For Americans, it's more common to slurp a coffee in a plastic on-the-go cup during a morning commute than to sit down with friends for a proper tea, so that explains why we don't know mluch about English tea etiquette. Some of the rules and behavior expected at afternoon tea are not intuitive, so it's necessary to learn them. While a few of these customs may seem silly, many serve the important purpose of avoiding spills and hot-water burns. If you find yourself sitting down to afternoon tea, whether in England or otherwise, then here are a few tea etiquette pointers.
- Pouring: Place the mesh tea strainer over the cup, then hold the teapot handle in one hand and press down the lid with the other as you pour the tea. Fill the cup only three-quarters of the way full to prevent spills and to save room for the milk and sugar. Remove the mesh tea strainer and set it aside on a small plate.
- Seasoning: After the tea is poured, you can adjust the strength of the tea by adding sugar or milk. For black tea, serve thin lemon slices on the side. However, do not mix lemon and milk together, or else the milk will curdle in the tea. When stirring the milk and sugar into the tea, gently fold the tea toward the 12 o'clock position as opposed to around in a circle. Avoid scraping the sides of the china, because it will create a piercing, clanking noise. After two or three "folds" of the spoon, place the teaspoon on the backside of the saucer. The British consider licking the spoon dry, leaving it in the teacup, or placing it on the table to be improper behavior.
- Holding: When reaching for the teacup, hold the top side of your handle with the thumb, pointer, and middle finger. Teacups are not mugs, so try not to wrap your fingers through the handle or hold it with both hands. If you are sitting, then just hold the teacup, but if you are standing, then hold onto the saucer with the other hand.
- Drinking: Sip the tea slowly, and never with a full mouth of food. After each sip, return the teacup to the saucer instead of talking animatedly while holding the teacup, which can cause a hot spill. If you spill tea on the saucer, then ask the waiter for a new saucer, or place a paper napkin in the saucer to soak up the spill. Don't pour spilled tea from saucer back into teacup, and definitely don't drink spilled tea from the saucer itself.
Feel free to chime in on which teatime social grace surprises you most or if you know of any others.