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.

24 thoughts on “21 Afternoon Tea Etiquette Rules”

  1. 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.

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

    Reply
  3. 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!

    Reply
  4. 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!

    Reply
  5. 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.

    Reply
  6. 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

    Reply
    • 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.
      Brandy

      Reply
    • Tommy,
      Please forgive me for responding to something you shared nearly two years ago, however I just now read your words and I am profoundly touched by your experience.
      Six weeks ago, I lost my beloved husband. He was my best friend, my soulmate, my entire world. Having had lost many close friends and family members throughout the years, I had long maintained that I had learned to accept death as an inevitable reality and was in fact quite confident and very much at peace with my belief in the eternal nature of our souls and my understanding of death as simply another stage of our spiritual journey. All of that changed, however, upon receiving the unexpected phonecall replaying the most unexpected news that my husband had died in a tragic accident. Six weeks later, I still find myself at times expecting him to walk through the door and start crabbing about his day at work lol. Its such a surreal experience and one that I don’t think anyone is ready for no matter how confident one might be in his or her spirituality and/or acceptance of death. And while I am now slowly beginning to find some tiny hints of peace here and there as well as exhibiting a tad less animosity (if not sometimes downright hatred) towards God, I am still a long way from being the least bit ok with the reality of his being gone.
      Tonight, however, before I had even learned of your experience and was simply reading about the etiquette of tea, I suddenly heard his laughter from beside me. And not thinking anything of it, I began laughing too and continued reading the article outloud, enjoying his unforgettable boyish laugh and even hearing his hilarious exaggerated “British gentleman” imitation accent as he poked fun at my love for etiquette and formality. I felt his warmth beside me and could almost swear I saw him for a split second. This was the first time I have laughed since before he passed, and the first time I felt any sense of happiness or joy. He and I used to laugh so hard til we were in excruciating pain lol. And as I read this article, I cried and laughed and cried some more. And then I came upon your comment and chills shot throughout my entire body. How truly bizarre that both you and I- complete strangers- would have very similar reactions to this article, particularly given that the topic of tea etiquette has nothing whatsoever to do with grief or loss. And yet both you and I were instantly hit with a flood of memories and emotions. Anyway, I hope you are doing alright or at least as well as you can be. I know how horrible it is and I know that none of us who have lost a spouse will ever be the same again, but we can at times, albeit rare, laugh again and feel once more if only for an instant the unparalleled joy our loved ones had given us. In that respect, they are not dead at all but very much alive.

      Reply
      • Thank you so much for sharing your very personal and touching experience. I feel like you in my perspective of life, death and the journey following death. I hope that your sharing your love and your loss, has comforted others. I haven’t lost a partner but this is what I feel I would be comforted by. <3 blessings to you as your heart heals from your "temporary separation" xoxo K

        Reply
      • Shaneequa, what a lovely couple you must have been!
        What a vivid and delightful description of your husband and marriage. May peace be with you. You’re already on your healing journey…

        Reply
  7. 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…

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  8. 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

    Reply
    • 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.

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

    Reply

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