National Etiquette Week: practice good manners at the tea table!

Afternoon tea and cakes. Image from

Etiquette isn’t just for Miss America and the Queen of England! Many people are intimidated by etiquette and think that it consists of a bunch of made-up “dos and don’ts” that are hard to follow. Others think that etiquette is a relic of the past best left there. Rather than being outdated and pointless, good manners are part of the glue that holds society together and keeps interpersonal relationships going! One only has to attend a birthday party, graduation ceremony or concert, or visit a place like a restaurant or movie theater to be reminded how bad manners can be disgusting, insulting, and even result in physical injury! Cutting in line, standing up to take photos during a performance, pushing and shoving, taking more than your share of time, space and supplies are all common etiquette violations.

Misconceptions about proper etiquette are widespread, and tea room walls are witness to a bunch of prissiness and affectation (often accompanied by actual rudeness) that are passed off as good manners! The real “dos and don’ts” of basic good manners are these: “do behave with consideration, kindness, and respect towards everyone (including your servers)” and “don’t do anything that makes a mess, disgusts or offends people, or spreads germs” especially at the table. Because almost all of the intimidating “dos and don’ts” fall under those categories, it is unnecessary to memorize a huge list of rules.

Only a few actions are ceremonial and exist because of afternoon tea tradition; the rest are the result of simple consideration for others. Some of these ceremonial aspects of tea etiquette include:

  1. The order of tea service: sandwiches and savories, then scones, then sweets. This is actually the result of change over the years, especially in the United States, where we are more accustomed to “saving dessert for last.” Historically, the afternoon tea menu consisted mostly of sweet offerings, usually different kinds of “bread and cake”. Tea menus are still characterized by “bread and cake”, but the definition of what constitutes “tea food” has loosened considerably.
  2. The way the table is set: with luncheon-size plates, teacups and saucers, napkins, spoons and butter knives, but no meat or table knives or forks. Afternoon tea is the equal of a “glorified snack”, according to tradition, and as snack food is usually finger food, the only individual utensil needed is a spoon to stir your tea with, and maybe a butter knife to spread your clotted cream and jam with. All other utensils are communal serving utensils. Many hostesses do set out dessert forks, however, if they are serving slices of cake, so a modern tea table often looks just like it’s set for a nice luncheon.
  3. Tea-time conversation: often parodied as unbearably boring and superficial, tea-time conversation is the main source of entertainment for the guests, and is supposed to relax and give equal pleasure to everybody present. When, as almost always happens, the guests don’t share the same opinion on every subject, the easiest way to avoid overly heated discussions, or medical woes, which are anything but relaxing to listen to, is to confine the conversation to non-controversial subjects. In other words, the weather, flowers, music, art, food, fashion, and gossip that doesn’t involve anyone present is “in”, and religion, politics, money, and your uncle’s colonoscopy are “out”!
  4. Mannerisms, like how to hold your teacup, and how to stir your tea. According to custom, everyone’s attention should be on each other’s conversation, as well as the food and the tea, and your manners shouldn’t call attention to yourself. Therefore, things like clinking your teaspoon on your teacup as you stir, and sticking your pinky finger up when you hold your teacup, are considered impolite, because they not only call undue attention to yourself, but they are affectations. Affectations are exaggerated behaviors that people adopt temporarily to make themselves appear more important or classy, rather than a person’s natural actions that show consideration for others. Sticking out your pinky finger is in the same class of rudeness as sashaying around with your nose in the air, speaking with a bad “upper-class British” accent, and being rude to your servers. These behaviors only succeed in making the person look fake, prissy, and snobby!

Having tea with friends is a good way to practice good manners in a semi-private setting, where only trusted individuals will witness your mistakes! For more professional help, there are etiquette books – like the classic by Emily Post – and consultants, who are available to work one-on-one with clients.  Good manners make people want to work with us, accommodate us, and sympathize with us. Who doesn’t want a positive response from people?  Tea can help you practice, so that good manners come naturally and easily.

Copyright 2012, Elizabeth Urbach.

Like what you read? Leave a comment below, click on “Subscribe” above, visit the San Jose Tea Examiner page on Facebook, read my blog, or follow me on Twitter @SanJoseTea!

For more information:
“San Jose’s British population celebrates the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee with tea”
“Tea 101: what do we mean when we talk about tea?”
“Tea and etiquette”
“Etiquette and manners for the 21st century”
“Birthday gift ideas for the San Jose tea lover”
“Give an open house with a tea buffet for your favorite graduate”
“The top 10 tea myths: don’t be fooled by any of them!”
“Tea Etiquette, successful tea party, drinking by Tea Laden”
“The Etiquette of Afternoon Tea” Youtube video
“Arranging the Tea Table” ca. 1946 YouTube video


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