(The Mysterious Disappearance of) Tea Etiquette

on October 29, 2021

The Tea Drinkers’ Hall of Shame is one of the longest, still running dungeons of the world; albeit intangible. Those who disregard the set protocols of a tea party, of being a proper host or guest, are banished here. For life. While ignorance, insolence, or laxity could be the many reasons, none work for the unforgiving – a handful of tea lovers who till today practise this practice, religiously.

Here we present, with a moderately stiff upper lip, a few of the many slowly disappearing conventions related to tea. Warning: some of these are funny enough to make you spray your tea all over… not a sign of tea etiquette at all.

The Invitation

A tea party can be scheduled as early as one in the afternoon or as late as five o’clock. Note: this is different from high tea, which is served in a casual setting, on a high dinner table, accompanied by a light dinner.

Guests to a tea party may be invited a week to two in advance. The invitations can be made by phone, email, in person, or by hand.

As a guest, one is required to respond promptly and arrive on time with a little something for the host.

The Table Setting

A tea party table must appear as an ode to elegance. Teacups, saucers, teaspoons, and napkins are placed to the right of the tea set tray. And to the left, all the food that will be served – which is bite sized sandwiches, scones, and mini pastries for an afternoon ‘low tea’ party.

Serving Tea

Tea can be served by the host, the guest of honour, or the designated friend/family of the host. For guests who take tea with milk, the teacup should be filled to half; and three quarter for guests who take it plain or with sugar.

Tea should be stirred from south to north movement, with the teaspoon moving away. The teacup handle should point to four o’clock, from the guest’s perspective. To answer the second-most famous ‘Which came first?’ conundrum, milk, sugar, or lemon is added after the tea is served in the teacup. (This is where most people err and are swiftly sent to the dungeon.)

Sipping Tea

As a guest, one must ensure that the tea party napkin is open and placed on the lap. It is acceptable to dip bland biscuits into a cup of boiled milk-sugar-tea or masala chai. A quick dip. However, it is not okay to let the dip become soggy.

Now some conventions are meant to disappear. Such as the one which states that while patriarchs and the eldest male member in any group may slurp tea from a saucer, women must never slurp in public, and younger men must never do that in front of an elder. Conventions such as these have a special place in the deepest pits of the dungeon.

In some quaint cultures, the little finger has earned a distinctive place as a marker of civilised society. Where tea drinkers are supposed to have their pinkies angling perpendicular away from the teacup’s handle.

The Afterparty Convention

It is always, always, appreciated to send the host a warm, handwritten thank you note.

Two Worthy Mentions

In the mountainous region of Ladakh, India, not drinking a small bowl of yak-butter salt-tea is an insult to a Ladakhi herder; who considers both tea and salt as prized possessions.

Again, in parts of India, the charming culture of Peekay Phut exists. Where roadside and railway tea are served in small cup-sized clay pots. The etiquette is very clear: after drinking the tea, throw the empty pot on the ground. Use enough force to break that clay into bits – earth to earth! Thus, the term Peekay Phut; where peekay (meaning ‘after drinking it’), break the pot so it goes phut.

This article was penned by staff writers who’d love to learn about unique tea conventions
and customs from around the world. To share, email
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