Note: I have decided this is a living post and it needs to be updated from time to time. I keep finding little things that need to be added as I find new things, do my own research about tea and coffee history and host my own tea events. You might like to check back now and then, for new additions or clarifications.
~ Victoria Lynn
Everyone wants to fit in when they arrive at a group event. It doesn’t matter if it’s your neighbor’s dinner party, the posh Tea room in town, or at your very own Afternoon tea or coffee with the ladies. While this is geared toward tea time, what’s here can and does apply to coffee time as well.
But none of us are born knowing the proper way to set a table, serve tea or even how to behave with proper etiquette. Who serves the tea, how is it served, what if you’re at a tea house? How do the rules change when you’re out for tea vs when you’re home and hosting an afternoon tea?
At some point you need to learn how things are properly done. And what things not to do. Your Mom and/or Dad start the practice of manners when you’re young. And they share the practices that were taught to them.
As a rule of thumb proper etiquette is designed to limit disease and mess. It’s that simple. Long ago people didn’t have the advantages of medical discoveries as we do today. Proper etiquette was designed to limit the potential spread of deadly disease. Think about what you’re doing and ask yourself is this potentially sharing my germs or making a mess. If so, don’t do it.
That may not be possible when it comes to the proper etiquette of afternoon Tea. Someone with the knowledge and experience has to be willing to teach you and share what they were taught or what has been handed down through the generations of Proper Afternoon Tea gatherings.
Here’s a little help for the do’s and don’ts attending or hosting an afternoon tea.
Invitations & Guests
Proper etiquette begins long before the event when guests are first invited to tea. Invitations are sent out by mail and are always hand written. No store bought invitations with blanks to fill in the time or place etc. Mail your invitation at least one week in advance. In today’s busy world, it’s acceptable to mail it two weeks in advance, but not more than that. A proper tea consists of 4 or 6 guests. They are small intimate gatherings, not large party events.
In days of old, tea was held at 4pm. But our schedules have changed in the modern world and so has the acceptable time for afternoon tea. Especially if some of the ladies have young school age children. Because of this an acceptable tea time can be as early as 1pm. Take the responsibilities of your guests into consideration as you’re setting the time for the gathering. One thing you need to think about from the start, there’s a difference between Low Tea and High Tea. From the time of day the event is held, to menu being offered to your guests. Take time to learn the differences between “High & Low – What Time Is Tea”!
As a guest, show respect for your host and make a point of being on time. On time doesn’t mean early. Your host is counting the minutes they have left to prepare the menu and table. If you arrive early, they will feel rushed and unprepared. Don’t try to be fashionably late. There’s no such thing. You will be forcing other guests to wait on your arrival and that’s simply selfish and rude. Give yourself a 5 minute window to arrive. 10 minutes at the most. If you’re running later than that, have the courtesy to call your host and let them know. They have food on the menu that may need to be served. Your being late could ruin the entire meal for everyone.
Most afternoon teas denote a guest of honor, but this is not a necessity for casual afternoon teas. You might hold an afternoon tea for someone’s birthday or for some type of congratulation, such as a graduation, engagement, anniversary or any type of celebration event. As you’re writing out your invitations choose a time for the guests to arrive with a 15minute window between their arrival and the time of your guest of honor who should arrive last if possible. Make sure you’re planning your menu based on that final arrival time.
Tea never begins until the guest of honor arrives. And no one leaves until the guest of honor leaves first (you might inform them of this). This is a practice that is still in place today at formal events. Especially those at the White House or any diplomatic function. If you do not have a guest of honor, tea does not begin until everyone arrives.
When everyone has arrived, you can enter the seating area.
Sitting For Tea:
In today’s society most homes do not have a parlor to gather in and a sitting room to hold a low tea event. Today both are generally held in the same room. Because of this, it’s acceptable to invite your guests in and direct them to a seat. The guest of honor is always at the head of the table or gathering space. For a low tea, the guest of honor is seated in the most prominent chair in the room where they are the focus. Never squeeze them in on the couch. As host you should be seated to the right of your guest of honor.
Additionally, you want your gathering to feel intimate and close. You may want to rearrange the furniture in a large living room to bring everyone closer and to make it easier (and more proper) to serve your tea. You don’t want to pour tea and then walk the cup to a guest on the other side of the room.
Today many people like holding an afternoon tea at a dining table instead of in a formal living room. This is acceptable, but remember this does not make your tea a “high tea”. Gather your guests in the living room and when everyone has arrived, direct them to the dining area. If it’s a garden tea, gather indoors until everyone has arrived. Then escort your guests to the garden.
If this is an evening high tea, your guest of honor is placed at the head of the table and you will again sit to the right. Seating arrangements at a table are designated by name plates on the table so everyone knows where they should go. Do this for both an afternoon tea held at a table and especially in the evening at high tea. You don’t want your guests loitering around the room in confusion.
If you do have two spaces for your gathering, no one enters the tea area until all your guests have arrived. If someone is running late, hopefully they will have the decency to call and let you know. Waiting 10minutes is an acceptable time to wait in the Parlor for their arrival. If it’s longer than 10minutes, use your better judgement but 15minutes or more is rude and your guests should be taken to the location of the tea.
The host/hostess escorts the guest of honor to the entry of the tea area. As your other guests enter the room introduce the guest of honor to anyone they don’t already know. If they know everyone, the two of you simply welcome the guests and let them know you’re glad they have accepted your invitation and joined you for tea.
The all important napkin is the first thing one should reach for upon sitting and is placed in the lap. The word napkin derives from the old French naperon, meaning “little tablecloth”. The first napkins in Egypt were the size of our bath towels today. Keep in mind they ate with their fingers as flatware had not been invented yet. The first type of flatware documented in history was a knife listed on 1297 tax document. A Sheffield knife was listed in the King’s possession. (Cutlery – Wikipedia)
Today the proper afternoon tea napkin is 9square inches. At low tea, the napkin can be an upscale paper napkin. At high tea, it should always be linen and they are typically 12square inches.
The napkin is always picked up and unfolded into the lap. It is always unfolded below the table for high tea. At low tea, the napkin is opened fully and covers the entire lap. At high tea, the large dinner napkin is folded in half with the fold facing the body.
In upscale restaurants the wait staff is often trained to open the napkin for you and place it in your lap. Often with way too much fanfare. Be patient when you’re first seated and wait to see if they do this, or if it’s going to be left to you. Nothing worse than both of you grabbing for the napkin.
If you must leave the tea for a moment, the napkin is placed in your seat never on the table. You can easily pick it up when you return and place it back in its proper place to rejoin the tea.
The host/hostess picks up their napkin to signal the close of the tea. This is done only after making certain all the guests have finished their tea and servings. At the end of the tea, the napkin is not refolded but picked up by the center and placed loosely to the left of the plate.
Enjoying The Tea:
Part of enjoying afternoon tea is the pomp and circumstance that goes along with it. Feeling all grown up in beautiful attire. Thus the etiquette of serving tea is of the utmost importance.
- Serving Tea:
Tea is always served first and never poured into the cup sitting on the table. Pick up the saucer (with the tea cup), pour the tea and hand the saucer to your guest. Don’t pour multiple cups and hand them out like a Frisbee. One cup at a time and handed directly to your guests.
- Who Pours?
If you are the hostess, of course you should pour. If you are taking tea at a tea house, it is the person who is closest to the pot when the pot is brought to the table.
- Guests First:
If you are hosting the tea always serve the guests first, beginning on your left with your guest of honor (if there is one) and working around the table. As host, you are always last.
- How much Tea?
To prevent saucer spills and provide room for additional ingredients (milk, honey, sugar, lemon) fill the teacup only three-quarters.
Ask your guest one at a time, if they prefer weak or strong tea.
For weak tea, pour the cup half full leaving room for the addition of hot water. Add only enough water to make the cup three-quarters full. For strong tea, simply fill to three-quarters full.
- If you’re serving tea in tea-bag form, Never-ever bounce the tea bag up and down in your cup to help the steeping process. Allow the tea to seep into the water for 4 to 6 minutes. That should provide more than enough time to infuse the flavor into the water.
- Never drain a tea bag by winding the string around a spoon. Remove the tea bag from the cup, allow it to drain slightly and by slight that’s about 5 seconds. Then place the bag on a plate on the table. If your host has studied afternoon settings, they should know to provide a small plate for discarded tea bags, sugar wrappers or any disposables used. If not, simply ask for one.
- Additions To The Tea:
Before serving the cup, ask your guest “With milk, sugar, or lemon?” Add the requested ingredients and place a spoon on the saucer if it is not already there. The spoon is placed in front of the cup from the servers perspective. When handed to the guest, the spoon will be properly in it’s place behind the cup. The server never stirs the tea in the cup.
- Proper placement of spoon:
For serving and drinking!
The spoon never stays in the cup. Think of the saucer a clock face. The spoon and the handle of the cup should point to 4:00. The spoon is always placed behind the cup, with the handle of spoon and cup pointing in the same direction. And never clank the spoon in the saucer.
- Adding Sugar and Lemon:
It’s customary to add the sugar and then a thinly sliced lemon or milk. Never add milk and lemon together as it will curdle the milk.
- Milk goes in after the Tea AND Sugar:
A nice little saying is “To put milk in your tea before sugar is to cross the path of love, perhaps never to marry.” (Tea superstition)
Never fold your ingredients together with the spoon. Always gently stir, or delicately move the spoon back and forth in the center of the cup.
- No Noise:
It is considered poor form in most cultures to make unnecessary noises with the accoutrements one uses while eating or drinking. Never strike the spoon against the sides of the cup.
- Proper holding of cup:
Use both hands to lift both cup and saucer to drink from, and please no pinkies*.
- No Looping:
Never loop your fingers through the handle, nor grasp the saucer with the palm of your hand.
- What gets Eaten first?
The correct order when eating on a tea tray is to eat sandwiches first, scones next and sweets last. In our modern times the order has changed slightly. We like guests to eat the scones first while they are hot, then move to the sandwiches, and sweets are still last.
The most practical approach according to Debrett’s is to split the scone horizontally before adding your favorite spreads.
- Cream, then jam on scones?
This depends. Devon tradition puts clotted cream first on scones, then jam. In Cornwall, preserves first. Here in the U.S. where clotted cream is often replace with a butter spread, the butter is first and the jam is second. Oh and scones are eaten neatly with the fingers.
- It’s acceptable to use your fingers:
You can eat bite-size pastries with your fingers, as well as sliced bread, breaking off small pieces before consuming. However some pastries might be a bit gooey so to speak, in which case it’s acceptable to use a dessert fork. Which should also be used to eat larger pastries such as a slice of cake.
- No dunk zone:
No that doesn’t say “drunk” though that shouldn’t need to be said. Unless your tea party is very informal, dunking treats in your tea will garner a scowl from anyone. Think of it this way, dunking can be a messy business. You might drop a piece of treat in the tea itself, or drop liquid in your lap or on you attire. Thus, NO Dunking!
- Always keep your tea cup and saucer close together, do not separate more than 12 inches apart. If you stand up, the saucer goes with the cup!
- If you’re standing with your tea, always hold your saucer (with the teacup) in the palm of your hand at waist level. When you lift the cup to drink, the saucer rises as well. 12 inches apart!
- Never place your empty cup, saucer and plate back on the tea table when you leave. The tea table is the display for the tea and food and should remain beautiful through the tea time.
- Always write your host a thank-you note after the tea party.
When considering proper etiquette here is a rule of thumb. The less you touch someone else’s food or eating utensils the better. Once it’s in the cup, or on the plate, it stays in the cup or on the plate. Getting it into the serving should keep hands and mess away from the serving and consumption.
For instance, if someone asks for honey in their tea you want to provide that with the least amount of mess. Having a dish of honey with a spoon requires the server to transport the honey from the dish to the cup, leaving an opportunity to create spillage on its travel. Using the spoon you will hand to the guest means stirring the tea for your guest, that’s a no no. You don’t want to use their spoon, dip honey into a serving dish, add it to the tea, place the honey soaked spoon on the saucer and hand it to your guest. All this creates some kind of mess in some way.
What ever you serve to your guests should be as neat and sanitary as possible!
As part of the sanitary consideration what is used in a place setting stays with the individual. Never use a knife or spoon from your plate in a “community” serving bowl or dish. As the host it is your job to ensure your guests have sanitary serving utensils. As a guest, it’s your job to ensure you don’t spread your germs to others. Never use your spoon in the service of butter, jam or anything else on the table. You can use the serving utensil to place any additional condiments upon your plate and then use your plate as your personal serving dish. NEVER double dip!!
*About the Pinky:
Since ancient Rome, a cultured person ate with 3 fingers, a commoner with five. This 3 fingers etiquette rule is still correct when picking up food with the fingers and handling various pieces of flatware. The pinky “up” rule is actually a misinterpretation of the 3 fingers vs 5 fingers dining etiquette in the 11th century. Thus, the birth of the raised pinkie was a sign of elitism. But as a misinterpretation it can show a lack of etiquette. Simply hold your pinky comfortably with your ring finger, slightly curled into the palm of the hand.
About the Cup:
Tea cups haven’t always had handles. Originally tea was poured into small handle-less Chinese porcelain bowls that held about 2-3 tablespoons of tea. It is said that the idea of the saucer developed in the 17th century when the daughter of a Chinese military official found it difficult to handle the hot bowls of tea she brewed for him and asked a local potter to devise a little plate on which to place the bowl. (Taken from “A Social History of Tea” by Jane Pettigrew).
About Sugar and Honey:
Sugar cubes are preferable, not only for the ritual of using elegant sugar tongs, but for their neatness. There’s nothing messier than spilled sugar granules. Allow the sugar to rest briefly to dissolve and then stir gently and noiselessly.
Some people prefer honey with their tea instead of sugar. Especially since honey was a known sweetener long before sugar was discovered. The best way to offer honey is to use a creamer service for the honey, This allows you to pour the honey directly from one dish to the next. In order to avoid spillage, simply be patient as the honey drips from the creamer before placing it back on the table. It’s also a good idea to keep the honey service on a saucer to catch any left over drips.
Lemon is agreeable with most black teas. Lovers of fragrant Earl Grey and smoky Lapsang Souchong. There’s a whole ritual about lemons, so pay close attention.
Lemon is offered in thin slices and never in wedges! Because of this, it’s important to ensure your lemon is washed well before slicing. You don’t want to serve insecticides to your guests. The lemon slices are placed on a dish near the milk and sugar. A lemon fork is used for serving. These are special serving forks with splayed tines. Once the tea has been poured you can place the lemon in the cup. Remember tea is always the first thing in the cup, then the additional ingredients.
Should a guest desire another cup of tea, the host/hostess will remove the slice of lemon from the cup and place it on an empty serving dish that was already prepared on the table for this purpose. This is applicable to low or high tea. The host will pour the tea, adding a new fresh slice of lemon. You may also offer a fresh cup, depending on availability.
As the tea drinker, never remove the lemon from the cup. It doesn’t go on the side of the dish, or on your serving plate or napkin. It stays in the cup! Neither the server or the drinker should remove the seeds from the lemon slice. Both the peel and the seeds add flavor to the tea. The lemon is never squeezed or pushed into the tea in anyway. This can over infuse the lemon flavor into the tea. You’re having tea, not lemonade.
This certainly isn’t the all and everything for proper etiquette. But hopefully this can get you started.