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.


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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?

21 Afternoon Tea Etiquette Rules

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 without any noise

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. 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, plate 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 at the end

At the end of your afternoon tea, fold and leave the napkin on the left side of the place setting. Don’t put the napkin on your plate.

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28 Comments

  1. This is, all together, so charming and key to enjoying the art and mastery of afternoon tea. By far, these tips have the ability to provide those who love this tradition/practice show great learnable habits, developed skills and accuracy, in this order!

  2. Thank you so much
    I am starting a new job at a newly opened tea room . I had no idea what all is involved with Tea time. I hope I don’t disappoint.

  3. Good job on presenting tea etiquette. I have been in the tea business for four decades, my family since the early 1830’s. You got it right. Most don’t. Ellen Easton- Red Wagon Press

  4. Thank you,
    I am attending a business high tea and am excited and nervous, but your simple lesson on tea time etiquette has given me the confidence I need to conquer this event.

  5. This article really helped me,
    Last time had a tea party at my place i accidently put my nose into the teacup.
    Very helpfull!