It's OK to have some rituals and good ol' pomp and circumstance in your meetings.
I just experienced one of the most profound days of my life. On par with my bar mitzvah, my wedding day and coming close even to the birth of my daughter. It was my dissertation defense—the ceremony where a group of professors question me on my doctoral thesis and then decide whether to grant me the degree.
And the depth of this experience convinced me that the key to creating memories—to archiving something on a person’s emotional hard drive—is ritual. Good, old-fashioned pomp and circumstance is what distinguishes a milestone from any old event.
Now most of you with Ph.D.s out there might think I’m being, well, a bit hyperbolic. But that’s because here in the U.S. we do not surround the dissertation defense with a thousand-year-old ritual. Usually, the Ph.D. candidate goes into a little conference room and sits at a table with a few professors. They ask questions, challenge assumptions and generally make the candidate miserable before sending him or her outside to wait for the verdict. Sometimes they call the person back in, sometimes they inform the candidate with a letter. It may be a ritual, but it’s not one people generally look forward to. It’s something one looks forward to getting beyond.
And that’s the frame of mind with which I approached my own dissertation defense. I spent nine years writing this paper, denied myself and family on countless occasions, revised and revised again and again as requested by my committee—and then it was finally approved by my own committee and an additional committee of professors from other universities. Now, because I was doing this through a Dutch university, I had to fly to Holland to defend my paper in person. Even though it was about new media, and for a department of new media, a Skype session would not suffice. Fine, I said, I’ll leave my family for yet another four-night trip and get this thing over with.
But a dissertation defense at Utrecht University isn’t your typical profs-around-a-table affair. It happens in a room where similar defenses have been conducted since the 1100s—and in the very same ritualistic fashion. Professors came from as far as Germany and Finland to participate as “opponents,” bringing their robes and strange hats along with them. An official called the “pedel” led us all into the chamber, carrying a big stick with bells on it. I had to appoint two “paranymphs”—basically bridegrooms—to walk alongside me and stand behind me during the actual defense. And an audience sat in rows watching the whole spectacle. I was required to walk in a certain way, to bow, to start every sentence with “Hooggeleerde opponent,” meaning “most esteemed opponent,” and to make sure not to thank anyone for their questions.
Now you might think, as I did, that all this ritual would obfuscate the actual event. These days, we all look to transparency and simplicity as the keys to meaningful connection and communication. Costumes, ancient phrases of respect and prescribed words and gestures might be fun to watch as tourists at Buckingham Palace, but do they promote a higher quality intellectual conversation about a doctoral thesis?
It turns out they do. Something about looking at all these professors, who flew in from across Europe to serve as attackers, who donned strange robes and spoke weird medieval phrases made it so much more clear to me how important the event—my event—was to them. We all knew just how silly it was on one level, so much so that one of the professors (furtively) stuck his tongue out at me as we all marched into the chamber.
This was all play. Maintaining the sanctity of the ceremony allowed something else to happen on a second level. The actual conversation was like subtext to the words being spoken, like the chatter between players in a basketball game or the conversation between lovers at a masque dance. You have the conversation while you are doing the ritualized task.
It’s a wink-wink maintenance of pretense that serves as the platform for something higher or more meaningful to transpire. The milestone is acknowledged and placed in a thousand-year context. It is at once a hazing and hearty welcome.
On completing the ceremony, I realized just what a dearth of ritual there is on our side of the pond and how our meetings and conferences, in particular, seem to shy away from ritual for fear that it will make them seem stodgy or pathetic. We don’t want to come off like Ralph Kramden’s Raccoons Lodge or, worse, some crazy cult.
Maybe we should reconsider our devotion to transparency and our well-meaning reluctance to encumber our events with weight of performative legacy. Yes, we want newcomers to feel welcome, but we also want there to be some kind of container or culture into which they’re being welcomed.
Ritual creates that boundary, and the more you can connect even just one moment of your event to the essential culture your group represents, the more historic you will make the present. One+
business of meetings,
One+ August 2012,