I just spent a summer studying with a group of students at a small college at Cambridge University. There are 31 distinct colleges at Cambridge University, each with their own dining hall, chapel and student housing. Many of these are ancient — in that their dining halls are hundreds of years old — many without electricity. The college grounds of my small school were stunning. They were right on the river Cam, which runs through the middle of Cambridge, England. As I went to nightly dinner, I passed through a courtyard that housed Steven Hawking, Tim Berners-Lee, and British writer C. S. Lewis as well as countless other luminaries from the past.
It occurred to me that it had been a long time since I’d been to a formal dinner that was just for socializing in a cohort, not just a fundraiser dinner. The last one I went to was pre-pandemic, and it resulted in several long term friendships.
Although I was initially intimidated by going to a formal dinner with my cohort at Cambridge (what if it was stuffy and serious?) I quickly realized how much this ritual was meant to help me connect with fellow students and professors. It wasn’t just the process of eating, but the getting ready to go to the dinner that mattered.
The act of dressing up and grooming was almost a meditative ritual in self-care. It improved my self-esteem. And when I entered the dining hall, I became aware that dressing up wasn’t about highlighting differences and social class (3/4ths of the students in our cohort were on full scholarships) but of elevating ourselves, making it easier to connect with one another’s minds. The conversations focused on thoughts and processes and research more than I expected, and I was able to augment my learning from class in a faster way.
After the dinner came more invitations to less formal events, such as teas and coffees, which furthered our explorations of ideas raised there. I felt sad for a moment. It occurred to me that this was something I wished was offered by organizations I’d previously worked for — instead, formal company connections were limited to meetings that required needing to schedule a Zoom call or a corporate coffee session. There weren’t places where people could actually just free-flow with ideas across departments.
This also helped me realize something unexpected about the importance of rituals for organizations. Rather than just offer individual employee benefits, organizations could also embrace something formal.
In the case of Cambridge, the ritual I’m talking about is the formal dinner. Every Friday, instructors and students in my quad would meet in formal wear in a grand hall, eating by candlelight beneath a huge painting of Nelson Mandela. While “formal” may conjure up old world stuffiness, these dinners were anything but that — they were often as raucous and convivial as a friend’s wedding reception. The meals themselves were not excessively fancy, but hearty, featuring cuisine from around the world, and quite a lot of wine.
These dinners felt like a time out of time. My cohort and I, people from across the world and from disparate social backgrounds, loved these dinners — the conversations they provoked were so engrossing and varied, I don’t even recall anyone pausing to use their phones. (Selfies were saved for the after party.) While most of us came to our actual Cambridge class sessions in hoodies and other street wear, we cherished the chance to dress up, and be in a context where the only goal was to share ideas with each other and our professors over a meal.
I’d argue that these formal dinners are not simply a fancy fringe benefit for attending Cambridge: They are essential to Cambridge’s success as an institution.
Most organizations have varieties of events framed around meals. (Think in-office lunch meetings, company offsite dinners, holiday parties.) But generally these meals are too deprived of ritual to be uniquely meaningful to the attendees, let alone the organization itself. (And most of them, save the yearly holiday party, don’t require formal attire.)
By contrast, consider how the formality of the Cambridge dinners enhance the ritualistic elements of the experience, bringing to them immeasurable value:
- Formal dress: Suits and other classic formal attire remove the visual chaos of current fashion and brands, and the social pressure around wearing the “right” look to present in a work setting (not to mention judgements against the badly dressed). They instead draw our attention to the individual person and what the ideas they are expressing.
- Natural lighting: The fiery illumination of candles (rather than the glare of fluorescent or LEDs) strengthens the formality and timelessness of the event, conveying the contrast of the everyday work context.
- Off the record: As I mentioned, the formalized nature of the event discourages the heavy use of phones; an added benefit to this is heightening the sense that the event is off the record, removing performance pressure while encouraging opinions to flow. (And for thoughts that were so important that they had to be recorded in the moment, my Cambridge quad maintains a room, open 24/7, near the student accommodation, for the purposes of formalizing those ideas.)
The ideas and knowledge generated at formal events like these matriculate through the organization, and across departments which rarely interact with each other. In Cambridge’s case, I suspect countless Nobel laureate-worthy achievements first germinated at these formal dinners.
Restoring Corporate Culture Through Ritual
As organizations struggle to kickstart corporate culture, they might consider offering the ritual of a formal, staff-wide dinner — perhaps at the end of the week or bimonthly, so telecommuting personnel can come together to comfortably marinate in their collective knowledge.
It could be the missing piece that appeals to remote staff, where offers of endless snacks and free lunches have not measurably brought people back to the office. (And why would they, when we can already have abundant snacks and lunches at home.)
Instead, why not institute a series of formal dinners? Same time every week, or month, and at the same location? Here’s some starting principles to consider:
Offer high-quality, healthy, multi-course meals: Resist the common urge to offer deep fried/carb heavy meals that are appealing to eat quickly but difficult to digest. Nutritious meals served over several courses not only encourage digestion of the meal, but also help attendees process the various conversations they’ve been having throughout. The unique time commitment of a multi-course meal is itself part of the ritual — think 3–4 hours together, versus a hurried 30–60 minutes.
Choose old / thematically meaningful settings: While Cambridge has the unique distinction of existing since the year 1209, most organizations are located near landmarks that are thematically meaningful to the organization’s purpose — where a relevant invention or artwork was created or important political speech was given, for instance. Choosing a classic location with a long history, such as a city hall, emphasizes the “time away from time” of the event — and encourages attendees to consider their present through the lens of the past. Ideally you want a space with natural lighting (versus fluorescent), airy-sun-filled areas and natural wood. A place with history and a chance to connect with the past and gain perspectives on our place in the moment.
Insist on formality: Formal wear elevates the appearance of people in the organization who are often disregarded, while taking away the status symbol of expensive fashion that others take for granted. The ritual of formality is so important, organizations could consider reimbursing clothing purchases when necessary. (Formality does not need to be expensive — thanks to both thrift stores and fashion outlets, classic formal items tend to be surprisingly affordable — and most of the students in our cohort were able to look amazing in H&M jackets and slacks).
While candlelit dinner with colleagues in dinner jackets and ballroom gowns might seem intrinsically exclusive, the irony is that it helped people feel more included. In these kinds of formal gatherings, a core purpose is to remove surface indicators of privilege and social class expressed through modern high-end fashion. It provided a chance to allow members who might be socially or economically distant to connect and feel affinity with each other.
Formality doesn’t have to be gendered. One of the best dressed students in our cohort was a young woman who wore a full tux. She looked great. Neither is formality about a specific Western region. Many of the international cohort wore dress traditional to their country to the dinner.
And for organizations themselves, it’s a way of bridging geographic distance in our era of maximum telecommuting — leveraging the power of ritual to turn “I” into “We”.