Afternoon tea is a time–honored tradition, and so are its many accompanying etiquette rules.
While the custom originated in Great Britain, afternoon tea can now be enjoyed at a wide range
of venues around the world — even from the comfort of your own home.
Whether you are hosting a formal tea party or attending afternoon tea elsewhere, it is a good
idea to be aware of the basic rules of etiquette. By learning about the dos and don’ts of
afternoon tea etiquette in advance, you can simply relax and enjoy this delightful experience.
1. Do Dress Appropriately
Afternoon tea is considered to be an elegant affair, and proper etiquette begins with dressing
appropriately. Typical afternoon tea attire is “smart casual,” meaning no jeans, sneakers or tee
shirts. For women, a tea–length dress or stylish blouse with slacks is appropriate. Men should
wear a collared shirt, but a jacket and tie are not usually required.
2. Don’t Call It “High Tea”
High tea may sound like a more formal name for afternoon tea, but they are actually two entirely
separate experiences. The phrase “high tea” does not refer to high society, but rather to the
high tables upon which it was served in the early 1800s. During this era, high tea was the name
for a hearty meal of tea, meats, cheeses and bread enjoyed by the working class. By
comparison, afternoon tea was served at low tables and considered to be a social affair for the
upper class. High tea is served later in the day than afternoon tea, usually after 5 p.m.
3. Do Eat In Order of Savory to Sweet
Afternoon tea is typically served in three courses on a single three–tiered tray. While you may be
tempted to dive straight into the desserts, the proper order for enjoying the courses is from
savory to sweet. Begin with the finger sandwiches, followed by scones with jam and clotted
cream. Finish with the dessert course.
4. Avoiding Dunking Your Biscuits or Scones
While it is perfectly fine to do so from the comfort of your own home, traditional afternoon tea
etiquette dictates that scones, biscuits and other treats should never be dunked into your tea.
This rule may date back to the Victorian era, when tea–dunking was viewed as working class or
childish behavior. Instead, enjoy bites of your scones between sips of tea.
5. Do Break Your Scone into Small Bites
Rather than slathering clotted cream and jam on your entire scone, break off a bite–sized piece,
add your toppings, eat and repeat. Scone sandwiches may look appetizing, but they can be
messy and difficult to bite into — something you should avoid during afternoon tea. On a related
note, in some regions of Great Britain it is preferable to add cream before jam, and vice versa in
other regions. Either option is considered acceptable in most settings.
6. Don’t Stir in a Circular Motion
Creating a whirlpool in your teacup by stirring in a circular motion is considered poor etiquette.
The proper way to stir your tea is by placing your spoon at the 12 o’clock position in your cup,
then folding the liquid gently towards the 6 o’clock position. Repeat this up and down motion two
or three times. Avoid clinking your spoon against the sides of the cup while stirring and never
leave the spoon resting in the cup. Instead, place it on the saucer to the side of the cup.
7. Do Use Your Fingers
While it may seem counterintuitive for such an elegant occasion, it is considered proper
etiquette to eat your sandwiches, scones and sweets with your fingers rather than utensils. Be
sure to take small bites so you do not end up with a large mouthful of food. Utensils can be used
for slathering cream and jam on your scones, but they should not go into your mouth.
8. Don’t Lift Your Saucer
The saucer should always stay firmly on the table. Raise your teacup to sip, then place it back
on the saucer when you are finished. The one exception to this rule is if you need to move away
from your seat and sip your tea while standing; in this case it would be proper to hold your
saucer with your left hand and your teacup with the right. Additionally, if you are passing your
cup to someone else so they may pour tea for you, pass both the saucer and teacup.
9. Do Gaze Into Your Teacup
Eye contact is considered to be good manners in many situations, but not while sipping your
tea. Instead, you should look into your teacup (rather than over it) while sipping. This is because
it is far easier to spill your tea when your attention is turned elsewhere.
10. Don’t Raise Your Pinky
The proper way to hold a teacup at afternoon tea is with your index finger and thumb pinching together in the hole of the handle, with your middle finger underneath for support. In today’s times, it is also acceptable to loop your index finger (and middle finger if additional support is needed) through the hole of the handle, with your thumb on top of the handle. In either case, your remaining fingers — including the pinky — should be curled under. Furthermore, you should never wrap your hands around the teacup. While afternoon tea etiquette rules may seem intimidating, once you understand the basics it is easier to relax and enjoy the experience of drinking tea in this elegant setting. Most importantly, be sure to savor your afternoon tea sip by sip.