A Beginner’s Guide To Tea Etiquette

What are the chances of you having tea with the cream of society? Not likely, but it wouldn’t hurt to learn some traditional tea drinking etiquette just in case you get a call from the royal family inviting you for a brew one day.

It may seem a touch quaint and archaic, but afternoon tea is a serious business that has a lot more unspoken rules than you’d think. The simple act of stirring a cup of tea wrong, or placing a spoon in rogue position, can land you in trouble among high circles.

We’re here to help you, put you on the straight and narrow so whenever you’re in a formal tea lovers setting, you don’t stick out like a sore thumb and offend your company. Below are ten tea etiquette rules to look out for. But first…

When did afternoon tea start?

Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, introduced afternoon tea in England in 1840. It was invented because Anna would become hungry at around 4 p.m., four hours before the household’s usual 8 p.m. evening meal. The Duchess requested a tray of tea, bread and butter and cake to be brought to her room. After a while, this became routine. Later, she invited friends to join her. 

Afternoon tea became a trendy way of socialising among upper-crust circles in the 1880s who would often change into long gowns, gloves and hats for their tea, normally served in the drawing room between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. 

Put your pinkie finger down

The raised pinkie finger is so deeply linked with drinking tea. Hand someone a fancy teacup, even with nothing inside it, and they’ll probably mimic a stereotypical fop drinking with their pinkie finger in the air. So synonymous with ‘lardy-dar’ English afternoon tea culture is this subtle hand position, that USWNT footballer Alex Morgan did it to rile the English fans at the 2019 World Cup. 

Pinkie fingers, when it comes to drinking tea, should always be down. Putting it up is a surefire way to let your fellow tea drinkers know that this isn’t a world you often inhabit. An amateur, basically. 

Hold the teacup by the handle

Teacups don’t have handles just to look nice. Usually thinner than your average coffee mug, teacups require handles so you don’t burn on your fingers. Even if your tea has cooled down, still refrain from ever holding it by the body. Your precious cup of tea should only ever be controlled via the handle. 

In China and Japan, tea was traditionally consumed in porcelain bowls. When Europe came knocking, after struggling to mimic the quality of porcelain back home, the tea handle was invented in the 18th century. It made total sense, giving it could withstand the heat without snapping off. 

Stir your tea up and down

Although the sound of teaspoons gently hitting or scraping a teacup can give off a certain amount of ASMR, especially in films — hello Get Out — it’s not advised in a serious tea-drinking environment, nor is circular stirring. 

Make sure to move your teaspoon up and down (6 p.m. to 12 a.m.) gently folding in the milk, if you’re so inclined. Do not clunk the teaspoon against the cup, no matter how tempting it may be, as this is considered crude. And forget about drying off the teaspoon by tapping the side of the teacup. 

Don’t add milk first

When pouring guests a cup of tea (and you should always prioritize them before yourself), make sure you only pour the tea, to begin with. Do not add milk first as not everyone likes their brew with a dairy sweetener. Likewise, do not assume guests want sugar or honey with their tea. 

Milk was historically added before tea to teacups to prevent cracks and breakages, but as teacup technology progressed, this habit was abandoned. Today, adding milk before tea leaves you looking a bit clueless if not classless in an afternoon tea situation.

Don’t slurp your tea when drinking 

In many Eastern countries, especially Japan, enthusiastically slurping is an accepted form of respect and manners. In the Western tea-drinking world, at least, this is not seen as anything other than sloppy and disrespectful. The whole process of drinking tea should be as silent as possible, from stirring to slurping. 

Also be careful not to blow on your tea, no matter how hot it is. Practise a spot of patience and allow your brew to cool naturally, lest you risk blowing out a drop of tea onto the table or your thigh. 

 Don’t keep your teaspoon in the cup

Adding milk or a sweetener to your tea will require you to use a teaspoon to mix it altogether. Once you’re done mixing, make sure to place that spoon on your saucer, behind the cup. Never leave the spoon inside your cup. 

Also double check the spoon isn’t resting on your cup so it doesn’t make any annoying clinking sounds when you pick it up to take a sip! 

Don’t put the teaspoon in your mouth

It’s a common habit we’re all guilty of away from the sophisticated world of afternoon tea, taking a cheeky sip of the teaspoon after stirring in milk or sugar, but this should be avoided in a formal tea setting. 

When you’re through with stirring milk or sugar into your tea, remember to place the spoon on the saucer behind your cup. Refrain from putting it in your mouth the way you might do at home. Your spoon is for stirring and stirring only. 

Don’t add cream to your tea

Cream pairs wonderfully with coffee but terribly with your standard cup of tea. While the heavy fat content and thickness of cream compliment a black cup of coffee it will overpower the subtle flavour of a black cup of tea!

While we’re on the subject, you should only add sugar and milk to black tea, as this is a particularly bitter and uneventful blend that is almost always improved by additives. Milk actually brings out the natural flavours of black tea and elevates the taste. More or less any other tea- your greens and gingers and peppermints — are to be enjoyed as they come. Milking them down will cement you as a tea rookie. 

Josh Teal

Josh Teal is a freelance writer with wit and verve, powered by copious amounts of tea and coffee. That makes him something of an expert in all things brewing, whether it's for you or for your pets!

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