24 January 2014

Hotels, Ruhi, and an Inherently Implausible Goal

I'm paid to care about you.
Baha'is and hotels are running into similar problems

The century leading up to 1960 was an era of grand hotels. Palace-like, they catered to the rich and provided a unique, personal experience because they were mostly independently owned or part of small groups.

Then came the chains. In the 1950s a young Mr Hilton started building his hotels around the world and abandoned the grand hotel model. Soon came Mr Marriott and others with standard operating procedures (SOPs) that made every hotel in the chain conform to protocols, down to how long an egg is cooked, how many times the phone is allowed to ring before picking up, and what is available on TV. A hotel might have 2,000 SOPs to follow.

The shift from character-filled grand hotels to ubiquitous uniformity meant that the personal connections were lost. Now, customers have no fealty, and would hardly know the difference between hotels were it not for the brand name on the building.

Hotel owners are aware of the problem. The best hotels have a happy atmosphere and staff that go out of their way to be helpful, and such hotels are more profitable. Bosses have tried to manufacture this emotional connection for guests, but how would that come through an SOP? As soon as customers realize that the smile and personal note on their receipt is a job requirement, the magic is gone. Is it even possible to mass-produce genuine emotional connections?

A recent article, Be My Guest, in The Economist magazine (from which I gathered much of the above) had a great line that summed up something I haven't been able to put to words myself:
"Replicating intimate service on a mass scale is an inherently implausible goal"
If you can't see where I'm going with this, the worldwide Baha'i community has been struggling with this for decades.

Order in the New Order

The Baha'i Faith had its start in a heroic age of the central figures where intimate personal connections attracted hearts to a revelation from God. This pinnacle of emotional attraction caused individuals to sacrifice themselves for a greater cause (forget the fleeting attention that hotels are hoping for).

Then the Baha'i world entered a new phase. When Shoghi Effendi took office as the first Guardian, there were just over 100,000 Baha'is spread out in about 35 countries, and just a few National Spiritual Assemblies. A haphazard or passive approach to teaching would leave a slow trickle of new Baha'is. Shoghi Effendi quickly began building institutions and organizing the work of teaching, which was previously very informal. Soon the elected institutions that Baha'u'llah envisioned were formed around the world. Donations flowed into official funds, and committees formed to assist the expansion work that was already going on. In eloquent letters Shoghi Effendi communicated a vision for growth with clear goals and maintained extensive correspondence with individuals around the world. The effort was incredibly successful and spread the Faith to every nook on earth.

Systematizing the intimacy needed for transforming souls fell foul with some of the early Baha'is in Europe and America who thought that the Baha'i club could not be "organized". Many westerners who were attracted to the magnetic personality of `Abdu'l-Baha, yet lacked an understanding of the Covenant, simply fell away into obscurity.

Fast forward several decades and you will hear a similar tale. In America few Baha'i communities had more than fifteen people until the 1970s, as they were encouraged to spread around and not congregate. Annual gatherings dominated by charismatic presenters were the staple for isolated Baha'is, who maintained deeply intimate relationships with any new converts. Teaching projects, deepenings, and children's classes were haphazardly put together. This model was excellent for that stage of growth, but it could never satisfy the needs for large-scale expansion. In the late 1980s the Universal House of Justice encouraged training programs that would systematically deepen believers and stir them to action. Out of that came the success of the Ruhi Institute and its adoption as the primary training tool for Baha'is worldwide.

A robot kind of mind

Putting up this framework for action fell foul with some of the long-time Baha'is who bemoaned the lack of emotion and spontaneity that they previously felt from charismatic deepenings or from smaller groups. This problem was exacerbated by early tutors who themselves lacked an understanding of how the system was supposed to work and implemented Ruhi like a college course. Again, some Baha'is thought that real teaching could not be "organized". Like a chef who didn't want to conform to the omelette SOP because it lacked character, they viewed the study circle practices as empty motions. In my lifetime I've seen many fall away into obscurity.

Those frustrated with the process had something right, but they were also missing something huge. Genuine caring and intimacy are needed for teaching, and "replicating intimate service on a mass scale is an inherently implausible goal," but without structure nothing would be sustained. I have witnessed countless attempts at enthusiastic teaching projects that lost steam after weeks or months or years. The institute process, the sequence of courses, the children's and youth classes, and devotional gatherings are a framework for action. It's just a framework. Without the frame, all that genuine desire to better the world cannot be realized, and without the intimacy and affection in small groups, the framework will be empty. It takes individuals exemplifying the eternal principles of God working within a framework of action for these teachings to spread.

By 2003 I was just finishing up the sequence of courses, and I, too, was skeptical of its ability to carry the emotional connection that attracts hearts to God. A few years later, after going through the courses again as a tutor or participant, I started to notice that the texts themselves were advocating for the attitude I was trying to promote. The Ruhi texts often basically say, "Hey! Don't be a robot! Build skills and knowledge, and apply them with wisdom to each situation! And don't be a robot!" When I began tutoring study circles myself, I felt free to be creative and implement them as my conscious dictated, but all within the study circle model.

I also came to realize that even though it was organized, I was engaging in more action. For example, in my normal life I don't put aside time to memorize, sing, practice telling stories, or scope out my neighborhood for opportunities to spiritualize children. But within the framework of the institute process, I had something prodding me along toward what I know is good for me.

Bring on the emotions

The emotional failure of uniform hotels has caused a new era of hotel building that started in the 1990s. SOPs are being relaxed, and more stress is placed on improvisation and flexibility. Now boutique hotels try to have a theme, such as Chinese hospitality, heavy metal, fashion, eco-friendliness, families with children, or retirees. The attempt to manufacture connection has been a success. I stayed in one such hotel in Seattle about 4 years ago, and I can still remember the layout of the room. I can't say the same for that other hotel I stayed in 3 months ago.

For the institute process and hotel chains, striking the balance between rigidity and flexibility has been one of the keys to success. Like the corporate hotel management, Baha'i institutions can build a framework that individuals work inside. If the framework is too rigid and specific, it stifles creativity and individual initiative. If the framework is too flexible and vague, it stifles growth. If hotels get it right, the economy grows a little. If Baha'is get it right, the Kingdom of God is a little more established on earth.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Oops Ramya, I accidentally deleted your comment!

  3. Here's the original:


    I really like your comparison of hotel service with how services are offered through the Faith. I agree that there is a lack of "genuine" connections sometimes when are more interested in numbers. Its something that we are all working on, I am sure. I also like that you emphasized that the best service is done with emotion and love. Its also sometimes draining to be there for so many people - but I suppose that is why universal participation is so needed in these activities (so that no one individual feels responsible).

    Thanks for your post.