A recent visit to one of the top restaurants in Hong Kong has caused me to ponder on this question: is decorum compatible with individualism?
It was not so long ago (think pre-dotcom boom) where smart restaurants required guests to put "jacket and tie" on and investment bankers wore sharp suits to work. Just as military uniform (precursor to the modern day gentleman's suit) signified an officer's rank, one's clothing arguably provides an important non-verbal cue to one's desires, intentions and social ranking. Individuals thus observed the social contract with society and adopted their behaviour accordingly.
The dotcom era brushed much of this aside - "dress down everyday" meant out-of-shape investment bankers (or lawyers or consultants) wore ill fitted shirts and trousers, while millionaire twenty-something paraded their designer t-shirts and jeans at trendy places. Many smart establishments have succumbed to this pressure by relaxing dress code - "smart casual" signifies anything other than underwear and barefoot.
Is social behaviour going down the same social drain? As an increasing
number of Asian entrepreneurs are able to afford luxuries, they are
also able to wine and dine at top rank establishments. My recent
experience at Pierre at the Mandarin Oriental was a perplexing one: the smart decor and elegant services demanded
elegant attire and refined social etiquette, then why have some of the
guests turned up in t-shirts and trainers, and yapped away so that the entire restaurant could hear their latest
financial and social escapades?
Individualism (with a health dose of existentialism thrown in) has come to the fore in Asia - "I have the financial means to do what I want, therefore I do as I please." If good etiquette represented Olde Worlde social collectivism, is this disregard for decorum an affirmation of the individual? Is there a meeting ground between the two? Just as many investment banks have re-instated their dress attire (smart shirt, formal trousers, tie optional), might these nouveau riches one day understand the notion of decorum?