Teatime etiquette in Britain: a guide for foreigners

November 2, 2011

We received a question the other day by email:

***

“Hi, I have recently moved to the UK from Canada. Many things baffle me about this country, but nothing more so than the word, ‘tea’. What on earth does it mean, please?”  Jake, London.

***

Dear Jake,

Thank you for your question. It is one which troubles not only visitors to these shores, but many locals too. The word “tea” is used in different contexts. Confusingly it can refer to two things:

1) A drink (usually served with milk and a healthy dose of gossip, as in “let’s stop for a cup of tea”)

The word ‘tea’ on its own usually means a meal. Lower and lower-middle classes, and many people in the North of England traditionally refer to the meal eaten between 6-8 as “tea”, which originates from the practice of only eating 3 meals a day (breakfast, dinner – meaning lunch – and tea). If they wish to distinguish between “tea” (the meal) and “tea” (served between 4-6 with tea, bread, cakes etc.) they say “high tea”.

English upper and upper-middle classes tend to eat somewhat later, and refer to the meal served between 7-9 as “dinner” (formal) or “supper” (informal). The meal served between 3-5 is referred to as “afternoon tea” or sometimes just “tea”, as there is no risk of confusing it with any other meal.

Or 2) or a meal (as in, “I’m starving, what’s for tea?”).

People of all classes and backgrounds also enjoy tea as a standalone entity, but tend to distinguish it from a meal by quantifying it i.e.  “a cup of tea”, or just “a tea”.

The bottom line:

People get very worked up about this distinction. Indeed, even amongst the British, etiquette is a great source of stress (even fear). Allow me to impart the following advice:

1) Don’t worry! Take solace in Dr Seuss’ mantra that “those who matter don’t mind and those who mind don’t matter”. Any self-respecting English host will make clear their intentions on the invitation and will be graceful, kind and humorous should any mistakes arise.
2) If in doubt ask. There is such an acceptable variation in what is meant by “tea” that there is no shame in asking for clarification.
3) Enjoy! The English tea custom has fascinated me for many years. Wherever you go for tea, whatever you eat, and whoever you share it with, you will not only experience one of our most interesting social rituals, but one of our tastiest!

Debretts etiquette for girls book opf modern manners

Teatime etiquette in modern Britain: Minefield.

For more information have a look at my website www.noveltea.co.uk

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One Response to “Teatime etiquette in Britain: a guide for foreigners”

  1. […] also noticed how much you like our pieces on teatime etiquette and other important questions of state, such as ‘how far do you take hand hygiene?‘ […]

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