Arts & Culture

British Afternoon Tea Etiquette

There are a few things that the British are known for more than their love of tea. The quaint image of immaculately dressed upper-class men and women sipping from china cups on the lawn is one the nation has found hard to shake.

Ironically, this national obsession is somewhat overstated, with many modern hot beverage lovers turning to coffee for their midday pick-me-up. Tea will always hold an important place in our hearts, though, and the experience of a real afternoon tea is something not to be missed by visitors to the country.

Now, when it comes to British afternoon tea etiquette, let’s be clear – the average Brit really doesn’t care how you drink your tea. However, if you’re going to participate in a traditional pastime, it’s fun to know the ‘proper’ way of doing things.

It makes one feel a little closer to the cultural heritage we find so fascinating. Tea drinking is no exception. Stick to these rules, and you’re bound to have a lovely, memorable tea-drinking experience.

Settling in

The traditional time for afternoon tea is 4 o’clock. If you take it in a prestigious hotel or swanky cafe, there are a few things to remember. Firstly, waiters will be moving quickly back and forth between the tables. Leaving bulky coats and shopping bags on chairs and on the floor is a recipe for disaster, so make sure you check these items with the waiter or cloakroom on arrival.

Once you’ve been shown to your table, you may take your seat and unfold your napkin to be placed on your lap. You should always find it on the left-hand side of your cup.

Pouring your tea

Normally, the most senior party at the table will offer to pour the tea once it arrives. Etiquette dictates that only one person should handle the teapot, so make sure you know who that is. The teapot can be both hot and heavy, so if you’re the one pouring, make sure you do it very carefully. If the handle is warm, allow it to cool for a while, or use a napkin to protect your hand as a last resort. It’s best to leave the pot for a few minutes to cool and infuse, but leave it too long, and the tea will turn bitter.

Once the tea has been poured for everyone at the table, you can then add dressings like milk, sugar, or lemon. Every type of tea is best taken with specific dressings, so ask your waiter if you’re unsure which is best.

Drinking your tea

Perhaps the biggest misconception about tea drinking is that one must extend the little finger whilst drinking to balance the cup. Never, ever do this. It simply looks ridiculous. Instead, just drink slowly and carefully by holding the cup by the handle where it’s cool. The trick is not to overfill your cup. Try to make sure it’s no more than half full.

When lifting the cup to your lips, make sure you leave the saucer on the table – it’s there to protect the tablecloth from spills, not you. If you spill any tea in the saucer, you can request a new one from the waiter.

Managing your treats

Cake stand with cakes

Afternoon tea always comes with a selection of snacks presented on a three-tiered cake stand. The first layer should hold your scones, the second your sandwiches, and the third sweets and pastries. This is the order in which they should be eaten – don’t mix them up! You should have a separate plate to eat your treats from, so make sure you don’t put them on your tea saucer.

Once you’ve finished eating, fold up your napkin and place it back under your saucer. This is seen as a mark of appreciation to your host.

The last rule is simple; make sure you enjoy yourself! Tea drinking is a historic activity that allows you to participate in a little piece of British heritage. If you’re looking for fantastic afternoon tea experiences in London, we have a range of them over at Evan Evans.