Why rituals matter

Ever wondered why Corona comes with a lime? We might think that the culture of mixing beer and lime must be a Mexican thing. Or that the lime’s acidity must kill off any bacteria formed during its packaging. But it actually came about as a bet. A random one between a bartender and his mate. Could the bartender get patrons to ask for a lime in their Coronas simply by seeing him do it a few times? The 30-year-old bet eventually became a global ritual.

Why is Magners served on ice? Many Irish pubs didn’t have fridges in the county of Tipperary. So patrons decided to pour it over ice and cool it down themselves. The ritual helped cut down the sweetness of cider and improve its taste. So bartenders started serving Magners bottles over pints with lots of ice. It's now referred to it as ‘Magners on ice.'

Consider the Guinness ‘wait’ ritual. The bartender first pours three-quarters of it by titling the glass. He then stops and waits for it to settle. Finally, he tops the rest into the same glass that’s now held straight. It takes about 120 seconds to pour a perfect pint of Guinness. The wait seemed too long for people at pubs across the British Isles. Guinness was seeing its sales slide. So it launched an ad campaign with the line ‘Good things come to those who wait.' Showing the beauty of its artful pour. The wait seemed cool all of a sudden. Guinness had something unique. It had a ritual.

Rituals and superstitions make things we buy memorable. Even science tells us that they connect with us emotionally. Not as rational actions that need reasons. But as beliefs that make us behave in a certain way. It starts with change. Things are changing fast, from economics to technology. Even the speed at which we’re walking is – British Council's global study revealed we're walking 10% faster than we did a decade ago. Or the speed at which we’re talking is – watching classic films will reveal how far we’ve come. Change basically brings about uncertainty. Stress takes over when we’re no longer in control. The more unpredictable the world becomes, the more control we want of our lives. And the more anxious and uncertain we feel, the more rituals we follow.

British churches saw a huge rise in attendance during the 2008 recession. Areas hit by scud missiles saw a rise in superstitious beliefs during the Gulf War. Even the most rational of us fall pretty to this kind of thinking. No matter how rational we might be, rituals are something we all follow everyday. Right from the time we wake up to the time we sleep.

BBBO's global study identified the four stages of universally consistent daily rituals. First, we start by ‘preparing for battle,’ as we wake up from the bed to face the day. The stage includes checking emails, texts, weather, news, brushing, bathing, shaving etc. Then, we enter ‘feasting,’ as we meet over meals. This including eating together with friends, colleagues or family. The social act unites us with our tribe. Soon, we’re ‘sexing up’ with an indulgent series that transform us from our workaday-selves to our best-looking, confident-selves. This involves primping, grooming, asking others for reassurance and validation. Finally, we finish by ‘protecting ourselves from the future.’ This involves the acts we perform before going to bed at night – turning off computers, lights, charging phones, checking on kids, pets, locking the doors and windows, packing up bags for the next day etc. The same round of rituals starts all over again the next day. Basically, these rituals put us in control, or at least give us an illusion of doing so.

There are rituals we don’t even know we’re aware of. Things like going out of our way to avoid walking through a narrow lobby. Hugging or kissing foreigners based on local customs. Uttering the word ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes. Buying the newest, most complex-sounding anti-wrinkle creams despite knowing they’re pointless. Do we eat our Big Macs with one or two hands? Do we eat our French fries before or after the burger, or alternating bites? Do people twist, lick and then eat Oreos or dunk them into milk first?

Then there are less productive rituals based on superstitions. Norwich Union's study found that the number of car accidents in London and Berlin have doubled on Friday the 13th. Number 4 is considered unlucky in China for it reads as ‘si’ and sounds as ‘shi’, meaning death. Many hotels in China don’t even have fourth or forty-fourth floors. But the same country likes number 8, as it’s closer to a word that signifies wealth. Which is why the Beijing Olympics started on 8/8/08 at 8:08:08 pm. NestlĂ©’s Kit Kat was a huge hit in Japan for sounding like ‘kitto-Katsu’, which translates to ‘win without fail.’ Michael Jordon never played a game without wearing his old, university shorts. So he coveted them with longer shorts starting off a trend in the sport. Serena Williams never changes her socks during tournaments. Sachin Tendulkar always sat on the left-side of the team bus.

Being obsessed with rituals is the same as being obsessed with brands. Both involve habitual, repeated actions that have little or no logical basis. Both start with the need to control in an overwhelmingly complex world. Both tend to accumulate and become part of our lives. Rituals may be everywhere around us, but it's easy to miss them. In Together, the sociologist Richard Sennett explains three ways to spot and understand rituals better.

Rituals keep routines fresh. They start out as habits before becoming routines. As routines, they rely on repetition for intensity. Which is, doing the same thing over and over again. The exercise often dulls our senses. But when the same thing helps our concentration better, it becomes a ritual. Listening to a song over and over helps us concentrate on its specifics. Specifics like lyrics, tone, length and pause are then ingrained into us. This sort of ingraining defines a ritual. Precisely what religious rituals intend. Performing a chant over a thousand times will ingrain it into our lives. Unlike habits or routines, which remain stuck in the first stage of learning, rituals self-renew and keep things fresh.

Rituals turn objects, movements or words into symbols. The point of a handshake is more than just feeling someone else’s skin. It signifies an achievement or relationship. A stop symbol doesn’t just warn us of the dangers ahead but also tells us what to do.

Rituals make expression dramatic. Walking down the street is nothing like walking down the aisle as a newly married couple. Every step feels immense.

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