A memorandum issued by Principal Secretary Sushil Kumar advised bureaucrats in Tripura to avoid wearing jeans, cargo pants and dark glasses, especially at high level meetings presided over by the Chief Minister or the Deputy CM. Kumar quoted the case of an official in Madhya Pradesh who was chastised for receiving the Chief Minister wearing shades. He added that in three decades of working in the Indian government he had yet to see an IAS officer at work in casual attire. The memorandum also noted that some officials send messages on their mobile phones during meetings which is a mark of “disrespect”. Overall, the order has been criticised by opposition parties like the Congress and CPM who say this move showcases the “feudal mentality” of the government.
This memorandum makes a few salient if slightly outdated observations on social graces and appropriate dressing. Etiquette may not be etched in stone but it is an unwritten set of rules we all live by, at a given moment in time. Currently, it’s not news that most of us are permanently glued to our cellphones. Maybe it is time to unleash an all out attack on the phenomenon of cellphone zombies who can be spotted everywhere. They send WhatsApp messages from behind steering wheels, putting all our lives at risk. And they bump into people while walking because they’re staring into screens, utterly oblivious of their surroundings.
At parties, people used to look at each other when they talked, now you can see them hunched together, over screens. Nothing they’re doing is particularly important, it’s just that they’ve gotten used to living in a state of perpetual distraction. The ping of the cellphone is alas, an inextricable feature of modern life, one of the lesser casualties of which is uninterrupted conversation. Point to note, there’s more than just “sexting” now. There’s wexting (walking and texting, yes, it’s a term) and as Kumar has pointed out in his missive, what we may call mexting, texting while in a meeting.
People think as long as they’re not talking on the phone, only gazing at it mesmerised, posting pictures or aimlessly surfing, it’s not rude. But it is. Mr Kumar is completely right that during a meeting people shouldn’t be sending or receiving messages, unless it concerns the meeting itself. These time-saving devices that were supposed to make our lives better, are playing havoc with the undisciplined. The constant live streaming of some thing or the other prevents us from finishing work and getting stuff done. The rules of engagement and social behaviour, evolve, sure. Perhaps the future AI cyborgs that will inhabit our planet will think us quaint, and laugh. Right now it’s still common sense — you don’t whip out a phone and mindlessly message someone while in a meeting with your boss. Or ideally, even if you’re with anyone else.
There are some clear enough dos and don’ts about cellphones but our understanding of workplace decorum, especially dress codes, is much harder to navigate. There is an urban legend about actor Zeenat Aman’s audition for the role of a hippie in the film Hare Krishna Hare Ram. The story goes that Aman went for it, dressed in orange robes and a rudraksha mala. When dress codes are not clearly specified, a good rule to follow is to dress the part for the job you hold.
How one views Kumar’s opinion of jeans and cargo pants being unacceptable in the workplace likely depends on your age. Chances are a 20-something IAS officer may feel what they wear is not a reflection of their professionalism. So many new careers in internet startups and digital agencies turn their nose up at formal wear in the workplace. But people in law, accounting, even medicine, everywhere in the world, are always in formals. Nobody didn’t get a promotion for being too nicely dressed. Again, common sense dictates that one err on the right side, which is why it’s bizarre that Kumar actually has to spell out that you don’t greet guests wearing sunglasses. Unless the meeting is on a beach between Dawood’s hoodlums, maintaining eye contact is an essential form of friendly (or unfriendly) communication. Hiding behind lenses changes the dynamic. And far better to (briefly) hurt your eyes than your image.