were waiting for the dessert, my father-in-law wet his index finger and started showing us how to make music by running it around the rim of a wineglass.

Naturally, in such a situation, everybody starts trying to make their wineglass ring, and as I recall I was the last one to charm a reasonably pure note from my glass. So there we were, whining away together, when my father-in-law moved on to his grand finale: balancing a fork and a knife on the tip of a match over his wineglass. If you've never seen this trick performed at any of your festive dinners, please feel free to drop in sometime when we are visiting my in-laws in Jakobstad (Pietarsaari in Finnish). It's really worth seeing. But as it looked rather difficult, the rest of us didn't even try to do it. After the wineglass music and the match tricks, our Christmas lunch continued in high spirits.

Next, on New Year's Day, my wife threw a bachelorette party for a friend who had been her bridesmaid of honour, and for whom she was now matron of honour. The party included a dinner, during which - so I've been told - some drinking was done from wineglasses, and at some point my wife was inspired to show the others how to play them. As you have probably guessed, everybody at this party, too, tried their hand at ringing a tune from their glass.

Telling me about the evening afterwards, she was obviously a bit uncomfortable when she came to this part of it. When I asked her why, she finally confessed in a low voice that she rather regretted having shown all her friends how to play the glasses, because now everybody knew how to do it, it no longer seemed so special.

That was a sharp observation she'd made! A trick loses its value if everybody knows how to do it. There's no longer anything special about it. At least, this is how we always seem to think. On the other hand, you can't claim that music is more beautiful if you don't play it, than if you do. Or that an untold joke is funnier than a told one. And it can't be fancier to play a wineglass alone than to do it for an audience. But that is often how we think.

This story of playing on wineglasses is an excellent example of the notion of supply and demand on the loose outside the world of business. It slips into our everyday thinking and is so underhanded in the way it infects our behaviour that it goes unnoticed.

This way of thinking has been with most of us since we were children. It is what is at work when two children tell a third, "We won't play with you!' It's as if their friendship grows stronger from not playing with others.

In addition to which, "we' might "have a secret that we're not telling you!' Children's secrets can seem amusingly insignificant to adults, but what a secret is about is not what matters - the important thing is that they are not telling it to others! Adults carry this exact same model of operations on into the world of trade secrets. Often, the kind of stuff branded a trade secret can also be absurdly insignificant, but the important thing is that they don't tell others about it. Today's companies are at least as interested in the things they don't do as the things they pretend to be doing and producing. And the doings of such companies aren't always any loftier than kids playing in a sandbox. In the Finnish magazine Tietoviikko, a columnist once wrote about his friend's experiences at a new media company that has since gone bankrupt. There, it was said, they generally spent more time writing non-disclosure agreements than they did doing any real business. In hindsight, the guy was quite happy about it. You really wouldn't want anybody to know about the kind of stuff that was going on inside the new media bubble!

In the light of these observations, there's an ominous sense that much of what we do is done with a logic of mean-spiritedness, whether it is in business or in our everyday lives! We handle our relationships with other people the same way Arabs handle oil production: "After yesterday's meeting, OPEC announced that it won't play with you anymore.'

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