The dos and don’ts for proper afternoon tea etiquette from a Brit

March 28, 2024

Ever wondered what the difference is between afternoon tea and high tea? Had a mild panic attack about what to wear to a tea party or feared that you’ll stick out more than a garish raised pinky for lack of proper table manners? This blog post of the dos and don’ts for proper afternoon tea etiquette from a Brit will answer all your burning afternoon tea questions and give you every tip for avoiding any potentially embarrassing mistakes. 

Born and raised in England but living in north America has me accustomed to guiding people in the right direction for practising traditional afternoon tea decorum. You wouldn’t believe how uncultured people can often be without the proper training for enjoying afternoon tea… 

I’m kidding.

Though these etiquette tips are very formal you really shouldn’t worry about making a mistake. Afternoon tea may seem overwhelming with all the dos and don’ts if you haven’t been before, but you really don’t need to take it too seriously. It’s more common for establishments to serve a more casual afternoon tea service which allows you to relax than that of the Ritz or Fortnum & Mason where there may be more pressure to look and feel the part.

These dos and don’ts for proper afternoon tea etiquette will help you if you’re anxious but they’re also good conversation starters whilst you’re enjoying your afternoon tea. 


Before I share the dos and don’ts for proper afternoon tea etiquette, I’d like to share some top tips for booking afternoon tea to make life a little easier for you.

  1. Book in advance. Whilst a few weeks prior is kind of the norm, popular places such as the The Ritz will need to be booked approximately four months in advance.
  2. You don’t have to go somewhere fancy for a good afternoon tea. Truly some of the best ones I’ve had have been in small town cafés. My favourite afternoon tea was at the Tiptree Jam Museum Tea Room outside of London. Tiptree jam is often the one served with afternoon tea in England.
  3. Check the menu, often places like to serve a concept menu for their afternoon tea and not all creative concepts are as appetising as you’d hope. Also some places restrict you to one type of tea, I recommend finding somewhere that lets you try as many as you like, without being wasteful of course.
  4. Look out for themes if you want something fun. Afternoon tea can often be seasonably themed.
  5. Check the dress code of the venue before you attend. 


Here are the dos and don’ts for proper afternoon tea etiquette from a Brit and everything you need to know about being sophisticated at afternoon tea so you look the part:

Don’t call it high tea

This is a really big one for proper afternoon tea etiquette.

It’s afternoon tea, not high tea. Despite all of north America calling it high tea, if you’re eating finger sandwiches and scones from tiered plates whilst sipping all sorts of lovely teas then you’re having afternoon tea. 

High tea is actually just dinner. It originates from the working class eating their evening meal after a long day of labour at a high table. A more substantial meal is eaten as opposed to the dainty finger-foods served at afternoon tea.

Historically, afternoon tea was served to high society to bridge the hunger gap between meals as their dinner would be much later in the evening. It was served at a low table rather than a high table and had a far more social element to it amongst ladies of leisure of a certain societal status.

So you see, if you seek the sophistication of sweet and savoury treats enjoyed in the middle of afternoon, between meals, then it’s afternoon tea. Calling it high tea is actually the opposite of what you’re going for.

Variations include a cream tea which is tea served with two scones accompanied by jam and cream. Cream tea is perfect if you aren’t hungry for a full afternoon tea service but want to enjoy the best parts. Some places offer a Royal tea or Champagne tea which is afternoon tea served with sparkling wine or Champagne.


Do wear a nice outfit

Sadly, in today’s world, there increasingly aren’t many occasions where you get to put on a lovely outfit trusting that everyone else will too. Afternoon tea is an occasion, dress for it! 

Don’t overthink it, you don’t need to come dressed for afternoon tea with royalty. You can dress comfortably and look put-together at the same time. 

Avoid wearing poor fitting jeans, anything that looks scruffy or too casual such as sportswear. Trousers are best for men, consider a linen trouser in summer or a tailored pair of shorts if shorts aren’t prohibited.

For proper afternoon tea etiquette it is well advised that you check the dress code in advance for the establishment in which you will be enjoying your afternoon tea. Prestigious venues for afternoon tea such as The Ritz in London require men to wear a jacket and tie. Jeans and athleisure wear are not permitted for anyone.

A simple way for a lady to look elegant is to drape a lovely knit over her shoulders.

Just an FYI, hats, fascinators and gloves aren’t commonly worn in England to afternoon tea. You’ll likely stand out as a tourist if you wear them and you use your hands to eat so the gloves truly aren’t a practical choice but you do you.

Bright colours and florals are often worn to afternoon tea, groundbreaking, but you can’t really go wrong with them.

Do place your napkin on your lap

Do not tuck your napkin into your chest like a bib, this is not a Red Lobster.

This should be common practice anywhere you dine not just for proper afternoon tea etiquette. It’s not just good manners it’s to protect your clothes from accidental spills. 

You must simply dab your mouth with your napkin not wipe. 

If you are wearing a transferrable lipstick then remove it with a tissue in the bathroom before eating to avoid smearing it either on your face or on the napkin. Lipstick on your napkin is not a good look.

Do not place your napkin on the chair if you need to leave the table, you animal! Fold your napkin and place it on the table to the left of your plate and when you return to your seat, place it on your lap again.


Don’t keep your phone on the table

Take photos by all means but remain present and social by putting your phone away during your afternoon tea.

Proper afternoon tea etiquette also asks you place your handbag/purse behind you on your chair unless a stool for your bag is provided in which case use that. I was being paid to photograph my green bag for the brand so I broke this rule in some of my photos here, I hereby repent my afternoon tea decorum sin.

Do hold the top of the tea pot to pour

The lid of a traditional china teapot is not particularly secure and could slide off when pouring. Using the opposite hand to the one holding the teapot handle, place your index and middle finger on the very top of the lid to hold it on.

Be careful if it is a metal teapot, those classless fiends aren’t just ugly but hold their heat and can be very hot to the touch.


Do use a tea strainer if one is provided

If there is a tea strainer present at the table then the teapot has loose tea leaves within. 

If you are new to proper afternoon tea etiquette and are unfamiliar with a tea strainer it looks like a little sieve. It often comes in two parts, the sieve part and the bottom which prevents leakage after use.

Simply place the strainer over your teacup and pour in the tea. The strainer will catch those loose leaves and when you’re ready you can remove the strainer and place it back into the bottom of the strainer (or onto a saucer if that’s what it was on) so you don’t drip tea onto the table.

If any loose leaves escape into your tea cup then give them a moment to settle to the bottom before you drink.


Do add milk to black tea

If it is your personal preference to do so then by all means add milk to your black tea but don’t add milk to herbal, green and white teas, that’s just nasty.

It is more common for the English to drink their black tea with milk and sugar than honey and lemon. If you are north American you will likely have to ask for honey and lemon when you order your tea if this is your preference. 


Don’t tap your spoon on your teacup

For proper afternoon tea etiquette when stirring your tea there should be no contact between the teaspoon and teacup. 

Traditionally the correct etiquette for stirring your tea is to move the teaspoon back-and-forth from 12 o’ clock to 6 o’ clock, rather than in a circle. Think paint-the-fence not wax-on-wax-off.

Once you’ve stirred your tea, do not tap the spoon to get rid of any drips. This is terrible afternoon tea etiquette, have some self respect! One must not create noises of disturbance. 

Do you remember the scene in The Princess Diaries when Mia bangs her teaspoon around her tea cup and proceeds to lick it before putting it down on the table? Take that as the example of exactly what not to do! 

You must simply, and very gently, shake your teaspoon over your teacup just once or twice and then place it on your saucer.

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Don’t lift your saucer

Proper afternoon tea etiquette dictates that if you are seated then your saucer remains at the table, you should only lift your teacup to drink.

If you are standing then you should hold your teacup in your right hand and saucer in your left, lifting the saucer to hold it beneath the teacup as you drink. 


Don’t stick up your pinky finger

Pinkies up? Absolutely not, put those pinkies down you fool!

Contrary to popular belief it is entirely uncouth to stick out one’s pinky finger whilst drinking tea.

The origin of the extended little finger seems split. One theory is that centuries ago sticking out your pinky finger when drinking tea came from the need to balance holding a tiny teacup that didn’t have a handle. 

The other explanation is that during the Roman Empire, members of the upper class would use three fingers to eat whilst the lower classes would use their whole hand. 

Whatever the origin is for stinking up your pinky it is now no longer considered proper etiquette and instead is rather tacky.

Don’t eat in the wrong order

For proper afternoon tea etiquette the correct order for eating afternoon tea is finger sandwiches/savoury food, scones then the sweet treats/cakes. 

This might seem counterintuitive for many places as the order of tiers might not match the order in which you should eat them. Some establishments like to serve their sweet treats on the top as they are usually the prettiest on display whilst others may serve the scones on top under a heat dome to keep those freshly baked scones warm.


Do use your hands

Afternoon tea is one of few exceptions where one may dine using their hands. The only time cutlery should be used during afternoon tea is a teaspoon to stir your tea and a knife to spread your jam and cream onto your scone. 

Sometimes teaspoons are in the pots of jam and cream to prevent cross contamination but other times you are just given mini jars of jam and single serve pots of cream so you only need a knife.

If you are served a rather large piece cake with your afternoon tea, not common but still possible, then a cake fork is acceptable. 

Otherwise all savoury and sweet foods in afternoon tea should be eaten with your hands.


Do say scone like gone

It’s pronounced scone like gone, not scone like cone.

When I was young I used to think scone (like cone) sounded more sophisticated but if you wish to speak the Queen’s English, or I suppose the King’s English now, it is scone pronounced like skon. 

There’s a rather big argument over the pronunciation of scone as it is believed that more people say it to rhyme with cone. 

The debate is not unlike the what goes first, jam or cream. It really just comes down to region and preference.

Don’t cut your scone

According to the late Queen of England, HRH Queen Elizabeth II, you must never cut your scone with a knife. For proper afternoon tea etiquette you must use your hands to break it in half, it offers a cleaner break with less crumbs.

Break horizontally to separate the bottom and top of the scone then use your knife to apply the jam and cream.


Don’t stress too much about which one comes first

Jam then cream or cream then jam? 

The time old debate originates between the two counties in the south of England where clotted cream is made: Devon and Cornwall.

In Devon it is customary to put your clotted cream on first and then jam on top whilst in Cornwall the jam goes on first then the cream.


Don’t serve whipped cream

If you are hosting an afternoon tea party then NEVER serve whipped cream, it is a crime against afternoon tea and I won’t stand for it.

I’d sooner call it high tea than suffer squirty cream from a can on my scone.

Of course that being said it is actually impossible to legally acquire proper clotted cream within North America so you will have to find an alternative. In this case the most elegant version of cream you can serve is a hand whipped cream. Add a pinch of salt and a drizzle of maple syrup for delightful flavour.

Do not make a sandwich with your scone

This isn’t a race, slow down.

For proper afternoon tea etiquette the top and bottom of a scone must be eaten separately not as a sandwich with jam and cream in the middle.

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Do ask for a box if you can’t finish

It’s perfectly acceptable to ask for a box if you don’t finish your afternoon tea. More often than not it’s too much food, it might look small but it’s all carb heavy and stodgy AF, as most classic British food is.

If someone takes the remains of your afternoon tea to box it up for you then I guarantee you won’t be taking any leftover jam and cream with you so I advise you to ask for it to also be boxed up.

If you are given a box then this is the only circumstance where you can make a “sandwich” with your scone. This will prevent you from making a mess in your box.


There you have it, your extensive guide to the dos and don’ts for proper afternoon tea etiquette from a Brit.

If you enjoyed it be sure to leave a comment and pin this post. 

Do more on & for the planet, Gabriella 

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