If you’ve ever been to London, you know that getting afternoon tea is right up there with seeing Big Ben and riding a double-decker bus on the must-do list. But you may also know that in London, Americans are notoriously known for their lack of manners and proper etiquette. As someone who spent four months living in London, I can say that this is not a stereotype—Americans are pretty sloppy. And one of the tell-tale signs of an American tourist is our table manners (or lack there of). So if you want to help mend our reputation with the Brits, check out these 10 tips and tricks before you make your expensive afternoon tea reservation.
1. When in doubt, absolutely under no circumstances should you put your pinky out.
You might as well have a big neon sign above your head with the American flag on it. Don’t even think about it.
2. It’s not actually called ‘high tea.’
I’m guilty of this one myself. In fact, I thought it was called ‘high tea’ right up until I started researching for this article. As it turns out, ‘high tea’ is actually the name of the tea that servants would have after proper ‘afternoon tea’ (the correct name) was served for the owners of the home upstairs. Because the servants’ tea was served at a regular table, not a lower coffee table, it became known as ‘high tea’.
3. Milk should always be poured after the tea, not before.
Think of it like cereal. What kind of psychopath do you have to be to put the milk in first? I think this one goes without saying, but it actually has an interesting back story. Apparently, servants used to drink their tea out of clay mugs, which would crack if filled with steaming-hot liquid. So they added a bit of milk before pouring the tea to make sure the drink was cool enough.
4. Stir in linear motions.
Never swirl your tea. Always use the spoon to stir from one end of the cup to the other, in a straight line. And never shake the excess liquid off of your spoon by tapping it on the edge of the cup. A light flick is all that’s allowed. I know, you’re ready to come back to America now. But trust me, you’ll feel very proper doing this.
5. The finger sandwiches must have their crusts cut off.
If your server brings out sandwiches with crust, you should throw a fit and refuse to pay. Just kidding, that’s exactly what they’d expect an American to do. But really, the finger sandwiches on the cake stand should always have their crusts cut off, and should be cut in small triangles, rectangles, or if it’s really legit, squares.
6. Finger sandwiches are just that: eat them with your hands.
Nothing makes sense anymore, I know. The British literally eat pizza and cheeseburgers with forks and knives. I feel like a burger probably doesn’t even taste good that way, but to each his own. Finger sandwiches are the one excuse to eat with your hands in London. I know you feel like the proper thing to do is use your silverware, but embrace the opportunity.
7. Apparently the word ‘scone’ is not phonetic.
If you’ve ever heard a British person say the words ‘schedule’ or ‘aluminum’ then you know that we pretty much speak different languages. Apparently, one of the biggest red flags in afternoon tea etiquette is your pronunciation of the word ‘scone’. It’s supposed to be said ‘skon’. Who knew?
8. Again, no silverware with scones.
They have to be broken, by hand, right down the middle. And whatever you do, do not apply the clotted cream and then put the two halves back together like a sandwich unless you want to be doomed to a life of peasantry.
9. It doesn’t matter if you cream then jam, or jam then cream your scone.
To me, this all just sounds like a dirty joke. Another accurate American stereotype. Personally I think you’re neurotic if you put jam on your scone before cream, but I’m no etiquette professional. This seems to be the only aspect of afternoon tea where there aren’t 20 rules to follow. So enjoy your freedom and spread away.
10. No cupcakes on the pastry plate.
The top plate of the cake stand is reserved for small pastries. There is not a strict requirement for what is served, but they should be small and easy to eat in a few bites with your fingers. Apparently the one rule is there should be no cupcakes served under any circumstances. I feel personally offended on behalf of Betty Crocker’s instant-mix franchise, but what can you do? Get on the next plane back to America, that’s what.
The British are far more advanced than Americans in basically every way. They’re more eco-friendly, socially progressive, have an infrastructure system that will make any American want to cry and never come home, and they have those great accents. So it’s no surprise that us Americans are literally inept when it comes to proper table etiquette, especially in the case of afternoon tea. But it’s an experience that everyone should have at least once. Personally, I think the scones are worth all the extra work. And really, who doesn’t like to feel fancy once in a while? Just remember, no pinkies, no silverware, and never settle for crusted sandwiches. Don’t worry, you’ll be back in the Land of the Free (to eat however you want) in no time.