by Bruce Richardson
Tea’s renaissance can, in large part, be attributed to the need for ritual in our lives. This ceremonial aspect of the tea event—whether the Japanese tea ceremony, afternoon tea, or simply sharing a pot of tea with a friend—is the reason I often speak of the celebration of tea.
James Norwood Pratt shares this idea. He writes, “Celebrating afternoon tea, like the making of the beverage, calls for a certain amount of ceremony. This is because tea is preeminently a social beverage, and any social situation calls for manners. In fact, the ceremonies of teatime can raise our manners to the pinnacle of refinement.”
For more than two decades, Norwood and I have proclaimed that the tea ceremony is an exchange of simple courtesies and the sharing of a simple pleasure that induces a pleasant harmony not otherwise obtainable. And it is a ceremony that always calls for using beautiful things—silver, porcelain, linens, et cetera—to enhance it. Ceremony also allows our most beautiful comportment to emerge. All this, taken together, is why tea always makes us feel a little more civilized.
With that noble thought in mind, I have composed a list of seven teatime faux pas to be aware of at your next teatime celebration.
- Don’t place items on the dining table. This protocol extends to keys, hats, gloves, eyeglasses, cell phones, and anything else that is not part of the meal.
- Don’t overraise your pinkie. (I know I’m going to get letters on this one.) In the 17th and 18th centuries, the pinkie was slightly extended to balance handleless Chinese teacups as they were held by both women and men. Anything more than that delicate extension is considered pretentious today. The manager of the Ritz in London tells me he can always spot Americans in the tearoom because they are the ones trying very hard to keep their little fingers in the air.
- Don’t make noise when stirring with a spoon. Place your teaspoon in the middle of the cup when stirring, and swirl gently without striking the edge of the cup. Always place the used spoon at the top of the saucer, not back on the tablecloth.
- Don’t place used tea bags on the saucer. This will only make a messy saucer. Ask the staff for a small dish to hold your wet tea bags.
- Don’t take the cup away from the table without the saucer. The saucer should accompany the teacup when you move more than 12 inches away from the table. Tea drinkers—either standing or sitting away from the table edge—should hold the saucer in the opposite hand while drinking from a cup. The cup should rest on the saucer when not being used.
- Don’t spoon jams, curds, or clotted creams directly from the serving dish onto your scone. These accompaniments should be placed first on your dining plate, using the serving utensils. Use your silverware to prepare your individual scone topping.
- Don’t push your plate away. Do wait for the service staff to remove all plates—preferably after everyone has finished.
As with any ritual, these elements of good etiquette become effortless when practiced regularly. Think of these protocols not as rules, but as courtesies that, when enacted regularly, infuse beauty into every aspect of our daily lives.
Contributing editor Bruce Richardson is the co-author with Dorothea Johnson of Tea & Etiquette: Taking Tea for Business and Pleasure and Children’s Tea & Etiquette: Brewing Good Manners in Young Minds. Both books are published by Benjamin Press.
From TeaTime March/April 2015