Given that afternoon tea is a 180-year-old tradition, its rules of etiquette are rooted in history and polite society manners. Below is our guide for today’s afternoon tea host and guest, with 7 simple teatime etiquette suggestions for each, to ensure a smooth, gentile afternoon tea experience for all.
7 Tea Etiquette Tips for Hosts
The goal for the host is to think ahead to accommodate any needs of their guests at the tea table, so that they too can enjoy the afternoon tea meal and conversation without distraction.
- Feel free to mix and match china when setting the tea table. So long as your teacups are actual teacups and not coffee mugs, your place settings do not have to be from one single set of china. It is not considered less sophisticated to mix-n-match your teacups and saucers, and can further entertain your guests, as they admire each other’s teacup patterns.
- Offer one caffeinated and one decaffeinated tea. Unless you are sure of your guests’ tastes, it is a good idea to brew a decaffeinated option, so that anyone caffeine-sensitive has something to sip on.
- Keep the tea hot. Tepid tea is no one’s favorite. Plan to keep the tea warm, especially if you are using large teapots, either with a tea cosy or teapot warmer, which uses a simple tealight.
- Pour for others before yourself. In the British tradition, the one who pours is called “Mother.” The host does not have to play Mother, but whoever does take on this role should have the teapot set near them.
- Designate a teaspoon or mini tongs for the sugar bowl. Remembering this extra utensil will ensure that guests do not have to use their individual teaspoons to stir their tea and then dip again into the sugar. Mini tongs for sugar cubes keep fingers out of the sugar bowl.
- Offer sugar and milk at least. Everyone’s tastes vary, and while adding milk to a green tea might be anathema to you, your guests may love it, and it is not the host’s place to judge. You may also like to offer lemon slices, honey or alternatives to white sugar. The only rule of thumb is to avoid using both milk and lemon, or adding milk to a citrus-flavored tea, as the acidity of the citrus can cause the milk to curdle. Side note: though it is served in a “creamer,” it is milk, not cream, that we serve with tea.
- Supply a fresh teacup when guests change teas. This is not a hard and fast rule, but is definitely appreciated, especially if the guest has not finished the first tea they tried before moving on to another. Having a couple extra clean teacups at the ready will allow you to offer a change of teacup without any fuss.
7 Tea Etiquette Tips for Guests
Guests at afternoon tea want to be sure they are being polite to both the host and the other guests. These tips will also help you show you know your way around a teacup while honoring the evolution of tea-drinking customs.
- Taste your tea before doctoring it. Drinkers of high quality teas know that adding milk or sugar to your tea before tasting it is like salting your food before tasting it. You will also give yourself a chance to develop your tea palate by trying the tea unadulterated. Another possible benefit of doing this is that you may discover you love a tea without any sugar at all (better for your health!).
- Don’t dip your used teaspoon into the sugar bowl. If no teaspoon has been provided, politely request a clean teaspoon to serve yourself sugar for second rounds of tea.
- Add sugar before milk; and never milk with lemon. Some suggest it’s a sign of low class to add your milk before your tea, as this was done historically to prevent cheap ceramics from cracking from the heat of the tea. Today, there is no rule regarding milk first or last, but you will want to add sugar before milk, because it dissolves into the tea better before the milk cools it. Avoid adding milk with lemon slices or to a citrus-flavored tea, which can curdle the milk.
- Stir gently from 6 to 12. Though this is a much-taught rule amongst etiquette experts, the point is to stir without making a clatter or a mess. A quiet, front-to-back motion as you stir in your sugar or milk is encouraged to keep the tea in the cup where it belongs.
- Rest your used teaspoon in your saucer. To keep from soiling the tablecloth, rest your used teaspoon behind your teacup, with both handles facing to the right.
- Keep those pinkies down. Hundreds of years ago, when teacups were called “tea bowls” or “tea dishes,” they were made without handles, causing them to be held with thumb and forefinger, the remaining fingers floating elegantly in the air. This may be how “pinkies up” came to be, but it is no longer necessary, so now is seen as an affectation. The proper teacup hold has the thumb and pointer finger meeting through the handle, with the other fingers resting beneath.
- Know when to take your saucer with you. When seated at a dining table, you will only pick up your teacup. However, anytime your teacup is more than an arm’s length away, such as in a parlor with low tables, you will pick up your saucer with your teacup, to prevent any drips. The same rule applies if you are standing, perhaps mingling at an event while sipping tea, your saucer comes with you.
These tips for host and guest are specific to the beverage course of afternoon tea. For more of today’s etiquette rules for the afternoon tea meal, please visit Destination Tea’s resources for the afternoon tea newcomer here.
Angela is the founder of Destination Tea, the U.S. Afternoon Tea Directory. Angela writes and speaks about afternoon tea history, etiquette and customs, in celebration and promotion of this beautiful tradition. Having reviewed more than 100 tearooms at home and abroad, Angela develops content for afternoon tea newcomers and aficionados alike, including pictorial tearoom reviews, resources for hosting a tea party at home, virtual tea party activity sets and afternoon tea basics for beginners.