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10 Etiquette Tips For Afternoon Tea In England

Attending afternoon tea is a pastime that most foreigners want to try during their visits to England. The practice dates back to the 1840s when a duchess asked for sandwiches to help her ward off hunger between lunch and dinner. Queen Victoria later popularized it, turning it into a formal event.

Afternoon tea is no longer just for royalty, but it still comes with strict rules that must be observed, no matter who you are. The occasion is all about good manners and dignified presentation. Keep reading to find out what the 10 most important etiquette tips are for attending afternoon tea in England.

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10 Follow The Dress Code

When you host your own afternoon tea, you can make it as formal or informal as you want. That means that you can wear whatever you want. But when you go out for afternoon tea, most places will expect you to follow the dress code.

In most cases, the dress code will be smart casual. Men won’t have to wear jackets and ties, unless they’re specifically asked to do so. Smart casual usually means that you don’t wear activewear, and dressing up is perfectly acceptable for women.

9 You Can Choose Cream Or Jam First

No authentic afternoon tea experience is complete without freshly baked scones. British scones are different from what Americans know as scones, and actually, more closely resemble biscuits in the United States.

The scones are served with butter, cream, and preserves or jams, which Americans also might call jelly. There’s some debate over what you should spread first on your scone.

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According to the Afternoon Tea blog, there’s no need to worry about this, as all combinations are acceptable. Whether you like to spread the jam and then dollop on the cream or vice-versa, both are fine.

8 Put Those Pinkies Down

The stereotypical image that most foreigners have of English afternoon tea is that it’s taken with the pinky finger sticking up straight. Although this is a common belief in popular culture and right throughout the world, it’s actually false. If you want to make a good impression at afternoon tea, keep your pinkies down!

This common faux pas will betray you as an amateur very quickly. Instead, simply hold the teacup by the handle in a way that feels comfortable and sip slowly. There’s really nothing to it.

7 Fill Your Teacup In Order

While holding your teacup with your pinky finger sticking out is not required at afternoon tea, there is still a certain protocol to follow when it comes to actually filling your teacup with tea. According to Everyday Wanderer, you can’t go wrong if you follow this fool-proof sequence.

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Start by filling your cup with the desired amount of sugar. Then fill your teacup with tea until it’s about ¾ full. At this point, you can finally add the milk. Milk was once added first to protect fine china from the boiling water, but nowadays the sequence is the opposite.

6 Know Your Afternoon Tea Terminology

There’s certain terminology to be aware of if you’re planning on attending afternoon tea. Many foreigners come to London expecting to experience “high tea”, but this is technically incorrect. While the names may be interchangeable overseas, high tea traditionally refers to a different meal from afternoon tea—one that is more filling and originates from the lower classes.

You might still see high tea advertised in London, but that is only to cater to the understanding of tourists. If you want to leave the best impression, be sure to enquire about afternoon tea rather than high tea.

5 Make Sure Your Eyes Don’t Wander

Believe it or not, there are actually rules that govern where you should look while sipping your tea during a traditional afternoon tea. The politest way to go about drinking your tea is to look into your teacup as you sip, rather than looking over it.

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The thought behind this is that you are far less likely to spill your tea and make a fool of yourself if you actually look at the tea you’re drinking. Everyday Wanderer also points out that lowering your eyes gives the impression that you’re more modest.

4 Watch Where You Place Your Napkin

If you think the napkin can just go anywhere you want it to during afternoon tea, think again. Traditionally, the napkin is placed on the lap while you’re taking tea and eating, so you can catch any crumbs. If you need to excuse yourself before afternoon tea has concluded, you should leave the napkin on your chair rather than on the table.

When afternoon tea finishes, you can finally put the napkin on the table. Remember to put it to the left of your dishes and not to the right.

3 Never Stir Incorrectly

Stirring is one of the most common things that people get wrong the first time they have afternoon tea. All the experts advise that the spoon should be placed at 6 o’clock in the cup, to begin with. The correct way to stir is to slowly “fold” the tea towards 12 o’clock. The biggest mistake you can make here is clinking your spoon against the china.

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When you’re finished stirring, be sure to remove the spoon from the tea and leave it in the saucer. You also don’t want to ring out any tea bags with your spoon. They also belong in the saucer.

2 Savory Food Always Comes First

In a traditional afternoon tea setting, all the food tends to be displayed at the same time. That doesn’t mean that you’re free to eat everything in whatever order you’d like, though. Savory food is eaten first, followed by sweets.

The exact food on offer will vary, but there are a couple of classics that appear in most afternoon tea experiences. These include mini sausage rolls, pinwheels, and finger sandwiches with deviled ham, egg salad, smoked salmon, and cucumber. The sweets usually consist of scones and thin slices of cake.

1 Remember You’re Not In The Privacy Of Your Own Home

The most important thing to remember when attending afternoon tea is that you’re not in the privacy of your own home. That means that it’s not acceptable to do a lot of things that you would normally do at home while drinking tea. This includes slurping and the most famous action of all that makes afternoon tea veterans cringe: dunking cookies.

Cookies (or biscuits, as they’re called in England) are not to be dunked in the tea at any time during afternoon tea. While this practice is fine at home, it’s not advisable when you’re taking afternoon tea at a respectable location.

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