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Afternoon Tea Etiquette Basics to Remember

If you’re planning on attending high tea at a fancy tea shop or tea house, the last thing you want to do is embarrass yourself by not understanding the etiquette involved. 

Tea etiquette involves drinking tea and having tea snacks in a formal setting like a tea shop. Drinking tea in a tea house or tea shop requires table manners and a dress code that you don’t have to observe in other restaurants or shops. 

So what kind of rules do you need to know to avoid a faux pas at the tea house? Read on to learn more about tea etiquette and how to conduct yourself at high tea. 

What Is Tea Etiquette?

Tea etiquette lists the accepted rules followed when people go to formal cream tea or afternoon tea. Enjoying a formal tea means following more complicated etiquette than when you’re arranging to have a casual afternoon tea time with friends. 

What Is the Appropriate Dress Code for Tea?

If you make reservations to go to high tea at a tea shop or tea house, you’ll need to follow the tea shop’s dress code. Most tea shops will display their dress code on their website, but if you’re unsure what the dress code is, don’t be afraid to call ahead and ask.

Most tea shops follow a smart casual dress code. This dress code means that formal attire isn’t required to have tea in the shop, but clothes shouldn’t be ripped, scuffed, revealing, or have vulgar language printed on them. 

afternoon tea etiquette
Afternoon tea etiquette is simple if you know a few guidelines

Manners at the Tea Table

Once you get to your tea table, there are a few basic manners you should follow to avoid a social faux pas. Here are the basic rules you should follow when you sit down for a formal tea : 

  • Keep your phone and accessories off the table. Your cell phone, purse, and other belongings should be placed on the chair  or floor beside you. It’s also considered rude to use speakerphone mode at the tea table. If you need to take a call, you should definitely get up from the table and take it outside.
  • Keep table talk and eating noise quiet. It’s important not to disturb people taking tea at other tables in a tea house, especially in smaller establishments where tea tables may be placed close together. Loud laughter and horseplay are discouraged. You should also avoid clinking utensils and teacups.
  • Keep flatware off the table and out of your mouth. The teaspoons at formal tea are intended to mix sugar and milk into your tea, and shouldn’t be licked or sucked clean after stirring. Once flatware has been used, it should be placed on the edge of your plate rather than the tabletop. 

Knowing how to use flatware properly at tea and how to cultivate the particular vibe of the high tea ceremony is a big part of understanding tea etiquette. 

Keeping your table relatively quiet and using your utensils properly can prevent you from sticking out in a bad way at your next tea shop experience. Other aspects of tea etiquette, such as putting away your phone, are just basic good table manners for conducting yourself at any restaurant. 

How to Hold a Teacup

Thanks to the media, there are some misconceptions about how a teacup should be held at a formal tea. Here are the two major rules you need to follow to stay within tea etiquette when handling your teacup: 

  • Don’t stick your pinky out. While you might think that doing this or curling your pinky around your teacup handle makes you look sophisticated, it is actually seen as pretentious to drink tea this way. Instead, hold your teacup from the handle and lift it to your mouth without grasping it around the cup.
  • Don’t pick up your tea saucer with your teacup. Your tea saucer should not leave the table during a high tea. Instead, lift the teacup from the saucer and then put it gently back on the saucer after you’ve taken a drink, being careful not to clatter the teacup against the saucer’s surface.

The etiquette of drinking from a teacup isn’t complicated. Just keep the above tips in mind and you won’t risk looking silly or loudly dropping your tea saucer. 

how to hold a teacup at afternoon tea
Never hold up your pinky when you sip from your teacup at an afternoon tea!

How to Drink Tea Properly

Once you’ve learned how to hold your teacup properly, the last major part of tea etiquette is knowing how to politely drink it. These are the basic rules of tea etiquette you should follow when drinking your tea: 

  • Don’t slurp or gulp. You should aim to drink tea as quietly as possible in a tea shop or tea house. Instead, take small sips.
  • Don’t blow on your tea to cool it. Just wait for the tea to cool on its own before taking a sip if it’s too hot.
  • Stir back and forth. When adding milk or sugar to your tea, stir your teaspoon in a gentle back-and-forth motion rather than in a circular motion. This can help reduce noise and prevent damage to the delicate teacups from clinking them against the metal utensils.
  • Don’t swish tea around in your mouth. While you might have seen this done for comedic effect when people are tasting wine, tea, or other fine beverages in a movie, it is frowned on in real-world tea houses.
  • Serve others before yourself. If you are having a fancy tea at home instead of in a tea shop, serve your guests tea before serving yourself. This also serves as common courtesy for serving any food or drink in your home. 

Drinking tea correctly in a formal setting isn’t hard. For the most part, it involves keeping things stately and quiet. Keep in mind that high tea is a social event where manners are at the forefront, so try to avoid drawing attention to yourself while drinking your tea to be seen as polite. 

Tea Etiquette Rules for Food

Follow these simple rules for eating at an afternoon tea and you’ll be sitting pretty.

Afternoon Tea Course Order

Food at a formal tea will traditionally be served in a three tier stand.  It’s easy to remember what to eat first if you can keep in mind these two rules:

  • Eat from savory to sweet.
  • Start at the bottom of the three tiered tray and move up.

So, you’d start with the savory treats and tea sandwiches on the bottom tier.  When finished, move onto the second tier with scones, cream, and jam.  When finished with the scone course, finally move to the top tier with sweet treats.

The food from each course should be finished before moving onto the next course. 

High tea etiquette is simple to follow even in a casual situation.

Eat With Your Fingers, not Cutlery

Once you’ve selected food from the appropriate tier, what then?

Since most food served at an afternoon tea is meant to be eaten in 2-3 bites, use your fingers.  Yes, your fingers.  Teaspoons should only be used in your teacup, or in the jam and cream, and the knives should only be used to slather jam and cream on your scones. 

How to Eat a Scone

Eating a scone can feel intimidating, since they’re usually not bite sized like the other tea food you’ll be served. To eat a scone, follow these simple guidelines:

  • Choose a scone from the middle tier of the serving tray and place it on your plate.
  • Spoon out a bit of jam and clotted cream from the serving bowls onto your plate.
  • Break off a hunk of scone with your fingers and use your knife to spread the jam and cream.
  • Don’t cut your scone in half with your knife!
  • Pop that tasty scone morsel into your mouth with your fingers.
  • Repeat and enjoy!

To Dunk or Not to Dunk, that is the question…

This one is simple:  The only thing that should go in your teacup is sugar, cream, or a teaspoon.  Never dunk scones, or any other afternoon tea food in your tea!

Tea Etiquette Is Simple to Pull Off

While you might be nervous if you’re taking high tea or cream tea in a formal setting for the first time, the above guide should give you plenty of hints to keep you from embarrassment. And even if you do make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world. As long as you’re trying to be polite and know what to expect, any small lapse in tea etiquette won’t be seen as a major problem. 

The basics of afternoon tea etiquette are simple to learn and understand.  Find out what you need to know before your next formal tea.
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