21 Afternoon Tea Etiquette Rules

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Pinkies up or down? Are you dunking your scones into your tea? Gasp! Enjoy your tea time by following these simple afternoon tea etiquette rules.

Afternoon Tea Etiquette

Etiquette is basically good manners.

Having proper etiquette at afternoon tea means you’re not loudly slurping your tea or talking with your mouth full.

Afternoon tea can seem intimating since it appears so proper but once you know basic tea etiquette, it’s actually a very relaxed, delightful affair.

High tea isn’t the same thing as afternoon tea. People like to call afternoon tea ‘high tea’ since they think it sounds fancy and posh but it’s simply incorrect.

RELATED: What is Afternoon Tea?

#1: Dress appropriately

Most afternoon tea spots have a smart casual dress code. You don’t have to go decked out in party dress but stay away from jeans and sneakers. You should look neat and put together.

#2: Keep phones off the table

Phones, glasses, and any other personal items shouldn’t be on the table. Instead, place them on your chair to your left or right.

#3: Put your pinkie finger down

Should the pinkie be up or down when sipping tea? DOWN. The proper way to hold a teacup is to hold the handle with the pinkie finger down, never up.

#4: Hold the teacup by the handle

Don’t cup your hands around the teacup. The teacup should only be held by the handle. (With the pinkie finger down.)

#5: Stir up and down, not in circles

Move your teaspoon up and down (6PM and 12AM), gently folding in the sugar or milk. Making noise with the teaspoon is frowned upon so make sure your spoon doesn’t clang and touch the sides of the teacup. Also, don’t tap your teaspoon on the side of the teacup.

#6: Don’t drink from your teacup with the teaspoon in it

After you’ve stirred your tea, put your teaspoon on the saucer either on the right side or behind the cup. Whew, OK, NOW you can drink your tea. As a general rule, don’t leave your teaspoon in your teacup.

#7: Don’t put the teaspoon in your mouth

The teaspoon shouldn’t go in your mouth, as funny as that sounds. It’s there just to stir the tea if you’re adding sugar or milk.

#8: Saucer stays on the table

When you’re sitting at the table, there’s no need to lift up the saucer to drink from your teacup. The only time it would be proper to pick up the saucer is if you’re more than a foot or so away from it, as in the case you were standing. Then the saucer would be held on your left hand and the cup held on the right.

#9: Don’t blow on the tea to cool it down

What are we, savages? Let the tea cool on its own if it’s too hot. Don’t blow on the tea.

#10: Take small sips of tea

Don’t make loud slurps when drinking your tea. Take small, quiet sips. Yup, doing everything quietly is a common etiquette rule.

RELATED: Complete List of Every Afternoon Tea in NYC

#11: Don’t swish your mouth with tea

Your tea isn’t a mouth rinse. (Even if you do it quietly.) Don’t swish the tea around your mouth. 

#12: Use milk and sugar only for black tea

Only use milk and sugar for black tea — never for green, oolong, white, or herbal tea.

#13: Eat with your fingers

It’s not often that you get to eat food with your fingers but that’s the proper etiquette for afternoon tea. Don’t be shy about eating everything from tea sandwiches to mini sweets with your hands.

Use a knife for slathering on clotted cream and jam for scones.

#14: Tea sandwiches are eaten first

Afternoon tea comes in three courses — usually all at once on a three-tiered tray. Eat the savories and tea sandwiches first. Scones with clotted cream and jam are eaten next, then finally the sweets. Tea sandwiches should be eaten in 2-3 bites. Don’t jam the entire sandwich in your mouth.

#15: Break scone into small pieces

Break a bite-sized piece off the scone, slather on clotted cream and jam using a knife, then eat and repeat. Please don’t make a scone sandwich. 

RELATED: How to Eat a Scone Properly

#16: Never dunk your scone into tea

I’ve never seen anyone do this but apparently people do. Scones should never be dunked into your tea.

#17: Used utensils don’t go back on the table

Wait, then where do the utensils go? Once a flatware has been used, rest it on the right side of the plate. Don’t put it back on the table.

#18: Don’t lick your fingers

Nope. Don’t. Do. It.

#19: dab, don’t wipe

When you want to wipe away something from your face, don’t treat the napkin like a towel. Dab, don’t wipe.

#20: Place utensils on the plate in the 4:20 position when tea service is over

Putting any utensils you’ve used in the 4:20 position lets the server know you’re done with your meal and that it can be taken away. Fork tines should be up and knife blade facing you.

When you don’t want your plate taken away, put your utensils at the 8:20 position with the fork (tines down) at the 8:00 and knife (blade facing you) at the :20.

#21: Place napkins on the left side of the place setting when getting up

There is some debate on this. I’ve read that some say never to place a used napkin on the table and it should only go on your chair. Others say it should never be placed on the chair and only on the table. I’m going with leaving the napkin on the left side of the place setting since if you have a dirty napkin, you don’t want to leave any stains on the seat. Either way, don’t put the napkin on your plate.

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15 thoughts on “21 Afternoon Tea Etiquette Rules”

  1. Just a couple more thoughts.
    Don’t cut anything with your knife, such as a scone. Baked goods should be torn. Knives are strictly for spreading toppings.
    Never apply toppings directly from their serving bowls to your food. Instead, transfer toppings to your individual plate.
    Don’t pop any item of food into your mouth whole. Even if a baked good or sweet is small, eat it in at least two bites.
    Never ball up your napkin, even if it’s paper!

  2. I am hosting a Bridal Tea Party for my niece with approximate 50 ladies. Is it appropriate to have hot water in a pretty urn and allow the guests to choose their own tea? Or should I have several tea pots with different teas?

    Thank you So much!

  3. Hello Tommy sorry for the loss of your dear wife. I trust that the wonderful memories you have created together will help you navigate through this chapter of your life.

  4. reading this has tears in my eyes, my wife and i always enjoyed “tea time” while at sea on the carnival pride cruise liner. our favorites like the smoked salmon sandwiches, and scones.

    sadly this year ………….no cruises, and my beloved wife passed away

    • Tommy, I don’t know you but sending my prayers and thoughts your way. So sorry for your great loss! May you find peace and contentment in the coming days.

  5. Very nice video. I never knew there was so much to it. But just thing, what is the 4: and 8:20.
    It would nice to do an afternoon tea…

    • Hi Wayne, the 4:00 and 8:20 indicate where your fork and knive should go on a plate. So picture the plate as a clock and the utensils as the hands of a clock.

  6. Hi Jee,

    This list was beautifully done! There is one more thing I would love to know. When we are standing with a saucer or sitting without a table, is it ever OK to hold the saucer with both hands? Or should we always have our left hand on the saucer and right hand on the tea cup?

    Thank you!
    T.L. Orgain

    • Hi T.L., it’s best to stand with the saucer in one hand. If you’re not drinking the tea, it’s best to set it down instead of holding it.

  7. I loved this. Learned a lot. It was very helpful, as I am teaching tea time manners to my grandchildren.
    Thank you


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