The Power of Rituals in Commerce

Elements of ritual[image via]


A former police detective wrestles with his personal demons and becomes obsessed with a hauntingly beautiful woman. The ex-cop has a paralyzing fear of heights, yet has the task of preventing a friend’s wife from committing suicide.

To establish internal conflict and create a sense of uneasiness, Hitchcock used for the first time an in-camera visual effect created using a dolly zoom. Everything about Vertigo goes together to distort perspective and disorient: the music, the 1950s grainy film with dull colors, the changing light and the incredible shot locations.

It's like a dream where opposite forces are at work.

The movie depicts a surreal dreamlike world. Set in San Francisco in 1958, it's like nothing before or since. One reviewer calls it “unforgettable and mesmerizing.” Vertigo is no easy, lean back experience. Rather it's an alien new world you enter. Great locations and strange characters take you on a strange uneasy journey with Jimmy Stewart.

There's no return for the lead character who ends up somewhere between sanity and insanity. But with the director as your guide, disorientation fulfills its purpose to separate you from your world for a spell.

Perhaps you know the feeling as the IKEA effect. And for good reason. You get lost in the store. The path is non-linear. This kind of being lost gives you a permission slip to discover the store and yourself.


The transformational processes of identities


“If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

[Antoine de Saint-Exupéry]

In a wonderful conversation with David Kepron, Jonathan Cook explains the role of disorientation in ritual design. Things have become literally disenchanted nowadays, without magic. Boxy, utilitarian, functional, algo-driven. We can't survive psychologically without magic. This is what human business is all about—creating magic spaces with common meaning and objects of significance.

Consultants and coaches are familiar with the idea of a safe container. Cook is a researcher, ethnographer, questioner, and—as I found out by reading anything he's written I could get my hands on—a wonderful writer. Kepron is an architect and artist. Which explains the rhythm of the conversation.

Rituals are highly symbolic experiences. They allow us to become someone different. To do that, we need to let go of our previous identity. Change is extremely stressful. You're asked to play a different game. Hence why in ancient times, people created rituals. The Catholic Church was masterful in its design and rebranding of rituals to unite under the same experience.

Thresholds are key elements of ritual design. When you go through a doorway, you step inside a new place. Hence thresholds are liminal (Lat. limen, in between) spaces—when you're in the gap of what is outside and what awaits inside an experience.

Hitchcock made abundant use of thresholds in his films. Remember the moment when Grace Kelly steps into the man's apartment in Rear Window? She crosses a threshold. Did you know that Rear Window was filmed from the angle of one single room? Fantasy and fear alternate in the story.

Kepron and Cook say that for the transformation to take place, you need a guide. Someone you trust, who helps you pay attention to what is happening. Hitchcock is our guide in all his movies. Through the lens, but also checking in with us through cameos. In Lifeboat, his cameo was in a newspaper ad for a weigh loss product. 

Guides help participants in the experience make sense of what they're seeing. The guide allows you to stay in control of the process. And to make it safe. The priest who explains the readings in Church. But also all the decorations and special attire. They're not just functional. They signal commitment to the transformation.

Making an investment in the space—a cathedral, but also an office, a piece of equipment—is a symbolic investment in an identity. The path out of the experience and to a new identity goes through symbolic recombination of smaller bits.


Creating flexibility through play

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”


Humor, games, roughhousing, flirtation, and fantasy are more than just fun. We do these things to test the waters, experiment with what we know… and don't know. Play loosens us. It's a temporary ritual where we test our mettle with empathy, trust, irony, and problem solving.

Play is a space where we engage with taboos and transgression.

Carnival is an ancient festival that originates in the Middle Ages. Carnem levare (Lat.) means “eliminate the meat.” Carnival falls before Lent, a period of fasting and abstinence in anticipation of Easter. In the past, people avoided eating meat. Hence the name.

The feast is spread throughout Europe and the world, linked to the Christian-Catholic religion. The ritual's origins are not religious. But from the beginning Carnival had strong social relevance, uniting villages, towns, and cities.

In its original meaning, Carnival meant

the 'world upside down.'

For a short time, the value of social hierarchies was abandoned. You came across the joke where a servant could become a master, at least symbolically, and vice versa. Taboo and transgression, leading to symbolic recombination. Renewal followed the celebration.

Masks are temporary. Nonetheless, they allow us to try on different identities. I still remember when I was five. My mother took me to this place in Bologna where children got together to celebrate Carnival. It was like a city party in a big enclosed space with a stage.

For some reason we won't go into, my hair was cut short at the time. And I was dressed as Zorro. The sword, hat, and cape made the decision a no-brainer. I was strutting around in my newfound identity. I caught the eye of the presenter who called me on stage. Who are you? He asked me. My “Zorro” back came from a deep voice. I'm still chuckling thinking about it.

Jonathan Cook says ritual is the cultural tool that connects stories to outward behavior.


A special power in threshold places


Those who have learned to walk on the threshold of the unknown worlds, by means of what are commonly termed par excellence the exact sciences, may then, with the fair white wings of imagination, hope to soar further into the unexplored amidst which we live.

[Ada Lovelace]

Business takes place in threshold places. A wonderful opportunity to practice true commerce or trade. Which is a more human alternative to the more amassing of wealth.

Commerce has its roots in powerful ancient mythology. HermesMercury for the Romanswas the god of communication, merchants, and thieves. Which is an interesting combination, isn't it? There's also a particular type of connection with money in terms of number symbology.

The myth that surrounds his birth and ascension onto Mount Olympus is itself a fantastic story of thresholds: “As a divine thief and god of trade, Hermes was the only god who could cross the boundary between life and death at will.” Hades presided over the dead.

The eldest son of Cronus and Rhea, Hades became Pluto for the Romans. We say plutocratic of someone who amasses wealth, from Pluto. While Hermes trades, Pluto holds onto things. Hermes represents social mobility. Pluto never leaves the land of the dead.

Trade was an act of change in Greek society. Before its introduction, Apollonian aristocracy considered merchant thieves. They violated the tradition of gift exchange, which happened in small privileged circles. But also, because commerce happened at borders.

Ancient societies were constantly involved in fighting. There's a reason why the Roman Empire was so alluring. It represented a haven with rules and the protection of the SPQR, Senātus Populusque Rōmānus.

However, there were special lands at borders between societies and tribes where you could trade in peace. All parties understood the importance of keeping goods flowing from one place to another. This meeting halfway of commerce still exists in small markets across Europe.

I've been to Christmas markets in Germany and Switzerland. Most cities in Italy have more than one market in different places and days of the week. You can find mass-produced items, but also many artisanal wares, jewelry, crafts, and plenty of food.

I love farmers markets. You can buy vegetables that were on the plant or field shortly before. That's what we call kilometro zero, our ancient food-to-table practice. There's nothing like fresh fruit and vegetables.

The cart has a long tradition as a threshold place in Italy. A famous banker even made loans from it.


Why rituals are powerful


“Never underestimate the power of a ridiculous wig.

[Danone organizer of a three-day strategy retreat]

Flying is a threshold experience. But like for many businesses, little remains of the original magic. With the result that nobody ever marvels at the ability to be suspended in the sky between places anymore.

Company retreats can become threshold experiences. Tim Leberecht describes a three-day strategy event at Danone. The management team and 100 employees from across different departments, seniority levels and regions were part of the same experience.

They asked everyone to wear costumes for the entire meeting: wigs, crazy hats, feather boas, huge glasses and so on. Participants left with concrete outcomes and full of enthusiasm. Wigs erase hierarchies and create intimacy.

Like masks for carnival, wigs allow people to use the disguise of the false to show something true about themselves.


When you make the seam between places more visible, the crossing becomes easier. And more meaningful. Rituals are powerful because they allow you to liberate your inner Italian. I'm saying it only with half tongue in cheek. If you were to tap into another culture, you would become temporarily free of the ordinary restrictions that shape your life.

The core concepts of ritual:

  • It's a behavior, an action.
  • A cultural practice. There are beliefs and rhythms of life that are deeply embedded in our cultural  identities. Often, we don't even notice they exist.
  • It's about the transformation of identity. When you go through a ritual, you become someone else. It can be temporary, like buying a new suit, or stay with you for the rest of your life, like a vacation in Italy.
  • It works by creating liminal experiences. Thresholds that exist in their own terms, in the places where we are coming from and where we want to go. From our present, we imagine a potential future or futures.

There's unique value that human experience brings to business.

This week I talked about the power of story, and one way to reclaim your power. Commerce has its roots in powerful mythology. Storytelling connects abstract ideas with human experience. Rituals are stories we live in the context of actually doing something.

Myths are part of our identity, and so is commerce. They help explain how the world works, give us a sense of meaning, tell stories, and enact them in our own lives. Rituals are cultural tools. One way to reclaim power in commerce is to reconnect it and us with its roots. This is how we can stave off the new energy crisis.


Much gratitude to Jonathan Cook and his fabulous podcast, This Human Business.


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