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.
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.
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.
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.
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.