The etiquette involved in afternoon tea is quite rich and complex. Due to its conception in the 1800’s (when the importance of manners was an imperative topic), it became quite a topic of adherence and admiration. Those who served as hosts and took food as guests were expected very particular conduct, right down to the way a person stirred his or her tea with their spoon. During this time missing your manners was both embarrassing and disrespectful.
While in general modern life is not nearly as strict with social customs, manners and etiquette are still important and relevant during a session of afternoon tea (although how formal it is is often up to the host’s discretion). In light of this, we’ve created a guide so that you can achieve excellent tableside manner during this most decadent snack.
The Role of the Host
When you first decide to hold an afternoon tea, you should at least consider the season of the year; warmer weather is best, as an afternoon tea is much better when sitting in low-seated outdoor chairs in a pleasantly warm garden.
As the host, your first and foremost concern should be your guests. As you serve them tea, offer to stir in the sugar or milk if the decide to have it; during the earlier 1800’s you would generally have been in control of this by default, as both tea and sugar were expensive commodities. However, those who could afford both tea and sugar easily would allow their guests to add their own milk and sugar, demonstrating their wealth and social dominance. Obviously neither are relevant today with the relatively low cost of both tea and sugar, so it is best just to ask.
Your teaware should ideally be made of porcelain. China cups can be extremely beautiful to look at and the delicacy of the cup showcases much about afternoon tea itself, in an almost ceremonious way. Also included should be a three-tiered cake stand; the best of these come in silver – yet another way to demonstrate wealth – however you should feel free to use a stand made of other materials, as many people often do. Saucers should always be given to your guests to go with their teacups, as well.
All foods should be presented by you and placed upon the serving table. After all, it would not do to have your guests running around to get food themselves, as that would be impolite of you. As they are your guests, you must tend to them.
The Role of the Guest
The teacup you are provided with will most likely be a handled variety, although some of the more traditional Chinese cups may come without a handle. If this is the case, then it is important to remember that these cups will usually become unbearably hot around the middle, so you should try to pick it up by the rim, instead. Use your first three fingers and your thumb to pick it up at the very top, while maintaining a pinkie out for balance.
Handled varieties of teacups are easier to manage; you should pick these up with your first three fingers and thumb by the handle, however it was considered impolite to loop your fingers through it. Instead, you will need to use strength in your fingers and thumb to clamp the handle and raise it that way, again keeping that pinkie out for some added balance.
Your teacup will be presented with a saucer. This saucer should not be brought to your mouth with the teacup, as this is considered impolite. The saucer must remain on the table (or your lap, depending on the type of afternoon tea in session) as you drink your tea. As you drink, do not slurp. If you stir your sugar in yourself, also avoid clinking the spoon against your teacup.
It is an important note to add that you should never, however tempted you may be, add lemon to tea containing milk. This is not for politeness’s sake; the result will be curdled milk. Due to lemon’s vast quantities of citric acid, the fruit can actually partially cook meats when the juice is squeezed onto them. The same, unfortunately, is true for milk.
When it comes down to manners and etiquette, this is all you should need to know to hold your own afternoon tea session, or attend one. Politeness was key in late 18th Century Britain, and it only continued to blossom as time progressed to the 19th Century.