A tradition as widely celebrated as the quintessentially British afternoon tea comes with some rather regimented rules. In fact, the event ceases to be afternoon tea at all if certain codes of conduct are not followed to the letter. But that shouldn’t prevent anyone from indulging—after all, who can refuse a delectable stack of fresh cakes, scones and sandwiches served alongside a pot of tea? With a little assistance, the ceremony can be navigated with the expertise of an inveterate. Allow our guide to the etiquette of afternoon tea show you how it’s done.
Afternoon tea enthusiasts simply call it “tea” rather than “afternoon tea”. But the key is never to call it “high tea”, which is a dated term for a simple meal in the early evening. Also, it’s important to note that one “has” tea; one does not “take” tea, and it is always “some” tea that’s requested, never “a” tea.
While the days of dinner suits and top hats are long gone, afternoon tea etiquette still dictates a certain degree of formality. The tailored end of the smart-casual spectrum is the order of the day for gentlemen. Women should dress up too, though there is slightly more flexibility.
Drink like a duchess. Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford, is the purported inventor of afternoon tea in the 19th century, and thus all tea enthusiasts should strive to follow her example. Extending the pinkie finger while sipping is a common mistake and is not considered acceptable. Similarly, no digit should be hooked through the handle. Instead, pinch the handle with your thumb and index finger and use the middle finger for additional support.
Serve with confidence, even if that means faking it. When nominated to pour, use the tea strainer if applicable, and serve in a fresh cup and saucer – never a mug. Work your way around the guests and be sure to serve yourself last.
Never dunk biscuits or scones – that’s scone like “gone”, not scone like “cone”– into your tea. Using your fingers, break the scone in half, and spread it with cream and jam using a knife. Cream before jam is the “Devon way”; jam before cream is the “Cornwall way”. Both are acceptable. Resist the urge to create a jam sandwich of the scone. Eat it using your fingers and return it to the plate between bites.
Stirring the tea in a circular motion is considered an act of war or treason for connoisseurs of afternoon tea etiquette. Instead, move the spoon silently back and forth two to three times in an up-and-down, six O’clock-to-12 O’clock motion. Finally place the teaspoon on the saucer beside the cup, on the right-hand side.
Napkins during afternoon tea are for laps, and should be 12 inches squared, though there’s no need to bring a ruler. If you notice the napkin is the wrong size, do no more than raise your eyebrows in a very British mixture of surprise and disapproval. Afternoon tea etiquette dictates that only when everyone is finished may the napkin be placed unfolded on the table.
The question of whether to add milk before or after pouring is hotly debated, and has caused much infighting in households across the United Kingdom. In the first instance, milk was added first to prevent cracking in the delicate cups. Today, it is generally assumed that adding milk afterwards allows the pourer to gauge how much is needed to balance the strength of the tea. Each method has its merits, but don’t expect to have a civil conversation on the matter.