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Everything you need to know about Afternoon Tea Etiquette

Afternoon Tea

So an invitation to Afternoon Tea from the Queen of England isn’t forthcoming to us mere mortals, but that is no reason to not brush up on the proper protocol. It might come in handy for your next baby shower invitation or a day out with your girlfriends. Whether you are hosting, attending, or simply curious about how the aristocracy likes its Afternoon Tea, here’s everything you need to know.

Afternoon Tea with Friends

Cultural Significance of Afternoon Tea

The quintessentially British, and seemingly reserved for the aristocratic blue-blood royal tradition of Afternoon Tea, is relatively speaking, new. Though the British have been consuming and enjoying tea since the 1660s, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that ‘Afternoon Tea’ became a part of the British royal household. It was Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford who, famished between lunch and late dinners at 8 o’clock, asked for a light meal around four in the afternoon. She requested a pot of tea accompanied by bread, butter, jam and/or cucumber sandwiches to be brought into her chambers. The Duchess then started inviting and hosting her friends during the late afternoons, and the charming ritual of gathering friends for tea began. 

Given how it first came into vogue, Afternoon Tea remained for a considerable amount of time in history an upper-class ritual. Aristocratic women and socialites would wear fashionably long gowns with gloves and hats and drink tea imported from India and Ceylon. Over the years, Afternoon Tea became more democratic and started becoming a staple in almost every household in Britain, irrespective of class boundaries. The tradition also spread across the world, especially in the British colonies across the globe. To this day, Afternoon Tea holds a special place in the British royal household and is an integral part of Britain’s tea tradition.

9 Afternoon Tea Etiquette Rules

    1. Afternoon Tea vs High Tea

      Afternoon Tea is served between 3 P.M to 5 P.M, accompanied by scones, crustless sandwiches, sweetmeats, and desserts. High Tea is served after 5 P.M, as an early dinner and is accompanied by savory dishes containing meat, in pies or roasted.

        2. The Saucer Stays, on the Table

          Unless you are standing or there aren’t tables nearby, don’t hold the saucer in your hands. The saucer stays on the table while you lift the cup to sip your tea, before placing it back on the saucer between sips. 

            3. It is not a Coffee Mug

              Don’t wrap your hands around the cup of tea as you would a cup of coffee. Pinch the index finger and thumb to hold the handle loop of the cup and place the middle finger at the base of the handle to support it.

                4. Parallel to the edge of the table

                  The handle of the tea cup is always parallel to the edge of the table. So, if you are right-handed, the handle would be in the 3 o’clock position, if you are left-handed, it would be the 9 o’clock position.

                    5. No Storms in the Teacup

                      Don’t stir up a whirlpool in your cup of tea when dissolving the sugar or honey. Simply and smoothly move the teaspoon up and down, and gently fold in the milk and/or sugar. Don’t tap the teaspoon on the side of the cup. Don’t sip the tea with the spoon still in the cup. Don’t lick the spoon after stirring in the enhancements. 

                      Afternoon Tea Etiquette

                        6. Tea comes First

                          First, the tea is poured into teacups. The milk and sugar are added after that and folded in. Premium loose leaf tea is used for Afternoon Tea at most restaurants and formal tea rooms, so don’t expect a teabag. A strainer will be placed over the teacups and tea from a teapot will be poured through it. The strainer will be removed, before the tea is served.

                          Afternoon Tea with Cakes

                            7. The Set Stays Together

                              If a fresh cup of tea is being poured for you, or you are asked to pass them your teacup, pass both the teacup and the saucer together. It is much like the salt and pepper rule. When someone asks you for one, you pass both. 

                                8. Savoury to Sweet

                                  There is a correct order when it comes to eating the food that accompanies Afternoon Tea. You can use fingers to eat the food, it should just be eaten in a certain order. First the sandwiches, then the scones, the cakes and pastries come last.

                                  Afternoon Tea Food Tray

                                    9. Rein in the Pinkie

                                      Should the pinkie be up or down, that is the question. IN, that is the answer. Your little finger neither needs to salute the Queen of England, nor be curled up like an Austen heroine, rein it in as you naturally would when enjoying a cup of tea.

                                      Cheat Sheet

                                      Cheat Sheet

                                      Faux Pas to Avoid

                                        1. Afternoon tea, whether it is a baby shower or at a restaurant/tea room, is a fairly formal affair. So, ripped, frayed jeans and shorts are not appropriate. Neither are scuffed shoes or sneakers. Most establishments that serve Afternoon Tea follow a strict dress code and reserve the right to deny entry if the rules of the dress code are not met by their patrons. Cocktail dresses, strictly speaking, also aren’t appropriate for Afternoon Tea, being more suited for drinks before dinner with friends.
                                          2. Serving yourself first, if you are the host. Filling the teacup to the brim, leaving no room to add enhancements like milk, sugar, or honey. 
                                            3. Loud slurping or gulping the tea down in one go. Afternoon Tea is meant to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. It is a respite away from the tedium and hectic pace of modern everyday life. Enjoy it slowly and languidly. 

                                              4. Don’t cut the scones into two halves with a knife or bite into it as a whole. Use your fingers to break bite size portions as you eat. Do not dunk the scone into the tea.

                                              Scones: Jam and Cream

                                              5. Don’t place the napkin on your knees or on your chair. The napkin should always be placed on the left side of the plate, even when you have excused yourself from the table. The open edge should be on the right, i.e., towards the plate, and the folded edge should be on the left.

                                                6. Don’t swirl the tea around in the cup as if it were wine in a wine glass. Don’t use the tea to wash down the food or use it as a palate cleanser. Afternoon tea isn’t a mouth rinse so don’t swish the tea around in your mouth like a mouthwash. Doing either is deemed offensive and rude, even if you do it quietly and in your opinion discreetly. 
                                                  7. The spoon is placed on the side of the cup, on the saucer, not in front of the cup. Also, it should be placed on the saucer silently, not a loud clunk.
                                                    8. Don’t blow to cool the tea down. If it is too hot for you to sip, let it sit for a while and cool on its own.
                                                      9. Milk, sugar, and/or honey are enhancements best suited for black teas, not white, oolong, green, or herbal teas. Most formal tea rooms offer a wide selection of teas, but it would be a faux pas to add milk to a cup of green tea or herbal tea. 

                                                        10. Don’t lick your fingers when you eat, as delicious as the sandwiches and luxurious cakes may be.

                                                        Cakes and Pastries for Afternoon Tea

                                                        11. Dab your mouth with the napkin, don’t wipe it. It’s a napkin, not a face towel and shouldn’t be used as one to wipe away the crumbs. Dab the napkin gently around the corners of your mouth to wipe away anything that might be there.

                                                        12. Don’t use the same spoon for the cream, jam, and sugar. Use a separate spoon for each.

                                                        Cheat Sheet

                                                        Simple Rules for Afternoon Tea

                                                        About the author

                                                        Neha Sen

                                                        Neha Sen

                                                        Contributing author

                                                        Born in Assam, India, Neha spent her weekends growing up drinking endless cups of tea with her grandmother who read Ruskin Bond to her in between sips. Voted ‘least likely to dance at a party.’ A lifelong admirer of all things tea and literature. The day starts with a cup of tea and ends, well… a cup of tea, and a book.

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