What Not to Do at a Tea Party

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman, at some point in her life, will be invited to a tea party.

It could be for a little girl’s birthday, a bridesmaids’ luncheon, or tea time with the Red Hat Society, but undoubtedly it will happen. (For men, I can’t say tea parties are quite as inevitable.)

And tea parties can be stressful. There are dozens of rules, spoken and unspoken, that you are supposed to follow. All of a sudden you’re faced with an alien dining situation that can make you feel less like a lady and more like an exasperated Alice in Wonderland.

Chai Tea Chick; tea party etiquette rules
Illustration by John Tenniel

All these rules were a mystery to me until I was a senior in high school and took several etiquette lessons for a club I was in, including one by etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore.

Tea etiquette may seem silly, but one day that tea party invitation will come, and you’ll probably want to know at least the basics. Don’t do the following things, and you’ll look like a tea-etiquette pro.

Don’t eat dessert first.

Chai Tea Chick; tea party etiquette rules
Photo by Adam Wilson / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Your mom was right all along. You shouldn’t be eating your Little Debbies before dinner. When she slapped your hand as you reached for a Swiss Roll, she was just teaching you proper etiquette.

As tempting as the marble macarons, chocolate cream puffs, and strawberry scones may be, you’re supposed to start your tea party with the savory and sour. That means salads, sandwiches, quiches, and soups.

Just think of it like this: you’re saving the best part of the meal for last.

Don’t raise your pinky finger.

This is the greatest misconception about tea etiquette. Someone who gently raises her pinky as she sips from a teacup may think she is being proper; in reality, it’s the number one way to show you don’t know what to do at a tea party.

The “pinkies up” school of thinking actually started in ancient Rome, where the elite ate with three fingers and the commoners with five. In the 11th century, this etiquette was misinterpreted and eventually led to a mistaken belief that you should stick your pinky out. Ever since, etiquette experts have been desperately fighting (and failing) to rid the world of this misconception.

The best way to handle a tea cup is what you would do naturally. You don’t need to loop your finger through the hole. Just hold it on the side. And make sure your pinky doesn’t get a mind of its own and stick itself out.

Don’t clink your spoon.

Chai Tea Chick; tea party etiquette rules
Photo by scoutjacobus / CC BY-NC 2.0

Everything is going well at the tea party. You’ve primly poured your tea, avoided the desserts, and your pinky is staying down with the rest of your fingers. Then, in a quiet moment, you add sugar to your cup and stir it in, and the loud clink, clink, clink of your spoon grazing your cup fills the dead air.

Although I don’t think it’s a huge deal, etiquette experts stress that you shouldn’t hit your spoon against your cup because it can be disruptive and, worst of all, unladylike (gasp). When you stir tea, do it slowly in little circles and pay attention so you don’t make too much noise.

Don’t lift the saucer (unless you’re standing).

Saucers make me nervous. A whole plate whose sole purpose is to hold a cup? Seems fishy.

When I started going to tea shops, my instinct was to pick up the saucer each time I took a sip, probably because I’d seen it done in movies before. Don’t go through the extra hassle, though. The saucer can stay on the table. The only time you need to lift it is when you’re standing up.

Now, I’ve said a lot of DON’TS here, so I want to end with a DO—and the best one at that.

Do eat with your fingers.

Sometimes we feel we should use utensils because it’s “proper” and “classy,” but they’re called finger foods for a reason. The actual proper way to eat a scone, for example, is to break it into small pieces with your fingers. A sandwich can be eaten with utensils or your hands.

scone;Chai Tea Chick; tea party etiquette rules
Photo by Stacy Spensley / CC BY-NC 2.0

Really all these tips show that you shouldn’t overcomplicate your conduct at a tea party. They may seem intimidating, but most tea parties aren’t “mad” like Alice’s was in Wonderland. Yes, there are certain rules, but if you act intuitively and don’t worry too much, you’ll have a great time.

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12 thoughts on “What Not to Do at a Tea Party”

  1. These tips would have been helpful when I was younger and used to throw (what I thought were extravagant) tea parties for my friends and family. I can confess I’ve definitely broken tea party etiquette by eating dessert first… Well actually I used to only have desserts at my tea parties.

    And that’s interesting about the “pinkies up” origin. I know we’ve all done that at one point.

  2. It seems I definitely broke the rules with my tea parties as a little girl. I was a firm believer in pinky out :). I’m glad I’ll know how to properly act now, though, should I ever encounter a tea party where the guests are older than six. (Also love the references to Pride and Prejudice and Alice – two of my favorite books!)

  3. Let me start of by saying this: I’ve never been to tea party, yet I do love to drink tea. I’ve never been surrounded by people who do like tea parties or needed to have one specifically.

    I will say that I now know exactly what I shouldn’t do at a tea party if I ever should attend one. I think showing the “don’ts” are actually more helpful than the “do’s.” Especially because of people like me who are clueless!

    What really got me? The pinky!! I always thought you needed to use the pinky to drink (thank Spongebob, Patrick, and Sandy for that).

    I love the conversational tone you used, and the little tiny jabs of humor throughout. One that gave me a good chuckle: “Your mom was right all along. You shouldn’t be eating your Little Debbies before dinner.” Totally related!

    Great post, Jennifer! 🙂

    1. I remember that Spongebob episode with the “pinkies up.” Our whole generation has probably been infected by it. (Oh, and you haven’t been invited to a tea party yet, but just wait. It will happen.)

  4. This post actually bought me back to the time I took a tea edicate class. I remember trying to be classy and raise my pinky and I was totally embarrassed when the host called me out about it! Next time I drink tea, I will definitely use these tips! Very helpful 🙂

  5. Woah…this entire time I thought Tea parties were a “chill” event. This is stressful! How does one remember all of this? And you said that there are MORE rules? All of these “don’ts” I would have most certainly done prior to reading this, especially the pinky thing. lol I love this!

    1. Yeah, when I started taking etiquette classes, I was intimidated by the many rules of different dining situations. There’s all these specific ways to eat and certain things you have to do. If you can’t remember everything from this post, just know not to raise the pinky. Like I said, that’s the number one way to show you’re clueless at a tea party.

  6. Oh dear oh dear oh dear, I’m late! I’m late!

    Late to this little tea party with all my fellow classmates.
    But now that I know some do’s and don’ts of tea etiquette, I feel much more relieved in attending with my new found skills!

    I definitely don’t expect to be in a tea party anytime soon, but say perhaps I were to one day be kidnapped by a bunch of cloaked figures and forced to a tea party, or perhaps one day some little children conspire to trick me into a room set for a tea party…
    I WILL KNOW MY TEA ETIQUETTE AND I WILL WEAR IT PROUDLY ON MY PINKY!

    …or forget the pinky, that’s a rule breaker.

    I greatly appreciate this post, Jenny! The history of the stretched pinky being associated with Roman social behavior was an interesting and unexpected addition. I admit that my attention was grasped during this entire reading.

    Well done, Peer!

    –Aaron P.

    1. That’s what I’m here for, Aaron. To write posts to make sure you have proper etiquette when you are mysteriously kidnapped and forced to go to tea parties. Or when you fall down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.

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