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Imagine you’ve been invited out to afternoon tea, where decadent cakes and freshly brewed tea await your arrival. Picture yourself all decked out for this elegant affair… but wait, aren’t we getting a little ahead of ourselves? What does one even wear to afternoon tea? And when the food arrives, is it good manners to reach straight for the scones? Oh dear, why is my teacup full of tea leaves?
The tea may be poured from silver tea pots and sandwiches eaten off of fine china plates, but the number one priority is to relax, unwind and enjoy this experience of luxury. Being familiar with proper afternoon tea etiquette can also help to put you at ease as you sit down for this truly elegant affair. From the right way to eat your tea sandwiches to what to do with your napkin, this article covers everything you need to know about afternoon tea etiquette, so that next time you host your own tea party or go out for afternoon tea, you’ll be able to enjoy tea time just like high-class Victorians did.
- Why is Etiquette Important?
- 14 Afternoon Tea Etiquette Rules
- 1. Call It by Its Proper Name
- 2. Dress for the Occasion
- 3. Keep the Table Clear
- 4. Utilise Your Napkin
- 5. Pouring the Tea
- 6. Hold your Teacup with Elegance
- 7. Stir Silently
- 8. This Saucer Doesn’t Fly
- 9. Wait for the Tea to Cool
- 10. What to Eat First!
- 11. Eat Your Scone Like a Brit
- 12. Dunking is a No-No!
- 13. Handling your Utensils
- 14. Enjoy Yourself!
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Why is Etiquette Important?
Since childhood we’ve all been taught the importance of being polite, and dining etiquette is merely one more way we may exhibit good manners when dining out in public. Whether we’re enjoying a meal with friends or have been invited to a business luncheon, table manners are crucial (take note double dippers!).
When it comes to afternoon tea etiquette, the rules are taken a few steps further than just your run-of-the-mill table manners. Yet, being aware of them can help you feel more confident and elegant as you nibble away at your dainty tea cakes, giving you a more authentic tea experience. Besides, on the off chance that you’re ever invited for tea with the Queen (because you can never truly know!), it’s good to have these tips in mind!
14 Afternoon Tea Etiquette Rules
1. Call It by Its Proper Name
Afternoon tea or high tea? When indulging in a luxurious afternoon of tea and finger foods it’s always good to know what to call it. Although ‘high tea’ might have a more lavish ring to it, elegant tea sets and bite-sized goods are exclusively a characteristic of afternoon tea. Historically, ‘high tea’ was for the working class; consisting of an early supper of meat and potatoes served with a strong mug of tea at a high table. On the other hand, afternoon tea is elegantly served between 2:00pm and 5:00pm on low tables, and features fine china cups, freshly brewed loose tea and a three-tier cake stand filled with finger sandwiches, scones and bite-size desserts.
2. Dress for the Occasion
Whilst it’s not absolutely necessary to wear a party dress to afternoon tea, most afternoon tea venues will have a smart casual dress code. Save the jeans and trainers look for more casual outings and aim for a flattering yet modest ensemble that will make you look neat and put together. For afternoon tea outfits inspiration be sure to check out our upcoming full article on afternoon tea outfits!
3. Keep the Table Clear
When indulging in afternoon tea, take the opportunity to step away from social media, put your phones away and savour the moment. Not only does this make for a more enjoyable experience, but it also happens to be good manners to keep your personal items off the table and your attention on the company in front of you. Instead, place your phone, glasses or anything of value on a nearby chair or keep them safely tucked away in your purse.
4. Utilise Your Napkin
When you sit down for afternoon tea, it is typical to find a cloth napkin folded on top of your plate. Instead of pushing this to the side for later use, instantly drape it on your lap with the crease facing towards you. This will save you from any unsightly spills and show that you’re well versed in the art of dining etiquette.
As you make your way up the three-tier cake stand, your fingers and lips will need to be cleaned from any stray crumbs. Keeping the napkin draped over your lap, feel free to wipe your fingers on the napkin after touching any food. Then, after eating some of the delicious finger-food, gently bringing an edge of the napkin toward your mouth. It is important that you don’t wipe your lips, but instead dap them gently before placing the napkin back on your lap.
At the very end of the afternoon tea, place the napkin on the left side of the place setting (as after all, leaving it on the chair might stain the seat!) and never place it back on the used plate.
5. Pouring the Tea
Proper tea does not come in a tea bag! When enjoying a traditional afternoon tea, your tea will be brewed to perfection using loose tea leaves, which is why a tea strainer will always be provided to catch them. After letting the tea stew for around 4 minutes, place the tea strainer upon the tea cup and pour the tea through it. Then, proceed to add any sugar and milk according to your personal preferences, remembering that milk is only suitable with black tea and never added to green, oolong, white, or herbal teas.
Traditionally, adding the milk last was a clever way of showing off, as cheap china cups would typically crack and break when hot water was poured directly into the cup. So, by adding the milk last, you’ll be pouring the tea just like a high-society aristocrat and enjoying china cups that you know are of the highest quality!
6. Hold your Teacup with Elegance
Sticking your pinkie finger up, holding the tea cup in both hands, or hooking your fingers through the cup’s handle are all considered to be mini faux pas in the world of afternoon tea! Etiquette expert William Hanson says that the best way to hold a teacup is by pinching the top of the handle (which must point at 3 o’clock) with one’s thumb and index finger, whilst letting the middle finger follow the shape of the handle towards the bottom of the handle to maintain the cup’s balance. Then, the rest of the fingers are kept nicely tucked in as you elegantly sip your tea.
7. Stir Silently
Afternoon tea is one of those moments where silence is absolutely golden! Of course, stirring the tea in a circular motion does the job reasonably well, it often leads to unnecessary clanking and splashing. So, to avoid making unnecessary sounds (and possibly a mess!), stir in a forward and backward motion – from the 6 o’clock to 12 o’clock position – for better stirring results.
When using this stirring method, any sugar that has been added will dissolve quicker instead of remaining clumped in the bottom of the cup. Finally, gently flick the teaspoon above the cup, never banging the spoon against the teacup itself, and enjoy a cup of tea which has been stirred with quiet sophistication, pun intended!
8. This Saucer Doesn’t Fly
Although the teacup is served on top of a matching saucer, this does not mean that one should lift the saucer together with the cup when ready to start sipping! It is good to think of the saucer as a resting place for the teacup. Thus, always place the teacup back on the saucer after taking a sip, but never bring the saucer to the cup.
9. Wait for the Tea to Cool
Whilst blowing on hot tea might seem like the practical thing to do, this is actually considered bad manners in the world of afternoon tea. Instead of trying to actively cool down your tea before drinking it, simply wait for it to cool on its own before attempting to take a sip. This way you avoid blowing into your teacup and potentially burning your mouth with the hot liquid. After the tea has cooled, don’t forget to always take small sips, never slurping or, even worse, whirling the tea around in your mouth.
10. What to Eat First!
When sitting down for a full tea service, you should expect a variety of finger food – ranging from tea sandwiches to bite-size desserts – all charmingly arrayed on a three-tier cake stand. Whilst those with a dominant sweet tooth might be tempted to taste the desserts first, according to the rules of etiquette you should always start from the bottom (with the delicious sandwiches first) and work your way up towards the sweets.
11. Eat Your Scone Like a Brit
Scones are a staple of afternoon tea, and no scone is ever complete without a dollop of jam (or lemon curd if that’s your preference!) and some decadent clotted cream. To start layering your scone, start by breaking it open using your hands (never cutting it open with a knife!). Then, smear the jam and clotted cream on each half – using the butter knife provided – and proceed to enjoy each delicious half, one at a time.
If wondering whether to layer the jam on top of the clotted cream or vice versa, for the English the answer lies with the type of clotted cream provided! When using Cornish clotted cream, the tradition in Cornwall is to smear the jam before the cream, whereas the Devonians – with Devonshire clotted cream – tend to prefer the opposite. Naturally this is merely a cultural preference, so afternoon tea lovers that are neither from Devon and Cornwall can choose whichever method they prefer.
12. Dunking is a No-No!
Coming from a culture where many of us enjoy dunking our biscuits into our mug of tea, you might get the urge to dunk a portion of your scone into your elegant teacup. Unfortunately, etiquette rules advise us to reign in these inclinations as dunking anything into your tea cup would certainly be frowned upon amongst polite society! Instead, simply savour the individual tastes and save your guilty dunking enjoyments for another time and place.
13. Handling your Utensils
Whilst the tea sandwiches and scones are picked up using your fingers (not with a knife and fork), a small fork is provided to eat the desserts. This should always be upturned in the right hand, allowing you to break into the dessert and scoop up parts of this delicious treat. After you’ve finished using them, place any used utensils on top of the plate – never on the table – in a 4pm or 20 minute position, to signal that you’re done.
When it comes to the teaspoon, its only usage is for adding sugar and stirring the tea. Putting it in your mouth or drinking the tea with the teaspoon still in the cup would be certainly cause an uproar amongst the Victorians! So, after stirring your freshly brewed tea, always be sure to place the teaspoon back on the saucer and proceed to enjoy your cuppa.
14. Enjoy Yourself!
Most importantly whilst following the rules of etiquette is important, don’t let yourself get so focused on them that you forget to enjoy the experience! Afternoon tea might be a luxurious outing but it is also a fun way to relax with friends and loved ones. After all, this article is written to be more of a factual and informational piece rather than a rule book, so rest easy – the occasional faux-pas will doubtlessly be forgiven as long as you enjoy the experience to its fullest!
If you’re a lover of all things etiquette, be sure to check out our article on Japanese Tea Ceremony Etiquette.
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Christine is a woman with an eclectic range of artistic tastes. As a professional soprano with a Bachelor's Degree in Music, she carries over 15 years of experience in the classical music scene, both locally and abroad. Her passion for music is equalled by her love for literature and, more recently, Christine graduated for a second time with a BA in English.