The Richness of Rituals

          As I was putting on my make-up this morning getting ready for work, the thought crossed my mind in a flash: “I am putting on my war paint.” I realized it was a ritual, perhaps not too dissimilar from the rituals of our indigenous ancestors as they prepared to go to the battlefield. Indeed, there is a certain ceremony involved in painting my face to go to war… I mean, work.


Individual and Collective Rituals

          Rituals can be shared by a group of people, either because they all believe in the power of the common actions, or because they have rules that involve penalties if the rituals are not followed. For example, when we go to court, we all stand when the judge walks into the courtroom, lawyers must ask permission to cross the well before they can get close to a witness who is testifying, and people in the audience can listen but not speak. These rituals impose a certain order that is reassuring; in contrast with the uncertainties we all face in a world in which “modern society” tends to shun formalities and tradition.

          We can also create our own rituals, like making our morning coffee a certain way, or indulging in a warm bubble-filled bathtub with a glass of chilled wine and sweet aromatic candles after a crazy-busy day at work. Of course, while we are at work we can have all sorts of rituals in addition to the formalities of the court, like how we set up our equipment, or what kinds of shoes or tie we wear to a deposition versus a trial. We infuse symbolic meaning into our rituals that in turn “enhances [our] feelings of safety, confidence, and well-being.” []

Rituals are good for you

          As I was looking for more information about rituals, I learned that some psychologists have found through their research “that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.” [] By going through my morning face-painting and power-dressing rituals, I aim to look and feel “ferocious”. When judges and lawyers see me walk into a courtroom, I want them to see a very strong, very self-assured interpreter. I have just realized that with my rituals I am strengthening my own sense of identity and connecting with the power within me to be exactly who I want to be.

          In that same article, (Why Rituals Work, Scientific American, May 14, 2013) the authors, Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton, explain that “[w]hile some rituals are unlikely to be effective – knocking on wood will not bring rain – many everyday rituals make a lot of sense and are surprisingly effective.” For some interpreters, the ritual could be the repetition out loud of new words and phrases until they are permanently etched in their long-term memory. For others it could be taking notes even when they are not interpreting. Whatever ritual we perform, even if it’s a personal ritual, “[we are] still participating in something that extends beyond our own experience.” (Mark Sisson, And for interpreters, particularly freelance interpreters who often work in isolation from their peers, this connection is essential to maintain a healthy balance in life.

My belief system

          The Britannica Online Encyclopedia Academic Edition tells us that “All rituals are dependent upon some belief system for their complete meaning.” [] As a judiciary interpreter, I participate in many rituals that include other court personnel (like standing, sitting, addressing the judge as Your Honor, asking to be excused before leaving a courtroom, and so forth), a few that involve fellow interpreters only (like the rituals of team interpreting, sharing glossaries or words lists, etc.), and even fewer that are very personal and involve only me (e.g., the “war paint”, the business suit and the high heels… well, medium height, since I am way past that stage in life where you can actually walk in the 4-inch heels!) I do believe in the “magic” of projecting professionalism in the way I look as well as the way I perform. I firmly believe that walking into a courtroom (or conference room for a deposition) with a healthy load of self-assurance will make the people around me trust that I know what I’m doing, and that I am doing it correctly. It also keeps the bad juju away!

12 thoughts on “The Richness of Rituals”

  1. Kevin Mercado says:

    I was, just this morning, talking to a colleague about our differing approaches to case prep; she studies materials right up until she begins while I take a moment to clear my mind before I get started.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Yes, Kevin, these differences are actually common ground for us. While we each can have our own little rituals, we share the fact that we have one. I just love to discover all the small ways in which interpreters are alike, even when (on the surface) we appear to be different!

  2. Gio Lester says:

    Thank you, Janis, for opening a window into an area we had not tackled openly here yet.

    Rituals help us center and focus, whether we are aware of them or not. I will have to pay attention to identify my different rituals and see how I can make them more effective.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Oh, I would love to hear about your rituals, Gio, Please share them with us once you identify them!

  3. Judy Jenner says:

    Very interesting topic indeed, Janis! I’ve written about my “secret weapon”– manicured, dark red and short nails. They give me confidence and make me feel like I am “on,” as silly as it might sound. During depositions, I also line up at least three of my company pens next to each other and wear one of my five favorite suits. They are my uniform and they make me feel strong and confident. I also sometimes do some yoga breathing before a tough assignment. Thanks for a great article, Janis!

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Red nails are a sort of “war paint” too, Judy! And it’s not silly at all that they make you feel “on”: That is exactly what rituals are intended to do for us. And I love the company pens as a sort of “trench”! You have great rituals. Thanks for sharing them with us!

  4. David Mintz says:

    Not to be too much of a curmudgeon, but I think you might be using the term somewhat too broadly. Some of what is described here might better be called “protocol” — though I grant you, it’s often a fine line. Other behaviors — deep breathing, or drilling terms into one’s memory through repetition — overlap with ritual, perhaps, but you might also simply call them “preparation.”

    I agree that ritual is a powerful comfort and support (disclosure: I haven’t read any of the articles cited here). But I am not sure it has to be rooted in a belief system — unless conventionally accepted anthropology tells us otherwise, well then, excuse me. My point is that I find it worthwhile to do certain things ritually, but not for any specific reason or goal, nor as an expression of any belief. I think experienced meditators get this. You may start out a sitting practice with an intention to achieve something — e.g., stress reduction — but find that goal-oriented thinking eventually falls away. And then you engage in the ritual of sitting down and doing nothing for a few minutes every day — just because. If there is a reward, it’s incidental.

  5. Janis Palma says:

    David, my dear David! It is so good to hear from you! Curmudgeon? You? Never! And you are perfectly correct in your observations. Ritual or protocol? I am not sure. I would certainly not refer to what I do in the mornings as protocol (i.e., putting on make-up.) But it was a thought, a small thread I found and pulled on to see what would happen. I started to think about the things we do repetitively that have some meaning beyond the mechanical replication of the action. I started to read a little about rituals for my blog and as I did I realized, “yeah… there is a certain quality to this thing that I do that makes it a ritual.” And then I thought some more: if I did not do it, I would not feel “ready for battle” (i.e., work)… maybe like the Lakota warrior who paints circles around his horse’s eyes, otherwise he will feel his horse is not protected. Overall, however, it was meant to be a fun piece, not really an anthropological essay. So I am thrilled that you read it and I certainly hope you enjoyed it!

  6. Consuelo says:

    Thanks, Janis, for sharing your inner thoughts on your ritual, protocol before interpreting. I find your article rather interesting. When I do consecutive, I double check I have 2-3 pens, my notetaking book (although I am thinking on buying a smart pen), I always were confortable clothes, and other things (reread my glossary for the 1000th time. Congratulations on your post and looking forward to your next blog entry.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Thank you, Consuelo, for sharing your own rituals with us!

  7. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

    I will share my most recent addition to my rituals, and that is that I “appear” on the record. This is something it took me a long time to master (since we don’t usually get to have a voice of our own in court) and I’ve learned to say it very quickly. The court reporters I work with are getting used to it. It is very comforting to have it down because I can now say it without much thought. Surely there will come a day that I’ll swap a word or two and add some levity to the proceedings, even if only for a moment.

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