21 Afternoon Tea Etiquette Rules to Never Break

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 place setting

Afternoon Tea Etiquette

For the most part, 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.

But, before we go any further, the first thing you should know is that 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.

What is Etiquette?

Etiquette is basically good manners. Afternoon tea etiquette is having good manners so you don’t offend or annoy people during tea service.

Having proper etiquette at afternoon tea means you’re not loudly slurping your tea or chewing with your mouth full. It also goes beyond that, there are little rules of how one should behave at afternoon tea.

I’ve outlined 12 etiquette rules that you may find helpful. 

RELATED: What is Afternoon Tea?

shangri-la paris afternoon tea service

#1: Dress appropriately

Most afternoon tea spots have a smart casual dress code. You don’t have to fully 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 to the side of the teacup. 

Not a lot of people know this one so no one is going to stare you down if you stir in circles, as incorrect as we now know it is.

#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.

Don’t leave your teaspoon in your teacup as a general rule.


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

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

#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 by your left hand and the cup held on the right.

RELATED: Complete List of Every Afternoon Tea in NYC

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

What are we, savages? Let the tea cool on the table 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.

#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

Since the most popular tea for afternoon tea is black tea, you’ll see milk and sugar on the table. Please, for all that is good, 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 and have that be considered the correct etiquette. But it is! Don’t be shy about eating everything from the tea sandwiches to mini sweets with your hands.

#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.

RELATED: Afternoon Tea Course Order

#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. 

#18: Don’t lick your fingers

Nope. Don’t. Do. It.

#19: Don’t wipe, dab with your napkin

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.

RELATED: Difference Between Afternoon Tea and High Tea

 
 

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