Sri Lanka's hi-tea culture: A new marker of class signalling in the digital era

Overall, whether one opts for the casual charm of hi-tea platters or the indulgent variety of hi-tea buffets, Sri Lanka's hi-tea culture seamlessly blends British colonial influences with local traditions, adding a unique and culturally rich touch to this eating-out experience.

Jayani Udeshi Nov 21, 2023
Sri Lanka's hi-tea culture

After the COVID-19 pandemic, one has noticed a new trend in behavior on social media platforms. This trend appears to resemble a widespread habitus, spreading much like waves. Specifically, it resembles the habitus associated with the hi-tea culture, including its norms and behaviors, within the realm of restaurant consumers. 

On the other hand, due to the COVID-19 pandemic situation, people found themselves spending less time outside due to the stringent government regulations in place in Sri Lanka. While facing economic challenges during this period, individuals sought ways to still enjoy food experiences reminiscent of the hi-tea culture of an earlier era. 

Hi-tea was originally a cultural habitus of the British. In Sri Lanka, this habitus has been present among the upper-class population. So, why has it become a popular trend on social media after such a long time? What kinds of identity capital distinguish past and current consumers of hi-tea? Which restaurants do they choose for hi-tea, and which spaces are they selecting for this emerging trend? Furthermore, as they capture selfies and videos and share them on social media, others are inspired to emulate and delve into this habitus. Consequently, it has evolved into a burgeoning trend on various social media platforms.

In Sri Lanka, the hi-tea culture manifests in two distinct trends: hi-tea platters and hi-tea buffets. Many hotels and restaurants opt for the hi-tea platter approach, offering this delightful experience throughout the weekdays. The convenience of hi-tea platters lies in their accessibility, allowing enthusiasts to indulge in a tea-centric experience at any time during the week. Additionally, the cost-effectiveness of hi-tea platters makes them an attractive option for those seeking a budget-friendly yet enjoyable affair.

Of hi-tea buffets and platters

On the other hand, hi-tea buffets present a more exclusive and event-oriented experience. Typically served on weekends or during specific evening hours, hi-tea buffets offer a heightened sense of occasion. This option, while not as flexible in terms of timing, compensates by providing a more extensive array of tea varieties and culinary delights. The buffet format allows patrons to explore a diverse range of flavors, making it an appealing choice for those looking to savor a leisurely weekend afternoon. Overall, whether one opts for the casual charm of hi-tea platters or the indulgent variety of hi-tea buffets, Sri Lanka's hi-tea culture seamlessly blends British colonial influences with local traditions, adding a unique and culturally rich touch to this eating-out experience.

Bourdieu's concept of habitus and capital provides an intriguing lens through which to analyze the distinctions between hi-tea platters and hi-tea buffets in Sri Lanka. Habitual practices, shaped by one's social background and preferences, contribute to the accumulation of cultural capital. In the context of hi-tea culture, the choice between platters and buffets may be reflective of different consumer classes.

Those who go for hi-tea platters, available throughout the week and offering a cost-effective option, maybe cultivate a habitus aligned with practicality and budget-conscious choices. This could signify a consumer class with an emphasis on accessibility and affordability, where the habit of enjoying tea in a less formal setting becomes a marker of their cultural capital.

Conversely, the exclusive timing and varied offerings of high tea buffets suggest a different habitus and possibly a distinct consumer class. Those who engage in the weekend or evening hi-tea buffet experience may prioritize a more elaborate and celebratory habitus, associating cultural capital with the luxury of time and a diverse culinary experience.

In essence, the choice between hi tea platters and buffets may not only be about personal preference but also a reflection of one's social background and the cultural capital they aim to accumulate. The hi-tea culture, in this light, becomes a nuanced expression of social distinction, where varying habits contribute to the construction of different consumer classes and the accumulation of cultural capital.

A lifestyle projection

The expansion of space dedicated to hi-tea trends in hotels and restaurants in Sri Lanka reflects a strategic business response to the evolving consumer landscape and the desire for a more diverse and socially influential clientele. As individuals engage in the hi-tea culture, leveraging social media platforms to showcase their experiences, a new dimension of cultural capital comes into play.

Hotels and restaurants, by providing an environment conducive to hi-tea experiences, tap into the growing trend of using these settings as symbolic spaces for social identity construction. The aesthetics, offerings, and exclusivity associated with hi-tea contribute to the creation of a desirable image. Patrons, in turn, use social media platforms as a tool to amplify and share this symbolic consumption, projecting a certain lifestyle and cultural capital to their networks.

This dynamic interaction between establishments and consumers in the hi-tea culture becomes a means for individuals to signal and potentially elevate their social class. Through the carefully curated images and experiences shared online, individuals may seek to influence perceptions of their identity and social standing. The hi-tea trend serves not only as a gastronomic experience but also as a vehicle for social distinction and the construction of a particular lifestyle narrative on social media platforms. In this way, the hi-tea culture becomes a social practice intertwined with the contemporary dynamics of identity building and class signaling in the digital age.

(The author is Assistant Lecturer, Department of Political Science & Public Policy, University of Colombo. Views are personal. She can be contacted at

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