Afternoon Tea Etiquette: All the Details You Need to Know

Afternoon tea is an honored tradition in England.  While customs have changed and modernized over the years, a traditional afternoon tea is an elegant affair featuring protocols and etiquette dating back hundreds of years.  Before you take your first afternoon tea, review the finer points of afternoon tea etiquette.


A traditional tea will feature one or two pots of leaf tea, milk and sugar, finger sandwiches, cakes, and scones, and clotted cream and jam.  The teapot, cups, and saucers will be placed on a tray while the food will be served on a tiered tray with the sandwiches on the bottom tier, the scones on the middle, and the cakes on the top tier. Sandwiches served at afternoon tea will have their crusts cut off and be shaped into small squares, triangles, or rectangles.

Each place setting will have a napkin, plate, knife, and spoon.  Upon the start of tea, each guest will place the napkin in his or her lap.


One guest will nominate himself or herself to “be mother,” or the guest who pours out the tea.  Tea will be served cup by cup, serving the cup and saucer to a guest before pouring another cup.  The tea is poured through a strainer to remove the tea leaves from the tea.


When you are handed a cup of tea, hold the china so your thumb and index finger touch inside of the cup’s handle, while the weight of the cup rests on your middle finger.  There is no need to lift the saucer when you drink your tea, unless you are standing while taking tea.

If you take your tea with milk, it is proper to add the milk after pouring in the tea.  The reason for this is both practical and traditional.  For practical reasons, it is best to taste the tea before adding milk to judge how strong it is.  Traditionally, lower class tea drinkers were forced to add milk to the cup first to avoid their lower quality cups from breaking from the heat.  Adding milk before the tea signals low-class upbringing.  After adding milk or sugar, stir the tea using a back and forth motion, rather than a swirl, then gently flick the spoon over the tea to remove the excess liquid before setting it down on the saucer.

Choose a scone from the tiered tray, and break it in half before adding clotted cream, jam, or both.  Do not sandwich the halves together after adding cream or jam.


The hostess will signal the end of tea by picking up her napkin.  The guests will follow suit by picking up their napkins by the center point and placing them on the table to the left of the place setting.

If you would like to experience afternoon tea, be sure to review our picks for the best places to take afternoon tea.

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Afternoon Tea Etiquette: All the Details You Need to Know