Tea Etiquette

A lot of people today seem to be making a living from selling tea etiquette. There are entire books devoted to this subject and long chapters in most every other tea book. Tea etiquette lecturers proclaim that they are experts, trained by some prestigious-sounding institute. And page after web page tells us how to behave at teas. To all this I say, "Nonsense!"

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate good manners and a broad working knowledge of etiquette. But make it practical, make it relate to real situations, don’t try to make rules for the sake of making rules. I like the etiquette of "don’t gross out your dining companions." You know, don’t chew with your mouth open, don’t put your used napkin on the table, don’t mess your food around on your plate. And I appreciate the etiquette of formal situations; this keeps everyone on the same page. At a funeral when everyone is distressed, no one needs to think of what to do, the rules of etiquette take over.

Do we really need a rule of etiquette that tells us not to touch the side of the teacup with the spoon? Common sense and even absent-minded observation tells us that the teacup is delicate and clanking against it with a spoon might damage it. And why must it be prescribed which way the teapot sits on the table? The hostess should be able to reach the handle easily, nothing more.

And then there is always the pinkie question. So many teacups have either tiny handles or no handles at all. A tea drinker might find it more comfortable to extend her pinkie--that shouldn’t elicit snickers from her companions. Who cares!

The owner of a Brighton tea shop called the Tea Cosy was recently made fun of by a London newspaper writer for having a list of rules on how to behave in his tearoom. There, being critical of the royal family will get you kicked out as quickly as slurping your tea. A tearoom close to me in the US used to state in their ads and web page that "Tea is a dress up occasion. Hats and gloves are not mandatory but they are appreciated." Then a long list of banned clothing followed. In both cases, the owner is trying to foist his fantasy onto his customers. It is up to the customers whether to buy into this silliness or drink tea somewhere else.

My rules of tea etiquette are the same as my rules for any time one eats in public: don’t make a mess and don’t annoy your dining companions, be gracious, be kind, be upbeat.